Keeping the “Me too” conversation going

In the middle of October, out of nowhere, my Facebook feed filled with posts that said “Me too” as part of a campaign to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment. At first it felt exhilarating that our culture’s denial of our reality might be lifting a bit. The next day the online arguments started. At first, the hottest issue seemed to be that the campaign focused only on women. Other conversations that have stayed with me from the “me too” campaign are about listening to women of color and about the complications of going public as a survivor.

A lot of words have already been devoted to why this campaign didn’t specifically include men. I know male survivors of sexual violence face all the awful legacy that we female survivors face, plus some unique and additional stigma. There is nothing about this that is OK, and sweeping it under the rug means acting in cooperation with the perpetrators, which is something we can’t accept. At the same time, there is a special weight of sexual violence and harassment that falls on women as an element of gender-based violence and oppression. We’ve made huge strides in beating back the structures that have undermined our dignity for thousands of years, but this doesn’t change completely overnight. We need to be able to talk specifically about that particular problem, so we can address it.

Until this “me too” campaign came up, I was hearing a lot of voices saying that we’ve pretty much solved gender-based oppression, but that is not my experience, and it is not the experience of my family or many others. My father (who had me very late in life) was four years old before his mother could legally vote. My mother’s generation had to plow through harassment and violence with no recourse, and often without any vision of how things could be better. My sister’s husband broke her skull and then kidnapped her in handcuffs and drove her across the country after she fled to us for safety. Two of the men who abused me sexually very clearly felt justified by old but thriving ideas that men are entitled to women’s bodies. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my mind around that because I was too busy surviving. Remembering all the details from a safer place, I can see that cultural beliefs fed those men and made me so much more vulnerable. There’s a gender-based pattern here, and we cannot stay in denial about it.

In addition, there’s a gender-based power difference in many situations of sexual harassment and violence. So many of us live in denial of the low-level threat that many women live with every day because we are women. I remember talking with a male friend who was experiencing repeated unwanted touch from a woman. I felt a wave of fear and outrage for him and asked how he was dealing with it. He asked me to imagine that I could just flick my fingers at a perpetrator and the perpetrator would be totally floored. I couldn’t even imagine that. Then I felt weird picturing my friend flicking his fingers at me, and my feeling turned to mild fear as I began to suspect that this was how he felt about me. This conversation does not represent the experience of many male survivors, and I am not implying that men who were victimized should have been able to deflect abusive behavior. Instead, my story offers a snapshot of a pervasive power structure that often makes many men feel that women can be effortlessly dismissed, and that makes women feel that they have to stay on the defense. We need to be able to talk about that.

Brand-new and sometimes subtle outgrowths of gender oppression spring from cultural patterns that go back thousands of years. We have to confront that if we want to change it, and this campaign seems to be moving us forward a tiny bit by peeling back at least a little denial. That’s great. At the same time, we can’t ever forget the people who are hurting, unseen and not represented by even the best-intended campaign of the moment.

Along those lines, I was fascinated that an African American woman started the “Me too” campaign a decade ago. This was a reminder that our culture chronically ignores the gifts and needs of women of color. I don’t think anybody consciously thought, “Oh. Let’s ignore this great idea because the woman who came up with it wasn’t white.” Still, it took some attention from a white lady to get this thing rolling. I don’t want to forget that. As a white woman, I want the memory of this to stay with me as one more reminder that I need to fight forces in my mind and in our world that keep us from following the leadership of women of color.

This campaign also brought up how hard it is for us to share our experiences of domestic and sexual violence. I read one heartbreaking piece from a woman who couldn’t bring herself to write “Me too” because she thought her experiences were so much milder than everyone else’s “real” experiences with violence and harassment. As far as I can tell, every single survivor carries that same concern. Because someone else had it “worse,” we don’t deserve help. We don’t have authority to tell our stories. We should be able to suck it up and keep plowing along. These beliefs hurt. They’re part of the legacy of violence that so many of us share.

Then there are women who feel an uncomfortable pressure to share. Only a first-class jerk would want someone to go public with her experience of sexual violence or harassment if she did not feel clear to do that. Some who decided against posting “Me too” feel alone in their decisions, but they aren’t. One poll suggested that a large majority of female survivors on social media did not post “Me too,” so actually the posters were in the minority — a highly visible minority. One woman wrote that, by deciding not to post “Me too,” she felt like she was painfully deciding against giving her help to other people. Thank goodness our personal experience is not the only currency we can use as we try to make change in the world. This campaign does not define anybody’s desire and ability to be of service, her courage, or anything else about her. When we all bring different gifts to the table at different times, it helps things keep moving forward.

This campaign has created some impressive motion, but it hasn’t actually solved that much. The problem is huge and the struggle against it has been going on for ages. Our efforts need to be sustained and broadened and tweaked over time. We will need everyone’s different gifts to keep making progress.

Written by HOPE Center Volunteer Elizabeth O’Sullivan
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