Survivors are coming together yet again to shed light on high rates of sexual assault. They shouldn’t have to.
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When I opened my phone this morning, the first thing I saw was a dear friend's Facebook status. "Me Too," it read. Even without context, I knew exactly what she meant.
She and other survivors of sexual assault are posting the words to stand in solidarity with one another and to illustrate the scope of the crime. It started after actor Alyssa Milano suggested on Twitter Sunday that "If all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too' as a status, we might give everyone a sense of the magnitude of the problem." The call was made in the wake of more women coming forward to make allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, and as of Monday morning, something like 6-million Facebook users had followed suit.
I immediately knew this was what my friend's status referred to because this is the thing survivors have always said to reassure one another. We drop it softly into our friends' DMs if they refer to their assaults online, we whisper it late at night over half-drained glasses of wine, over FaceTime if they're far away. You are not alone. You are not the problem. I believe you. As I scrolled past countless more Me Toos, I saw a thing I already knew reflected back at me yet again: despite the oft-cited one-in-four statistic, the vast majority of women and trans people I know have been sexually assaulted. Our lives are tales of survival.
I'm a survivor many times over, and I posted a Me Too status. Movements like #MeToo are valuable to us in some ways. They show survivors we have a community that will stand up for us, do its best to protect us. They can make some of us feel safe for a minute, like we don't have to suffer in silence. These movements can also act as important modes with which to collect data in a world wherein sexual assault is still a seriously underreported crime. According to Statistics Canada's General Social Survey on Canadians' Safety, of all sexual assaults wherein the attacker is someone other than the survivor's partner, only one in 20 of these crimes is ever reported to police. The rate is one in three for other types of crime. This is because, despite a growing cultural acknowledgment of the frequency with which sexual assault occurs, there is still a strong stigma surrounding it. If someone does decide to report to police, especially if they are Black, Indigenous, of colour, have a disability, or are trans or queer, they are unlikely to be believed. Rape myths persist. Still we are blamed for wearing miniskirts, fraternizing with men, daring to exist out of doors or consuming alcohol.
Though these movements do demonstrate that sexual assault is a systemic problem, they are telling people what they should already have known if they took women and other survivors seriously. Survivors have been speaking up about our assaults for decades. We have laid it all out in hashtag form before. We had #YesAllWomen, we had #BeenRapedNeverReported. We have seen large numbers of women come forward against famous men: 50 women accused Bill Cosby of being an abuser. At least eight accused Jian Ghomeshi of same. Why are people still behaving as though they are shocked? And why is one account never enough? As my friend Kasia Mychajlowycz, a New York-based audio journalist and producer, wrote on Facebook: "If there is anyone out there who thinks they don't know and love a survivor, that's because they don't listen to women and that's on them. I'm sick of having to make the widely available statistics come alive for people who don't care anyway."
Toronto-based survivor and community support worker Jennai Bundock says any movement that relies on survivors doing all of the work is problematic.
"We talk about abuse against women or violence against women. But what it sounds like is 'This is a thing that happens to women. Just, stuff that happens, like tangles in your hair.' Like it's this nebulous thing, part and parcel with womanhood. We aren't talking about who's doing the assaulting or under what circumstances the silence is being cultivated or fostered. We're not talking about the reasons [survivors] stay silent."
It is unfair to begin any statement with the words "If all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted…" as Milano did and as the rest of us are doing. When we do this, we place the onus on survivors to prove that rape a) happens and b) is systemic. We assume those who speak up will be safe from further harm if they do so. Sexual assault is cast as a "women's issue" and as our own responsibility. The directive is akin to expecting someone not to wear a short skirt in order to avoid being raped in the first place. We must bleed for the onlookers in hopes they will grant us some mercy in the form of mere belief and that, somehow, we will stem occurrences of rape in the process. Why should we have to pick open these same old wounds and mine them for trauma yet again to prove the pervasiveness of sexual assault? We should be talking about "If all people asked explicit consent before commencing sexual activity…" and not "What more can women do to prevent their own rapes?" The pressure is too much, and it's misdirected.
"Survivors are required to speak up or jettison everyone or go to war with our abuser. It's so much labour dropped on our laps," Bundock says. "The only thing I could see being helpful is to shift the focus entirely off women's plates."
For the time being, there isn't a lot of space in feminist and social justice circles for cis men who want to air stories about past transgressions. Maybe this needs to change and maybe it doesn't, but in the interim, this is work men, other abusers, and allies of survivors will need to do outside of the public eye, and without expecting thank you cookies. That work looks like: not responding defensively when called out, doing the work of calling out your bros/people when you see them being creepy or assaulting someone, and, above all, not forcing your body on someone else's body without their explicit consent.
Of course other survivors can speak out about their assaults to any degree they see fit, and I support them. But expecting women and other survivors to participate in movements like these is deeply harmful. For each of us who have been raped, assaulted or harassed, there is at least one rapist, at least one abuser. These are the people who need to be held accountable, instead of survivors being put on trial to prove their assaults were bad enough to count for something.
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