I was approximately today years old when I learned that “mascara” and having your “mascara” taken are apparently code words for sexual assault in some corners of TikTok—a lesson that I learned in tandem with Julia Fox and a lot of other people on Friday.
It all started when Fox found herself in a ~situation~ that could only possibly happen in the year of our lord 2023, when she commented on a viral TikTok in which a user alludes to having their “mascara” stolen. Fox cheekily wrote on Thursday, “Idk why but I don’t feel bad for you lol,” thinking the user was just being overdramatic about having a literal tube of mascara stolen. But the comment sparked a wave of online backlash that was as aggressive as it was confusing: TikTok users rushed to accuse her of mocking a survivor and condoning sexual violence, and they posted screenshots of Fox’s faux pas to Twitter.
By Friday afternoon, Fox had replied in the best way one could expect a celebrity to engage with something like this: “Hey babe I’m so sorry I really thought u were talking about mascara like as in makeup. I’m sorry that happened to u,” she posted. She also shared a series of TikTok stories further explaining, “So, I commented on a video because I thought this guy was talking about getting his mascara stolen, and then lending it to some girl who lent it to her friend. I read it and it just seemed so dramatic in that video, and I was like damn, don’t catch a case, it’s just mascara. But it was, in fact, not just mascara.”
Fox continued, “Anyway, I have already apologized to this person, but I just want to apologize to everyone who has been a victim of you-know-what.” (At the beginning of the video, she explained that she’s aware posts can get flagged and taken down for including certain words, like genitals or words like “rape” and “sexual assault.”) Ultimately, as Fox put it, her crime seems to merely be “showing my age right now” and “just not being on that side of TikTok,” and, honestly, same!
The backlash against Fox from a certain, seemingly younger demographic of TikTokers was pretty confusing to a lot of people on Twitter and other corners of the internet who were likely unfamiliar with these code words. As one influencer pointed out, as a result of prevalent, unfettered censorship of discourse on bodies and gender-based violence on TikTok, “users are making up so many code words to describe serious topics that nobody ever knows what the hell anyone is actually talking about.”
TikTok’s community guidelines don’t explicitly prohibit content related to sex or sexual violence, although the platform bans “content that contains sexually explicit language depicting or describing a minor” and “content that contains sexually explicit language for sexual gratification.” But because TikTok’s enforcement of its guidelines is notoriously severe and inconsistent, frequently doling out permanent bans without explanation or removing videos with vaguely explicit language and references, most users err on the side of caution. Thus, it’s common for people to rely on code words or well-placed asterisks and numbers to talk about issues or experiences with sexual violence.
It’s perfectly understandable that TikTokers are being forced to find or carve out alternative language to share sensitive stories. This speaks to broader issues with content moderation on social platforms, which all too often enable rampant cyber abuse against women, girls, LGBTQ people, and people of color, as well as the dissemination of so-called “revenge porn” and other targeted sexual harassment—all while excessively policing content shared by survivors and their advocates. In November, shortly after a group of survivor advocates and experts in support of Amber Heard created an Instagram account to share statements of support for the actress, the account was banned after being mass-reported.
At the same time, it’s counterproductive and problematic to say the least for terminally online TikTok users to just expect everyone to know different TikTok-specific code words, which aren’t standardized or widely available public knowledge in any way. I respect different individuals’ agency to describe their experiences with sexual trauma using their own terms—but the expectation that we should all collectively lump highly traumatic experiences under words like “mascara” feels dismissive and unrealistic.
The reactions and attacks against Fox—or anyone who doesn’t have a mental dictionary of TikTok speak for traumatic experiences, for that matter—just feels entirely misplaced. In Fox’s Friday series of TikTok stories, she said “a lot of men have now used this as an excuse to come and abuse me” since her misstep. Yet, it’s pretty clear all of that frustration would make a lot more sense being directed at platforms like TikTok for their enforcement of community guidelines, as opposed to Fox, who made the great mistake of not being online 24/7.