Last August, Tenley, 18, met her ex-boyfriend through her circle of friends. At first, she says, he seemed “like a completely and normal nice guy”: He was a pastor’s son, charming and attentive. “He told me at the beginning he was overprotective, but it was in a charming sort of way,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Over time, Tenley started to notice what she later came to view as red flags in the relationship. He would text her constantly throughout the day, becoming angry when she didn’t respond. He’d make her block random people or remove them from her social media. Although they attended different high schools, she says, he’d show up unannounced to football games at her high school, even at one point pretending to be a student at her school so he should show up during the day and keep tabs on her. “He literally didn’t allow me to talk to any males. If I talked to any guy he’d threaten him and threaten me,” she says. At one point, she says, he showed up to her school and attempted to block her parking spot, prompting her to go to the police to get a two-day restraining order, ultimately leading to the end of their relationship. She gets tearful when she recalls telling her parents, for the very first time, about the extent of her ex’s harassment: “It made me a lot closer with my parents because they wanted me to know I should’ve been able to open up to them about it. But they weren’t mad at me, they were glad I opened up to them.”
A few days ago, Tenley was on Snapchat when she saw a clip on her one-year flashback, which she had recorded while she and her ex had been dating. It was a conversation she had surreptitiously recorded in his car during an argument: he had seen a photo on her social media of her wearing a T-shirt and leggings to school, and was berating her for, as he claimed, showing off her body.
“It was really hard listening to it the first few times, even now,” she says. But she was surprised to discover that instead of being terrified by her ex, as she had been a mere few months ago, this time “I was able to laugh at myself and at him.”
Tenley had just seen a massively viral TikTok posted by Isabella, 18, in which she did an interpretive dance to her ex-boyfriend’s tearful voicemail apologizing to her for cheating on her. She had found it hilarious and “really empowering,” she says. Inspired by the success of Isabella’s TikTok, Tenley posted a TikTok of herself doing an interpretive dance to the audio of her ex-boyfriend yelling at her. She later did a series of follow-up TikToks providing some context for the clip and detailing their relationship.
It landed on the #foryou page and went massively viral, garnering more than 688,000 likes as of this writing. On Twitter and Instagram, it was widely shared as a prime example of toxic masculinity, as well as teenage girls’ ingenuity and resilience. But it’s on TikTok where the trend has really started to gain steam, spawning a trend of young women doing interpretive dances to their exes’ verbally abusive voicemails. “Your sons are truly out of their fucking minds but your daughters are honestly funny as hell,” the film critic K. Austin Collins wrote on Twitter.
In a conversation with Rolling Stone, Isabella, who officially spawned the trend, says her TikTok had been inspired by a similarly toxic relationship with her ex, with whom she broke up about a year ago. They had dated for about six months on and off. “He tended to get angry and lash out sometimes at people. It wasn’t super often, but after a while he started to act that way towards me,” she says. “If I were to not answer him for a long time or was doing something else he’d get irritated.” When he confessed last year that he had cheated on her, she broke up with him. As is apparent in the voicemail heard in her TikTok, he was none too pleased with that turn of events, but at that point, “the trust was gone,” she says. “There was no point in trying to make it work.”
Last week, Isabella was deleting old voicemails and messages to make space on her phone when she came across her ex’s message. Like Tenley, she was struck by how much perspective she had gained after the breakup. “It had really bothered me [to hear the message] at the time, but at this point it was just funny,” she says. That TikTok has since garnered more than 388,000 likes, and her follower count has jumped from 10,000 to about 30,000. She has also been tagged in about 10 to 15 TikToks of teenage girls dancing to their exes’ voicemails, which are similarly both hilarious and tough to watch:
Both Tenley and Isabella say they have been struck by the sheer volume of comments they’ve received, primarily from teenage girls who have been or are currently embroiled in similarly abusive relationships. “I was in an abusive relationship for 2 years and this man would straight-up DRESS CODE ME AND I LET HIM. Glad we’re both out,” one comment on Tenley’s TikTok says. Another on Isabella’s TikTok: “Why this sound exactly like the voice memos my ex send me?”
Some of the comments they’ve received have been chastising them for “outing” the men in question (though both women have refused to requests to name them, saying that the purpose of their TikToks was not to shame or doxx anyone; they also say that to their knowledge, neither of the men heard in the audios are aware of their newfound infamy). But the vast majority are a testament both to the resolve of teenage girls and the unfortunate prevalence of similarly emotionally abusive relationships. (According to Love Is Respect, a project from the National Domestic Abuse Violence, one in three U.S. teenagers has been the victim of emotional, physical, sexual, or verbal abuse from a partner.)
“So many girls DM me saying ‘I’ve been through the same thing’ and some are saying, ‘I’m literally dating someone like this now and this showed me I needed to get out,'” says Tenley. She is planning a video outlining the “red flags” she saw in her own relationship to add further awareness for girls who are finding it difficult to extricate themselves from similarly toxic relationships. At the time, her ex was “so good at manipulating into me into thinking [everything] was my fault,” she says. “So I think it’s good for girls in those types of relationships to see…that this shit sucks and you don’t have to be a part of it, and you’ll feel so much better once you’re out.”
If you are or have been the victim of partner abuse, please call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).