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One Tweet Unleashes A Torrent Of Stories Of Sexual Assault

Author Kelly Oxford attends a brunch in Hollywood in September. Oxford invited women to share stories of assault on Twitter; she says she received more than 1 million responses.

On Friday, writer Kelly Oxford shared the story of the first time she was sexually assaulted. She was 12, she said, when a man on a city bus grabbed her genitals and smiled.

She used the same word that Republican candidate Donald Trump used in a recording where he talked about doing things to women.

"Women: tweet me your first assaults," Oxford said: "they aren't just stats."

The responses poured in — not by the dozens or the hundreds, but by the thousands.

Strangers on the bus, in the street, on the subway, at a concert. Fathers. Uncles. Baby sitters. Classmates. Teachers. Doctors. Priests. Friends.

The women had been 23, or 17, or 11, or 9, or 6. In 140 characters, they expressed shock or the grim absence of surprise. They shared guilt and anger and shame. They told of family members who didn't believe them. Or they shared nothing but the narrowest facts: where they were, what was done to them.

Groped. Penetrated. Rubbed against. Exposed. Masturbated on. Stalked. Slapped. Raped. Forcibly kissed.

Many women said they'd never told anybody about their assault. In some cases, they still haven't: People created new, anonymous Twitter accounts solely to share a story they still weren't willing to attach to their name.

Some tweets came without a story. Women said they couldn't bring themselves to talk about their assault.

Other women couldn't share their story for a different reason — they couldn't remember a first time. It had happened all their lives.

On Saturday, Oxford said that over the course of a single evening, a million women had responded to her call-out.

The flood of stories still hasn't ended. More than 13,000 tweets were directed at Oxford on Sunday and Monday alone, mostly from women and men recounting assaults; still other stories were shared under the hashtag #NotOkay, or posted on Facebook.

Most of the conversation has been filled with celebration and support, but the popularity of the hashtag attracted trolls, too. Some women have been targeted by Twitter users questioning their honesty, victim-blaming them or openly attacking them.

And even if the only responses are positive, it can be agonizing to tell a story of abuse publicly — often for the first time.

Rebecca Arington, a follower of Oxford's who lives in New York, remembers what she thought when she saw the first tweet: "Well, yeah, of course I have a story."

She had three stories, in fact, which she'd only told her husband and a few close friends. And she says she rarely shared personal information on Twitter. But she saw other responses pouring in, and made up her mind.

She told her followers she'd been molested at 6, forcibly disrobed at 14, raped at 19. She was nervous before she published the tweets and says it was "a little bit traumatizing" to share the stories.

Then she had second thoughts.

"I don't want to be seen as perpetually wounded," Arington explained to NPR. Putting such deeply personal experiences out in public made her feel exposed.

"But then it occurred to me that well, that's the point," she says. "These things don't get talked about because women don't want to be exposed."

The tweets stayed up.

The vast majority of responses, including Arington's, do not mention Trump by name. They stand as a rebuke not only to the candidate, but to something much larger: a culture of complicit silence.

At the second presidential debate on Sunday, after repeated questions, Trump denied actually kissing or groping women without their consent, as he described in the video. To defend his "banter," Trump has invoked a kind of closed door: "Locker room talk," he says, a private conversation between men.

In response, women sharing their stories on Twitter have flung open another door — to a world of sexual violence that is discussed in secrecy or not discussed at all.

If you scroll through the stream of tweets, one thing becomes clear. This is not just a political reaction. It's a collective unburdening.

Oxford told her followers that any guilt about these stories belongs to assailants, not to survivors.

"We don't have to carry their shame anymore," Oxford tweeted.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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