In the United States, sexual harassment, assault, and rape are a series of numbers and taboos, scattered stories of trauma and statistics, internal and external scarlet letter A’s. It’s the ringing “one in four” college statistic, and that California is the only state as of this year to have made learning about consent mandatory in high schools. And, sometimes, it’s the hashtag #MeToo on your Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Tarana Burke founded the “Me Too” campaign in 2007, a grassroots movement created as a result of working with children of color at a youth camp and hearing their stories of sexual abuse and assault. It was popularized recently by actress and producer Alyssa Milano as a way to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Although Milano later credited Burke for the movement, let’s not overlook the consequences of an influential white celebrity entering a social justice platform, spearheaded by a black woman, and failing to originally include her intent in the conversation. Black feminists have been excluded from U.S. women’s liberation movements for decades, a frustration that should certainly be reiterated in a movement that is dependent on inclusion. Milano’s point is indisputably not without merit, of course, as the magnitude of sexual assault, harassment and rape is undoubtedly a serious issue. But Tarana Burke has made it clear that her movement is and always has been about empathy.
“It is us talking to us,” she explained to Ebony.
So, with that: #MeToo. But of course me too. Our lives are populated with dozens upon dozens of me too’s. Its reality is a running tally that reverberates in our hearts: me too, me too, me too. We cry, we heal, we advocate, we wake up in the mornings, live our lives, and we say (or whisper) “me too.” Cry, heal, breathe, advocate. Me too. Repeat.
I do not mean to understate the power of Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo for those who drew from it as a source of strength or positivity, nor the bravery it required for those who voiced their experiences. There is strength in solidarity amongst survivors who chose to post or not. The hashtag inspired 12 million responses on Facebook, substantiating evidence of the magnitude Milano was alluding to.
Unfortunately, for a solid fraction of the survivors this reached, there was not a need to prove magnitude. My existence as a statistic has been stunningly apparent to me before the phrase “me too” had ever reached my mouth.
This is why Burke’s “Me Too” is powerful — it is inherently intimate. It is not a collection of faces and public stories on our social media feeds that culminate into news headlines and more numbers. It is intended for survivors, between survivors.
The issue is that #MeToo doesn’t necessarily feel like it is for survivors. The awareness campaign is directed towards a population that doesn’t exactly know the gravity of sexual assault, but is still placing the responsibility to educate others in the hands of survivors. For most survivors, it is a reminder that friends, family, co-workers, and loved ones are still subjected to sexual assault and harassment, and an indication that we still have work to do.
Yes, the campaign has certainly spurred questions and prompted discussions on how to be an ally, how to help, and how to move forward. Yet, once again, survivors started this, just like with every other time survivors have advocated to be seen, to be heard, and relived trauma to prove to someone else that there is a problem.
It can feel repetitive and tiring, an echo into some sort of tunnel where our message only ever gets lost, or boomeranged back to us.
That is the frustration: whereas Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” is a space for current survivors to, as she described, “turn survivors into thrivers,” the #MeToo campaign is a call to survivors to be visible to everyone else — as if this isn’t a phenomenon that has been persisting for decades alongside those ever-present statistics.
If the purpose of the movement is sexual assault and harassment prevention, why not start with the problem rather than the people whom the problem affected? How does it make sense to continue to ask victims of sexual assault and harassment to repeat, “This is a problem,” instead of directly confronting the systems that sanction them?
In other words, if you’re sitting at home wondering what you can do to relieve the daunting statistics that manifest into posts on your Facebook feed, know that acknowledging the magnitude of the issue is really just hovering over the surface.
To scratch the surface, we can start by remembering that for every “Me too,” there is at least one “Did you?” — as in: did you cause a #MeToo? Did you stand idle while someone else did? Hint: your Facebook friend list probably includes both “Did You’s” and “Me Too’s.”
Getting below the surface requires remembering that what makes up the recurring cases of abuses, rapes, and assaults are our legal, education, and social structures, woven together to protect the “Did You’s” — or abusers, rapists, and accomplices — from consequences of their actions.
For every 1000 rapes, 944 perpetrators will walk free. For the literature that exists on consent education, albeit unsurprisingly an extremely limited amount, The New York Times published a piece in 2016 pointing out the lack of uniformity, research into prevention strategies, and accountability within the programs. And what holds the fabric of these systems together is the way rape culture is embedded into the foundations of how we live our lives — whether blatantly assuming survivors are lying despite false reports of sexual assault making up 2-8% of actual reports, mothers (or anyone) blaming girls for revealing selfies instead of having conversations about the hypersexualization of (minors’) bodies, or the distortion of domestic violence within the media.
The status quo not only fails to protect anyone from sexual assault and harassment, but literally upholds a standard that protects those who commit these acts. The “Me Too” movement isn’t something that spawned spontaneously overnight; it is a byproduct of decades of consumers allowing sex to sell products, of educators not discussing consent and healthy sexual relationships, and of staying silent during those false “not guilty” verdicts or catcalls in the dead of night.
Do not let those twelve million shouts into the social media sphere dissipate into another boomerang back into a whispered “me too.” Each person is, in their own way, an educator, a consumer, and a potential bystander or intervenor. In other words, when approaching sexual assault, harassment and rape with progressive movements, don’t wait for the next wave of outcry before consciously attempting to make a difference — and confront systems, not victims.
photo courtesy of Halie West, Redlands Bulldog photo editor