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Challenging Stigma Online: The Impact of Being Forever Known for Your Private Tale

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We don't always want to be known for the most vulnerable or emotional story of our lives. New York Times best-selling author of How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston, once asked his live audience not to tweet or record his telling of a personal story at a public venue because he's "not interested in that story blowing up and getting lots of YouTube hits. I'm not interested in being KNOWN for it...the idea of people streaming and live-tweeting and uploading this personal, intimate tale felt like a violation."

After she wrote about her abortion experience in the The Texas Observer, Carolyn Jones was shocked to watch it "spread faster than a Texas wildfire" across the internet. She wrote later that sometimes she wakes "up in a cold sweat, shocked at what I've done. Not at having the abortion -- I'm at peace with the choice we made -- but at having written about the most private and painful of traumas."

In many cases, the internet has helped people who once felt alone find others who understand what they're going through, whether its an abortion experience, divorce or death. Yet, the intricacies of what's private and what's public are getting harder to navigate. Those who seek connection and self-expression online to mitigate their feelings of isolation, or to challenge myths and stereotypes about sensitive experiences, can find a number of difficulties, including the unexpected emotional impact of strangers curating and sharing their stories.

Does viral, vulnerable personal content challenge cultural stigmas or does it exploit it?

Many of our culture's most hard-to-talk-about-experiences gained new social awareness or acceptance once those living with the stigma challenged it by opening up to their friends and loved ones. While it can be emotional to hear someone publicly disclose they have cancer or are dealing with the Alzheimer's of a loved one, hearing stories about these kinds of personal challenges are no longer the cultural shock it once was.

The lessons of how these social changes have occurred has not been lost on advocates who seek to shift perceptions and understanding on other marginalized issues, especially difficult political ones. When more openness is needed to make change, many are quick to assume that spreading empathetic first-person stories online can help raise needed awareness, but it's not so simple.

It's true that over time our culture and our laws have become more accepting of innately born rights and more sympathetic to those suffering from indiscriminate health problems. Dignity, Bruce Ackerman argues in a recent New York Times op-ed, is a constitutional principle. Despite this history, there remains harsh treatment for people who make culturally-defined "poor" decisions, whether it's choosing to have an abortion, having children while poor or abusing drugs and alcohol; or some mix of all those things. The growing national acceptance for gay people came about when the public's perceptions was changed to show that being gay wasn't a lifestyle choice, but rather a fact that people are "born that way."

But, if a woman isn't born needing an abortion and has every resource to prevent pregnancy, and if drug use isn't genetic or hereditary, then what kind of cultural response can be expected from a society that overwhelmingly disapproves of such behavior?

When a behavior is judged and stigmatized, it doesn't matter how common or shared the experience might be. It is always difficult for the people most affected to open up about their own stories, experiences and needs because they expect to be treated harshly, or worse, that no one will care. Rarely is someone looking to be forever identified, with what may have been such a raw or private time in her life.

For example, even though one in three women will have an abortion in her life, it is still rare to hear people talk openly about their experiences. Women often never know their mother, sister or best friend had an abortion too until they take the risk to tell them about their own. Similarly, the incredibly high numbers of incarceration has produced a "deep silence in communities of color, one rooted in shame," according to Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow. Research from David Braman shows that "many people struggling to cope with the stigma of imprisonment have no idea their neighbors are struggling with the same grief, shame and isolation."

Stigma is effective at hiding voices by making people feel like they're the only ones to be going through whatever it is they're dealing with, even when experiences are common. One of the costs of stigma is that it privileges the voices of those who don't share the stigmatized experience, making it easier for others to talk publicly about an issue like divorce, drug abuse, abortion or incarceration than those have actually experienced it.

It should come as no surprise then, that the very thing that stigmatized people often lack -- community support -- is the key ingredient not only to promote their own health and wellbeing but also their ability to navigate and withstand the scrutiny that comes with making their private stories, public, even online.

Stigmatized people are capable of doing really hard, important things -- like changing the conversation about abortion and challenging rape culture -- if the right support systems are in place to alleviate potential repercussions. Allies who care about these issues should resist filling the void themselves by advocating "on behalf of" a stigmatized group; and, if advocates share other's people stories, they must also do their part to support needed community-building efforts, including those that are best kept private.

Storytellers with stigmatized or marginalized experiences should be treated as collaborative partners not content-creators. This approach to culture change can do more to transform the stigma's that silence some voices while privileging others than any online distribution of collected stories ever will.

This post is part of Abortion Wellbeing Month. Join in celebrating wellbeing, connectedness, compassion,and respect for those with personal abortion experiences at www.exhaleprovoice.org.

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Note: A number of organizations and practitioners have been dealing with these issues and the resources offered by WITNESS and the Silence Speaks project at the Center for Digital Storytelling should be consulted. My organization, Exhale, has developed separate guides for both storytellers and their advocates to help each develop more ethical partnerships.