Last July, Emily, a middle school teacher in Bristol, England, tweeted what she thought was a largely unremarkable anecdote about her 6-year-old son. “Took the little one toy shopping today. Another boy in the [store] told him that he shouldn’t be looking at the pink toys because they were for girls,” she recalls writing (the tweet has since been deleted). “He told the man that there was no such thing as boys’ or girls’ toys, and he could play with whatever he wanted.”
This was very typical behavior from her son. “He’s always been quite combative,” Emily explains. “If he doesn’t like a dinner I’ve made, he will tell me directly that he finds peas horrible.” She adds that Jack is someone who “will do whatever he feels like doing. He knows himself, and he doesn’t care what other people think about him.”
Emily essentially tweeted the story for her circle of friends — she had just over 200 followers at the time, mostly other teachers in the U.K. and family members. Such a tweet would usually receive a few likes and maybe a retweet. But within a few hours of tweeting about Jack, her tweet had more than 50 replies, dozens of retweets and was quote tweeted nearly 40 times.
A few of these engagements were positive, congratulating Jack and Emily. But for the most part, she remembers, the replies came from men telling her that what she had witnessed “didn’t happen.” “Some of them were calling me all kinds of nasty names,” she says. “I was called a ‘fucking bitch, a ‘lying woman,’ an ‘attention-seeker.’ There was one account that told me I was using my son to ‘whore’ for Twitter likes. It lasted for days.”
Emily, scared and humiliated, thought the only way to stop the harassment was to lock her account — something she’d never considered before and had to consult a tutorial to do.
Experiences like Emily’s aren’t uncommon for women on social media. In fact, when I put a call out on Twitter, my inbox was inundated in minutes. Not to mention, just type “Didn’t Happen” into Twitter’s search function and you’ll find a bunch of tweets, largely by women, recalling how stories about their everyday lives resulted in strange men accusing them of lying. For instance:
“Whenever I tweet something personal, I’ll always have at least one guy in my replies that says ‘it didn’t happen,’ even when it’s the most mundane thing,” says Sarah, who lives in London, and like most of the women I spoke to, requested I not use her last name. Worse yet: “I find that their friends like and retweet their response. So you end up having multiple men in your mentions telling you that your experiences aren’t real.” Sarah, for instance, received a “didn’t happen” reply when she tweeted about a man who was leering at her on the subway. “This is an experience that nearly every woman I know who is online has gone through. Sometimes for really serious things, too. I know of women who have tweeted about their #MeToo experiences only to be told by some random guy and his football mates that they’re making it up to score Twitter points. It’s like these men are either genuinely stupid, or they’re doing it to make women have to justify themselves.”
“I tend to keep more personal/vulnerable things for places where I can write about them in a more long-form way, like my blog or my newsletter,” adds Kate Sloan, a Toronto-based journalist and co-host of the Dildorks podcast. As someone who writes about sex and relationships, Sloan tells me she’s been called a liar by numerous men: “I wrote about breaking up with a partner because I found out he wasn’t a feminist, and breaking up with another partner because I found out he’d been abusive in his past. Several dudes on Twitter said or implied that I was lying about how and why those relationships ended.”
Sloan thinks the “didn’t happen” reply is a particular problem for women who have been harassed and abused, and who are then faced with the choice of not telling their stories online or being undermined publicly. “For a lot of assault survivors, it can be re-traumatizing to have to justify their assaults over and over again,” she explains. “Twitter can feel small, cozy and safe for a second, because you have this community of followers who might seem like they’re on your side, but then shit like this happens and you remember the site is actually full of cruelty and that random people who don’t know you can find your stories and comment on them out of context. It’s a gross feeling.”
The “Didn’t Happen” response has become so popular that there’s even a Twitter account called the “Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards” (follower count: more than 180,000) that’s often tagged in replies to women’s tweets by men who don’t believe them.
“Women are already harassed, mocked, belittled and memed on the internet daily. So seeing a @DHOTYA tag reminds them that another part of their existence isn’t worthy of being believed or of people’s time,” writes Faima Bakar in The Metro. “There’s something insidious and damaging to be told that our stories don’t belong. I found a few women [who] had deleted their comments altogether, not necessarily because their lie has been caught out, but over the embarrassment of having their integrity questioned.”
According to Taylor Lorenz, who writes about internet culture for The Atlantic and who has also experienced her share of “men who demand proof” whenever she tweets, “Didn’t Happen” dudes are prime examples of Twitter’s “ill thought out” harassment policy, which “ignores the nuances of how harassment actually plays out on the platform.” She adds that the lack of action has resulted in women self-censoring on public platforms like Twitter, and in some cases, turning to private group chats on encrypted platforms like WhatsApp instead.
“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t tweet about my personal life or experiences, even the funny or entertaining ones, because I know I’ll just get shouted down,” Lorenz explains. “Women — and marginalized people more broadly — know that they’re more likely to be abused and subjected to vicious attacks unless they self-censor. No amount of evidence or justification a woman gives will ever satisfy a man on Twitter.”
Proving Lorenz’s theory, Emily rarely uses Twitter now. Instead, she sticks to Instagram, where she looks at knitting patterns, keeps up with friends and posts pictures of Jack. “It’s a nicer place, and the people who follow me are genuinely happy to see him grow up and become his own person,” she says. Still, her experience on Twitter has made her rethink how she uses social media. Case in point: Her Instagram account is locked, and she only allows people she knows IRL to follow her. Even with this security, though, she continues to carefully re-read and edit her captions before hitting the post button.
Otherwise, it might be as though they didn’t happen.