Sexual assault hotlines are feeling the impact of #metoo

A sustained increase in calls to an assault hotline since September, and people are talking
January 20, 2018, 1:53pm

It may be too soon to measure the impact of the #metoo movement, which started when sexual assault allegations were brought against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein last fall.

Sure, there has been a significant uptick of mentions of the #metoo hashtag on social media, including 6,085,027 mentions across Twitter, 120 million posts, reactions, and comments on Facebook, and 21 million individuals who have either liked, commented, or posted about #metoo on Instagram since October 2017.

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But the movement is also having a measurable impact in the real world: It is encouraging people — women, men and children — to step forward and seek help when sexual assault does occur.

One place where the impact of the movement has been seen is in calls to rape crisis hotlines. Data released by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country, shows a surge in calls to their hotline since the beginning of the #metoo movement, totaling 209,480 calls last year. This is the most number of calls that the organization has seen in one year since the hotline was started in 1994.

In November of 2017, the hotline saw a 26 percent increase in calls compared to November of the previous year, and a 32 percent increase in December from the year before. In December, the hotline received an average of 630 calls a day.

Art: Leslie Xia

The 24-hour confidential hotline provides sexual assault survivors with staff who are trained to help talk through the trauma of assault and helps to connect survivors with local health resources. The hotline has provided support for over 2 million sexual assault survivors in its 25 year history.

The uptick in calls to the RAINN hotline has strained their staffing resources. “We’ve hired about 40 new staff,” says Scott Berkowitz, the President and Founder of RAINN. RAINN is hopeful that the new hires will help to decrease the hotline wait time, which has increased due to demand in recent months.

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All staff who work on the hotline are required to complete trauma training, which includes simulated calls with various situations. But experience handling real calls is crucial to being effective in the role, says Berkowitz. “It takes practice, no matter how much training they have — they’ve got to get on the hotline to build up experience.”

The wait time on the hotline isn’t the only thing that has been increasing in the months since #metoo began. “We are seeing that the conversations are getting longer,” says Berkowitz. Survivors, particularly those under the age of 18, have reached out to the hotline for advice on how to engage law enforcement in their cases, which Berkowitz says they hadn’t seen much of until now.

Though the #metoo movement has been heavily focused on women, Berkowitz says that the percentage of callers who are male and are under the age of 18 has remained the same. “It’s really leading to everybody reaching out a little bit more and asking for help,” says Berkowitz.

The #metoo movement and news coverage may have also been a trigger for survivors of sexual abuse. Megan Thomas from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center says that they are also seeing that many survivors have been overwhelmed by the media focus on sexual assault and harassment. “While the growing awareness that’s been generated is a positive thing, it can also impact the mental health of survivors, which is why they may be reaching out to hotlines and chatrooms for support,” she says.

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But the influx of calls may not just be a result of #metoo. Though the numbers spiked following the start of the movement, numbers were already on the rise starting with the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape. The numbers continued to rise until a few weeks after Donald Trump was elected.

RAINN received 30 percent more calls in 2016 than in 2015.

What differentiates the #metoo movement from the influxes they saw during the 2016 election is that the increased number of calls has been sustained for close to four months. “It’s not uncommon that calls are driven by the news cycle,” says Berkowitz. “But in most cases the surge lasts a couple of days or couple of weeks. This is the first time we’ve seen this extended impact.”

Cover: #MeToo rally outside the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle, New York City on Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)