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."

(Austin Kleon/Tumblr)

Post updated below*

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.

I received the official email banning those words at 4:34 p.m. on August 22. It emphasized that every story now needed to fit within the site's editorial mission, which apparently didn't have room for words like "sexual assault." I emailed my long-dormant resignation at 5:09 p.m.

It was hard to leave a site that I had loved so much—a place where I had made close friends, grown as a writer, and most of all, grown as a feminist. I had bared my soul on the site, as did many others. I had written honestly about my depression, my highs and lows in relationships, a date rape, coming to terms with the fact that I’ll never be free of antidepressants, and the piece that was most important to me, on my abortion. In an election year where women’s reproductive rights were at stake, I wanted to put a face to the word abortion. The hate mail and death threats that followed were worth it knowing that I made at least one woman feel less alone.

The whole site strove our readers feel less alone in their struggles. We had writers discussing their battles with eating disorders, sexual assault, and wove these serious matters in with smart discussions about fashion and pop culture, and quirky galleries about the lies women tell to get laid, with feminism at the helm of it all. I’m not saying we were particularly novel, but we had something for everyone, and I was honored to be part of it.

We can blame the new owners’ vision, as well as advertisers, for the site’s new direction. We used to use whatever words we wanted in headlines; that was the first thing to be silenced. It seemed advertisers didn’t want ads for their products running alongside the F-word or C-word. Fair enough; those are tough words for a lot of brands. But when advertisers have issues with words like abortion and slut (we often covered the detrimental effects of slut-shaming), then someone needs to take a stand. But no one did.

The new owners made us feel like our feminism wouldn’t sell. The word feminism alone is too often equated with women who hate men and carry around their soapbox just waiting to pounce and shove their views down someone else’s throat. There are still a lot of people who blatantly throw around the word “feminazi” (you can thank Rush Limbaugh for that one), as if feminism is a bad thing.

But anyone who dares to say that we don’t need feminism is either ignorant or just doesn’t care. We still live in a society where men make more than women. We still live in a world where women are treated like property, where someone like 15-year-old education advocate Malala Yousafzai, is targeted for being a feminist. Everyday we see proof that feminism is essential in the success of our species, and feminist sites can be successful.

I can’t know for sure if the new owners wanted to distance themselves from the “feminist” label, or if they wanted to go in a new direction for other reasons. But it’s lamentable that they took the weight out of something that was working and turned it into another fashion and beauty site.

*Update: Since the publication of this post, Meghan Keane, the vice president for editorial at Defy Media, which owns the website The Gloss, contacted The Atlantic, identifying The Gloss as the site Amanda Chatel anonymously refers to in this post and disputing a number of the points Chatel makes in it.
Keane writes: "The words 'rape' and 'sexual assault' were never banned from our website. The Gloss is and has always been a fashion and beauty site. As with any website, editorial direction shifts according to company needs and traffic goals. Stories on rape, abortion, sexual harassment, and--yes--vaginas have always appeared and will continue to appear on the site when relevant to our core editorial focus."
Keane has since written about Chatel's post on The Gloss itself, confirming that an August 20 email to the staff of The Gloss read: "Please avoid the words slut, rape, abortion, sexual assault, and curse words in post titles. If someone on the team wants to cover a topic like that, we need a very compelling reason for why this should be included on a fashion and beauty site." Keane disputes that this instruction to avoid the words at issue represented a ban. You can read Keane's full post here.