UPDATE 4/21/2016: Although I will always stand by the contents of the letter below, I no longer feel comfortable endorsing the work of Rafaella Gunz going forward. While I wish her well, we have professional differences as activists and as writers. The headline of this post has been changed to reflect that.
No matter the circumstances, the sexual and digital harassment women receive in herpes support communities is unacceptable and must be taken seriously. We as a community have a responsibility to hold each other accountable for inappropriate behavior that makes marginalized individuals feel unsafe and unseen.
We are in solidarity with Rafaella Gunz. On December 18, 2015, a post written by Rafaella was published on the Guerrilla Feminism website. In it, Rafaella lays out the constant stream of sexual harassment that women are subjected to in coed support groups for people with herpes — in particular, one named Positively Kickin’ It. She also highlighted that moderators of the group did nothing to address the harassment experienced by its members, even when concerns were brought directly to them. As a result of this post, she has been personally attacked and doxxed by members of the herpes community. These attacks culminated in her Facebook account being suspended, which has shut her out of a conversation she initiated and effectively silenced her.
What Rafaella did, in calling attention to the sexual harassment and abuse that take place in what are purported to be supportive spaces, took courage. In doing so, she gave a name to behavior and a voice to the many women who have been targeted in groups they joined hoping to find support and friendship. Sexual harassment, both online and off, is unacceptable. Refusing to take action in stopping this behavior when it occurs, as well as attacking the messenger who called it out, protects no one but the abusers. When reports of abuse are answered with “if you don’t like it, leave,” the targets of abuse are essentially punished for what was done to them, while those perpetrating inappropriate conduct are given a free pass to continue doing so towards other women. Tolerating this behavior is not a neutral stance; rather, it creates an environment that normalizes and encourages sexual objectification, unwanted interactions and boundary-crossing.
As fellow HSV+ women, we applaud Rafaella for bringing the issue of sexual harassment within our networks to light, and we call on the H support community to take the issue of women’s — and all marginalized people’s — safety seriously. Sexual harassment is not a matter of political correctness or sensitivity. Women face an avalanche of unwanted sexualized attention on the Internet on a daily basis, running the gamut from “Hey beautiful!” to the graphic and violent messages described in Rafaella’s article. In the broader context of constant unsolicited attention, messages sent without intent to harm can still make women feel unsafe in the online communities that are supposed to exist for them.
The Facebook H community’s denial of responsibility for the unsafe spaces it has created, and its unwillingness to even listen to the experiences of women who have spoken up about mistreatment, is disappointing. Its subsequent deluge of harassment towards the women calling attention to the violence they already endure is indefensible. We are horrified to watch as individuals in the H community, particularly other women, dismiss Rafaella’s experiences as not “real” harassment and ask her for receipts as “proof” that she experienced these things at all. This response directly mirrors the silencing and victim-blaming characteristic of the wider rape culture in which we live, where people overwhelmingly choose to question and discredit women (or anyone else) who report harassment, assault, and abuse.
In supporting Rafaella, we not only write in solidarity with the women who have been direct targets of sexual harassment in H groups. We extend our solidarity to all those who contracted herpes or other STIs as a result of assault or within abusive relationships; to those who have faced assault or abuse because of their STI; and to those who have been forcibly outed or harassed regarding their STI status. We also recognize all those survivors of sexual violence within our spaces, who may have been revictimized or triggered while trying to seek support.
We acknowledge the immense value of the Facebook H community, encompassing thousands of HSV+ individuals of diverse backgrounds who find camaraderie and resilience in these spaces. We recognize the importance of groups that advocate for safety and comfort in aiding the growth of all their members. However, a space that does not support women in their quest to feel safe and comfortable is a threat to the welfare of the whole and an impediment to positive work that could be done. To be clear, an indictment of the behavior of some men is not an indictment of all men; rather, it is a challenge to men who don’t engage in this type of behavior to listen and support the women who speak up against men who do.
As HSV+ people, we are subject to enough shame and stigma outside of our community. The same shame and stigma are often obstacles to HSV+ individuals finding each other — as well as the impetus for seeking community in the first place. This community is too necessary for us to be complacent in the exclusion of members of marginalized identities. We want to see communities of support that, first and foremost, believe survivors and actively strive to foster safe spaces for marginalized people, instead of idly replicating the oppressive and violent dynamics of society at large.
While it is difficult and dangerous for any women to speak up about these issues, the silencing is greater where womanhood intersects with other marginalized identities. We are aware that those of us writing this letter, as cis and white, represent a small segment of women, though we aspire to affirm and manifest our belief in the inclusion and safety of all marginalized bodies, particularly women, trans and non-binary folks, and people of color, in our work.
Being a marginalized community in its own right does not exempt us from reflection. Sexism, racism, classism, ableism, harassment and abuse thrive within H spaces. They will continue to do so when we react to criticism defensively. We need to raise the bar in the work that we do as activists, supporters, writers and friends. We need to hold abusers accountable. We need to fix networks that are broken. And we need to have the courage to admit when our community has caused pain. We do not always need to agree—herpes impacts people across every spectrum of life—but we need to value respect above all else.
Facebook communities, and all online communities, need clear expectations for conduct and enforcement of these expectations. Moderators and group admins have a responsibility to be transparent about what behavior is unacceptable and to act when those rules are violated. When they fail to do so, the community must hold them accountable. That is what Rafaella strove to do with her post: hold a community accountable for failing to abide by the rules and guidelines they set for themselves, a failure that resulted in harm being done to marginalized participants accessing that space.
It’s disheartening to see members of the H community more upset with the naming of a (secret) group that permitted abusive behavior than at the abusive behavior itself. Rafaella’s words should be a turning point for us, challenging us to take an honest look at the behaviors within our own communities, to strive and do better.
In light of these events, a support group founded on anti-oppressive values for women and all trans and non-binary folks with herpes is in the works, because we believe that everyone deserves a space to access support and community free from harassment and abuse. No one should have to be subjected to violence or made to feel unsafe in order to access support for an already marginalized identity.
If you are a marginalized person who has been the victim of harassment or abuse within the H support community, we see you, we believe you, and we love you.
Britni de la Cretaz
Update: I’ve noticed some confusion about Facebook’s privacy settings for “secret groups” in the response to this post on social media. A “secret group” like Positively Kickin’ It cannot be found through search by non-members. The only way to join the group (and to see what users are in it) is to be invited or added directly by a current member. At that point it is up to the administrators to prevent abusive folks from joining their community. I could not find PKI after reading Rafaella’s article on Guerrilla Feminism, and I am a social media manager who knows every Facebook hack in the book. That’s why Facebook calls it a “secret” group.
Us naming PKI in no way endangered the group, and the failure of its admins to make that clear to its panicked members—including survivors of assault and abuse, who we have no desire to worry or place in harm’s way—is not our responsibility. While I have no doubt that there are sociopaths on the Internet who would enjoy enjoy outing members of the H community, Rafaella naming PKI in her article for Guerrilla Feminism and our decision to do the same here does not facilitate that. Not to mention PKI has been discussed at length in the public herpes Tumblr community, nicknamed “herpblr,” which is how many of us found it in the first place. We are not publishing new information.
Furthermore, the freaked out reaction of “ONCE PEOPLE KNOW THERE’S A SECRET H SUPPORT COMMUNITY ON FACEBOOK, THEY’LL LOOK FOR IT!” is strange, at least to me. Isn’t it helpful for people in need of support to know that there are groups available for them to seek out? Isn’t that the entire point? These are secret support groups, not secret societies.
I personally apologize to anyone who was frightened by this post. Several of this letter’s signatories are survivors of abuse and assault, and several of us kept our herpes status private for years for our own safety. But I stand by our decision to name Positively Kickin’ It on my website. Abusive environments that don’t enforce their own rules to the detriment of their community members MUST be named and held accountable. — Ella