I Wasn't to Write 'Rape'

In an email from my editor-in-chief, I learned that our liberal, feminist website was to stop using the words "abortion," "rape," and "vagina."
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When I first moved to New York City, I dreamed of writing, but didn’t have a particular topic in mind. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to always write from the heart. And I knew I should probably avoid sports.

In 2010, after years of office work, I landed my first writing job at a women’s lifestyle site. I wrote for them occasionally at first, but by 2011, I was a contributing editor—I wrote for the site everyday,  sometimes multiple times a day. I had arrived. Kind of.

At first, the site was dedicated to fashion, dating, health, pop culture, current events, and most importantly, what was going on with women in the world. Although most of our readers at the time were in the United States and Canada, the plan, as with any website, was to expand and garner international readership.

Between 2010 and 2011 we did that, as the site evolved and eventually found its voice. That voice, thanks to the writers and editors, was smart and witty, with a liberal feminist tone. And because of this tone, we had an amazing group of readers and commenters who, if it came down to it, had our back should a troll make its way into the comment section

But, as they say, nothing good can last, and the company that owned the site was bought out by a larger, more commercial company, in mid-2012. We were promised that our jobs were safe, the site would remain the same, and that the change in ownership really wouldn’t affect us all that much.

But in February, we received an email from our editor-in-chief. She explained that the new owners were trying to gear the site more toward fashion and beauty. We covered fashion and beauty already but our writers had also opened up about their mental illnesses, rapes, eating disorders, and abortions. We covered racism, sexual harassment, inequality and the atrocities of being a woman in countries where women are seen as subhuman, as well as the issues that were going on in the U.S. We had established ourselves as a feminist site that catered to an equally feminist readership, and now we were being asked to scratch all that.

At the time I was working on a piece about the rape and murder of two little girls in India. I responded to the email questioning the new direction:

“Based on this—should we toss all feminist/news stories out? I have one scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow about another rape in India... should I kill it?”

The editor-in-chief apologized, but yes, the rape in India no longer had a place on the site. I knew it hurt her just as much to send that email as it did for me to read it. But apparently this story wasn’t as important as what some celebrity wore to some event, or how wearing the color red was the best way to attract a man.

For a couple weeks, we managed to adhere to the new direction, but we eventually reverted back to what we’d been covering before the email. I can’t speak for the other writers, but for me, it was a way to stand my ground. Who was this company to come in and try to make our site just as cloyingly sweet as the other sites it owned? We had been told things wouldn’t change.

I wanted to leave the site, but for some reason I hung on. It was only after my editor-in-chief had had enough and left for a better opportunity that I wrote my resignation letter, which then sat in the drafts folder of my email for months.

As a freelance writer, I wasn’t privy to the meetings in which the higher-ups discussed “the list” of words that we could no longer use. I heard from my fellow writers through email and Gchat that a list was being compiled, and on it was “abortion,” “rape,” “slut,” and “vagina.” (Since I left the publication, "vagina" has made a comeback, but only in the context of pregnancy.) How were we supposed to cover women’s health, sex, and reproductive rights? How were we supposed to teach our readers the harm of slut-shaming? Simple: we weren’t supposed to. The site was now a fashion and beauty site, end of story.

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Amanda Chatel is a lifestyle writer based in New York City. 

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