Rose Gelfand '21
On October 15th, Alyssa Milano tweeted:
The tweet itself garnered 68,000 replies and 25,000 retweets, and there were more than 12 million Facebook posts, comments and reactions in less than 24 hours, by 4.7 million users around the world. While Milano’s tweet opened an important widespread door for a current conversation about sexual assault, many credited Milano with starting the Me Too movement, even though it was actually started in 2006 as a program of Tarana Burke’s organization, Just Be Inc.
On their website Tarana writes that “the me too Movement™ started “in the deepest, darkest place in my soul.” She tells the story of a young girl named Heaven who, while she was a youth worker, told Tarana about her mother’s boyfriend molesting her. Tarana became incredibly emotional and directed her to another female counselor and told Heaven the other woman could help her better. Tarana writes that “I will never forget the look on her face. .. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.” This experience inspired her to create the movement that has now sparked a worldwide conversation about sexual violence.
For days, my Facebook feed was flooded with #MeToo posts, critiques and thoughts. I was apparently not alone in this fact, as Facebook reports that 45% of users had someone they’re friends with post about the subject (holy cow). Some people simply posted the hashtag without explanation, while some chose to share vulnerable stories of their experiences with sexual violence, and others posted and engaged in thoughtful and important discourse on the subject.
I read so many brilliant and nuanced posts on the gendered language of the initial post, the ways race complicates narratives of sexual violence, potential issues with lumping assault with harassment, whether or not it places responsibility on victims to speak out, and so much more. There were many people encouraging folks who’ve perpetrated sexual violence or harassment to own up to the harm they’ve caused, and others arguing that these posts were triggering and centering abusers in a movement intended to be about healing. Many folks found it empowering to see the sheer number of posts, and many others shared that they felt uncomfortably pressured to say what they did not want to broadcast publicly.
At first, I felt obligated to share personal experiences that I otherwise would not post about on Facebook, which made me uncomfortable. Even though I am someone who engages in conversations about sexual violence a lot, it isn’t really the sort of thing I use Facebook for. I shared a couple posts about how we shouldn’t have to out ourselves as survivors and how it shouldn’t be about “giving people a sense of the magnitude of the issue” because one woman should be enough, but then I read some posts by Nikkita Oliver and Israa Ismaeil about how knowing they were not alone saved their life (Nikkita Oliver) and how Me Too also allows survivors a space to acknowledge their experiences without having to relive it through talking about it/specifying what happened to them (Israa Ismaeil)
These posts, as well as some of the posts my friends wrote, definitely shifted my opinions and made me interrogate my feelings. What I ultimately came to realize is that I’m here for #metoo, but I think the intent should be shifted. I don't think the point should be for people (men) to "get the magnitude of the issue,” as that will never work and frames it in a way that puts responsibility on survivors to fix the problem when we've known it's been this widespread forever. (Plus even if it wasn't widespread, you should still care regardless). With a shifted intent though, I am so here for #metoo because I am here for survivor solidarity. I am a fan of the simplicity of the phrase, as it allows people to acknowledge their experiences without having to specify what’s happened to them. Seeing all the posts, especially from older women in my life made me think a lot about people in my life who I wouldn't typically think about experiencing sexual violence having definitely experienced it. Because of this, this movement definitely made me feel less alone and made me think about sexual violence in much broader context. However, survivors should ABSOLUTELY never be made to feel as though they're obligated to share their trauma if they don't want to. That's not okay in any sense and folks should only post or share their experiences if they feel as though it is empowering for them and they genuinely want to.
I also thought a lot about how I felt about people who’ve perpetrated sexual violence posting some form of “I did that” in an attempt to take responsibility. I absolutely think we need to start having perpetrators take responsibility and change their actions but I don’t believe capitalizing off of the #MeToo movement is the place to do it. The comments sections of the posts I did see of this nature were essentially full of people (mostly women) patting people (mostly men) on the back for admitting the harm they’ve caused, centuring abusers in a movement about empowering survivors.
That being said, we absolutely need to have a wider conversation about intended and unintended perpetration of harm, how one can both be a survivor of and perpetrate sexual violence and abuse, and the ways in which we as people (and especially men) need to be more conscious of the impact of our/their actions. As Danez Smith posted, “All men should be asking "who has a story about me?" So often, people (especially men) do things that make people (especially women) feel uncomfortable without even thinking about it. Many close male friends have done things that make me feel uncomfortable without intending or knowing it. You can commit sexual assault without intending to do it. Everyone needs to develop a constant self awareness, where you are consciously thinking about the effect of your touch and words and actions on the people around you. You need to ask the people around you what they think, practice radical affirmative consent and LISTEN (it goes without saying this is something people of all genders need to start doing).
However in addition, specifically men need to start thinking critically about how they can use their male privilege to intervene and change the culture around sexual violence. I've had so many male friends recently describe some sort of situation where they felt uncomfortable because another man was trying to talk to them about a woman in a sexually violent or objectifying way and they came to me to commiserate about how uncomfortable they felt. I get that it’s uncomfortable, but those conversations need to be had and I will never be in a space where a man will trust me with that and where I can correct him and/or have him listen and respect what I think about it. One fantastic resource I saw for this was an #ItWasMe Men's Discussion Group, for men to discuss what inhibits conversations about perpetrating sexual violence, “reading #metoo / #itwasme posts and processing together, bystander, call out, call in, and man-to-man accountability strategies, sex, sexuality, pornography, relationships, love, dating, what kinds of help there is available if we think we're at risk of engaging in abusive behavior, characterological Violence, power/control, and male fragility, toxic masculinity, etc.” (sign up: https://tinyurl.com/metoomalesupport)
I also really hope that this movement leads to conversations amongst survivors of how different people navigate sexual violence differently. On the night #MeToo went viral, a man tried to shove me against a wall with a shopping cart and called me a “fat bitch” for trying to get my friend out of where he'd cornered her. No matter your attractiveness, body weight, etc. you can (and do) experience sexual violence. However, sexual violence intersects with other forms of oppression (racism, queerphobia, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism etc.) and we can exist in solidarity while also discussing how it affects different people differently.
So let’s have these conversations!!! I really hope this spark moves beyond a viral hashtag to a sustained cultural conversation about sexual violence and how we can prevent it and heal from it. Survivors, I see you. You are so, so valid. Let’s keep healing and sharing, together.