Hana Bryanne is an American singer, writer, and sensitive girl currently living in Los Angeles. Her debut album, Dollface, will be available on the September 15. Read more of her writing on her Substack, The Only Living Girl on the Internet.
When I was 15, at my parents’ annual New Years Eve party, a man in his late 40s wrapped his arm around my shoulder from behind. If he felt the way his wild eyes raised the hair on the back of my neck, he didn’t let on as he leaned his weight into me. I wore a borrowed dress: long and black and too adult for my teenage frame, my recently cropped hair doing nothing to hide the rounded cheeks I was so ashamed of. All signs pointed towards my youth, blowing my cover as my parents’ effortlessly mature younger daughter, equal parts capable and eager to do what was asked of her. But the champagne-sipping lawyers and small town politicians and mommy bloggers who filled our kitchen every year played along like they were paid for it. “How’s the college search (you’re two years away from) going? You got a boyfriend yet (and are you having sex with him)? You look very thin (and though I’ve caught wind of the fact that you don’t exactly look healthy, I’m going to congratulate you. Surely you understand).”
The man on my arm, between laughs, finally took a moment to address me. “Well, and you know all about that, don’t you, Amy?” he guffawed, shooting me a knowing glance before flinching halfway across the room. He had mistaken me for my mother. It was an easy enough mistake to make, though at the time, I would have indignantly clarified that I was at least three inches taller. We shared the same thin frame, despairing attitude, and bouncing brown curls. The real Amy materialized beside me, laughing into a lemon drop. She pried a little space between my body and his. The man didn’t apologize to me. The others enjoyed a joke I thought I was in on.
Throughout the night, as I floated like a ghost from conversation to conversation, I felt the phantom grasp of his hand on my shoulder. I watched my friends’ parents sing karaoke. I nursed the one glass of wine I was allotted, one I had lobbied hard for. As I searched for my mother’s curls in the crowd, I found that she, too, had been sucked into the pulsing whirlpool of the party, with what seemed like dozens of male clones flanking the perimeter, keeping me out. Even as my stomach churned at the memory of his arm around who he thought was my mother, I wanted in. If they’d just let me take the test, I knew I’d pass. I had memorized the mannerisms they expected from me. I had practiced in the mirror the apologies I’d issue when my boundaries were crossed. I hadn’t eaten in three days. I knew the steps by heart if they’d just let me in the fucking show.
Three years before, when the fear of being left behind by the great moving body of the internet threatened to drive me mad, my poor, exhausted mother finally caved and let me sign up for Tumblr, a site she deemed more innocuous than the garish orgies of drama she was privy to on Facebook or Instagram. This is the part where you and I share a laugh, even though it’s not really funny. The first time a man in his mid-30s told me via direct message that I had beautiful eyes, I found myself (then inexplicably) vomiting in the middle school bathroom where I had stolen a peek at my phone. I stared at myself in the mirror, complete with etched-in cartoon penises and initials of couples who hadn’t lasted a week. I have my mother’s eyes. Dutifully, I thanked him. I thought that would be that. It wasn’t.
Unlike the fairly standard and well-understood hierarchy of my California middle school, the Social Internet was the Wild Wild West. The rules were new and undefined, which left space for the Weird Girls to write them. To truly understand the power rush that comes from being an awkward, scrawny, oft-ignored adolescent youngest daughter who suddenly finds herself drenched in the hot spotlight of male attention, you had to have been there. In broad daylight, I posted innocent photos of myself from the backseat of my mother’s minivan. I wore a t-shirt, a flower crown in my hair, a smile, a smoke signal to every man too old to be lurking in the shadows of a social media app. Each wolf at my window repeated the same prayer: you look, and act, older than you are. Writing that sentence today conjures a similar twist in my stomach to the one I felt then, stuffing my phone into my backpack as I scampered up the steps to my ballet class. In this moment, with one phrase, they took a calculated risk. By acknowledging my age, they rid themselves of the plausible deniability predators often claim (“I had no idea she was 13!”). Instead, they banked on my desire to perform, my desperation to be accepted, my raging insecurity from being rejected by my peers. It was a powerful drug, especially when combined with the maturity my parents’ friends had praised since grade school. Somebody wanted me, and I was going to let him. To turn him away would violate my table manners, even as my appetite shrunk and I snarled like a wounded animal whenever someone so much as inched towards my cell phone. Worse still, I was terrified to lose a vital stream of validation, or see my entire worldview upended. Everybody knows that if you are just good as you are beautiful, you will hold the world in the palm of your hand.
There is a school of feminism that emerged in the mid-2010s, catalyzed by Buzzfeed and the runup to Trump’s election, and categorized by a thoughtless and soundbite-obsessed ethos. A symptom of a broader cultural shift of the Internet age, media companies discovered the cocktail of anger, shortening attention spans, and back-and-forth comment wars, and just how profitable it could be. So, an oversimplified version of choice feminism came to dominate the conversation. Tepid takes were repackaged as subversive by million-dollar media conglomerates: “There’s no such thing as a slut!” chided early iterations of infographics from my meticulously manicured Tumblr. Who needs critical thought when you have listicles receiving hundreds of thousands of clicks?
These ideas, at their inception, were not without merit. Their birth can be traced back to foundational feminist texts like Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words by Sharon Marcus, in which she notes that many feminist frameworks of rape rely on the state’s definition and subsequent legitimacy within legal structures. Feminist initiatives like increasing the sentencing on rape charges or making punitive justice more accessible to rape victims are the prevailing measures in combatting rape, but Marcus argues that a broader overhaul is necessary. She explains how the patriarchy not only enacts violence against women, but also makes us agents of fear, bringing crucial nuance regarding race. Both historically and contemporarily, narratives of fearful white women have been leveraged against Black and brown communities, the most frequent recipients of violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise. The world (read, the patriarchy) gives us a set of rules: don’t go running after dark, don’t get drunk in the wrong outfit, don’t get an office job or you’ll get felt up by the copy machine. These rules make women agents of fear and enemies of our neighbors, and effectively shut us out from everyday life. To buck these rules means breaking free from at least one of the many prisons the patriarchy has constructed.
But as we all know, the internet is where nuance goes to die, so barreling down the hill comes the bastardization of such ideas. “There’s no such thing as a slut” became “any criticism of your chosen sexual practices can be dismissed out of hand,” and later added the key clause, “no matter who you are.” At 12, I made my home on the high ground of “my body, my choice!” My sexuality was nobody’s business but my own. I was smarter than other girls my age; I was more mature; I had been told this since I was a little girl. The worst thing an adult could do was not to turn a blind eye, but to restrict my God-given right to make my own decisions for my body, even when that involved submitting to sexual dynamics where it was clear to everyone but me that I was being hunted for my youth, my naivete, and all the other traits bestowed only to preteen girls.
We had found ourselves at yet another terrifying extreme of the ever-swinging pendulum of pop culture feminism, and its fragile logical foundation made jingoist foot soldiers of every young woman who felt squashed by the patriarchal structures ruling her life. If it’s praxis to be a slut, then you ought to be one. There’s merely a new definition of being a “good girl”: don’t let them tell you what to do. But at 12, you don’t have sexual autonomy, and before we could look up and realize that the voice had to be coming from somewhere, it was too late.
As I stood at the dizzying precipice of what Rayne Fisher-Quann describes in her essay “the pain gap” as “the terrifying chasm between what is legal and what is right,” I found myself unable to speak the language of predators fluently enough to distinguish an evil man from a curious one. I mentioned to a porn blogger that I was headed to my middle-school parent-teacher conference, assuming that if he had any malintents, the confirmation that I wasn’t old enough to see a PG-13 movie alone would be enough to drive him away. When he continued his line of questioning, as though I had said nothing untoward, I felt safe to assume he wanted nothing more than to be my friend. Another inquired where I was from. I froze, attuned to the echoes of my mother’s voice in the back of my mind. “Why, so you can stalk me?” I half-joked. He made me feel stupid. “I’m not asking for your address, silly. What state?” Apprehensively: “California.” Weeks later, I posted an Etsy link to a $350 handmade jacket I wanted, a Halsey lyric embroidered on the back. He offered to buy it for me. “What address can I send it to?”
I was locked in a game of chicken, an arm wrestling contest I was sure to lose. I drew a boundary; he stepped over it. I removed myself from the situation; he found me again. One day, fearful of checking my messages lest I have to speak to him, I finally worked up the nerve to remove him as a follower, aptly called a “softblock.” Maybe he doesn’t remember the name of my blog. Maybe I can just disappear and he won’t know why. Maybe he’ll forget about me. Mere hours later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. “Well, I didn’t unfollow you, so… wasn’t me.” I had been caught. Worse than the threat he posed to me was the shame I felt over a social transgression. I laughed it off, blaming the famously-faulty app. We corresponded for weeks more and I pretended not to feel the ever-growing pit of dread in my stomach. Later, I slumped on the passenger side window of my mother’s car, tearfully angling my phone screen away from prying eyes. I was petrified of what would happen to me if she stole a glance at the graphic rape fantasy my radio silence had elicited.
For many years, I believed that nothing wrong had ever transpired between myself and the internet creeps of my youth, that I had been too clever to fall into their carefully-laid traps. I would have gone to my grave arguing it, as though I were the one on trial before a steely-eyed jury of the adults who failed to keep me safe.
Patriarchy is a slippery, ever-changing beast. In conversations with women just months older or younger, I compare our stories. AIM chat rooms, MySpace message boards, Tumblr, and TikTok DMs. These corners of the internet that have existed since its inception. The overlap in our experiences comfort me. The differences, however, are chilling. By the time we could be warned about the dangers of one social media platform, another had popped up, offering itself as a safer alternative, lulling its victims into a false sense of security. There are always new tactics, new shadowy hallways, but the goals remain the same. The invisible hand of the internet moves like lightning. Blink, and you’ll miss it. If you think you understand the evils of the internet as it exists today, I promise you don’t. The only people who do, who ever will, are current teenage girls, and it will be another five, 10, 15 years before they’re able to talk about it. When I dream of my future daughters, I remain powerless to the floodwater I, too, drowned in. How can we protect girls, children, from a beast we never understand before it’s too late?
Sometimes I wonder if any of these men still know how to find me. I wonder if they ever stalk my social media, or listen to my music. If the incident wherein a man I blocked made an entirely new Tumblr account just to spoil the latest Star Wars for me months after our last correspondence is any indicator, the answer is probably yes. This thought creeps to the forefront of my mind when I walk home alone at night, when I forget to close my blinds before I change, or when I post pictures of my boyfriend. I am comforted only by the notion that I, now a full-grown adult, would probably be too old for them to find me fuckable anymore.
At 17, I spit in the extra-hot whole milk cappuccino I dutifully made for a man who called me “doll” at the bakery where I worked. I wanted to kill him. For now, this had to be enough.