On Saturday, in the wake of a still-growing number of women going public with their accusations of assault and rape at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag #MeToo started trending.
Actress Alyssa Milano had tweeted, "Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem." It was since revealed by Ebony that a campaign with the same name and aims, though without the social media virality, was initiated by a black woman named Tarana Burke ten years ago.
Its success as a campaign was the totality of its saturation, every platform taken over, illuminating the exhausting ubiquity of sexual violence. Many people chose to simply reproduce the phrasing of the original tweet; others went into harrowing detail about the extent of their own experiences; still others, like me, voiced a muddied and ambivalent relationship to awareness campaigns like these.
The fact that Tarana Burke's creation of the movement was ignored, that it is credited to a famous white actress, is not irrelevant here. It's a good place to begin, when interrogating its use, to acknowledge the many kinds of people who will be unable to speak out, or who will not be respected if they do. "Who gets to speak, and why, is the only question," as Chris Kraus wrote in I Love Dick – but the other question is: who is listening when they do?
Is awareness-raising such as this useful in and of itself? I felt, yesterday, the same vague despair I feel at the proliferation of "Let's Talk" campaigns and journalism around mental illness. What began, in that case, as a well-intentioned encouragement to do away with personal shame around your diagnosis, transformed eventually into a slick and meaningless catchphrase which puts the burden on the sufferer to heal themselves without any resources.
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I'd like to be clear that I understand there is solace for some people in the solidarity of this campaign, in making their experiences public, and I of course don't begrudge them it, but it seems grotesque to me to lay the burden of representation on women, that we are tasked with performing our pain so often. One of the things I find frustrating about speaking about sexual abuse is that you are expected to play your own history as a trump card. If I object to a rape joke, I'm a sour feminazi, until I explain that I've been raped, when I turn into a delicate flower who needs protecting and patronising. There is no room in the discourse for an impersonal non-narrative criticism of the culture.
This is not to suggest there is any power in being silent about our own individual experiences. Anyone who knows me will know I've written publicly about some of the most painful parts of my life, including the fact I've been raped. Do I regret it? No. But do I think there was any wider benefit to what I did? I'm really not sure there was. What I took away from the experience of speaking out was that people, even kind people, are horrified and fearful when it comes to speaking about the realities of abuse. They are often unable to bear a straight conversation about it. People compel you to talk and then find themselves incapable of looking you in the eye when you do.
My other experience was the strange feeling of my abuse being consumed eagerly. Phone calls from radio stations and newspapers flooded in after I wrote an article about it. The Irish Daily Mail printed my picture on their front page with the headline "Girl, 18, raped at Trinity College". Never mind that I was 24 when I wrote the story, never mind what had happened in my life since then. I was still – would always be – girl, 18, raped.
I relived this salaciousness a little these last few weeks, consuming the Weinstein revelations myself with something not unlike excitement, reading the details, listening with horrified fascination to the recorded audio of him coercing a woman he had assaulted. It's natural, this inclination to want to know. Particularly as a victim of abuse, it comes as second-nature to greedily gather the details to myself, comparing them to my own. But it still makes me feel a little nauseous, the zeal with which we absorb the horror.
The problem, really, with all of it is how violently present the victim is forced to be in the narrative, and how utterly passive the perpetrator. The problem is not that women have trouble considering themselves victims of sexual violence, but that men have trouble considering themselves the aggressor. Indeed, it is difficult for all of us to accept how many of the men we know will have committed acts of sexual aggression. This is why the words "witch hunt" get bandied around at times like this, because it does seem crazy when you start pointing it all out, seems beyond belief really, that so many men are implicated. Because people conflate sexual violence with evil, they don't identify themselves, or their friends, as part of the problem. Because these acts are specific and contextual, and not always as cinematic as we expect them to be. And there are reasons why they happen, little justifications and excuses to be fed to ourselves. There are always reasons.
Awareness of the scale of abuse does not address these problems. The simple fact is, I have no idea how to address them. They are unimaginably ingrained in the foundations of our society. The condition of being sexually oppressed is the condition of womanhood itself. I don't spend my day-to-day existence considering my sexual trauma, or being afraid. But nonetheless, the climate of sexual oppression shaped the basic building blocks of who I came to be, and what happened to me. There is no person unaffected by patriarchal sexual oppression, because the culture itself is built upon it.
In the real world, where we live, it is of course necessary to take practical steps to prevent attacks, to enable reporting, to ensure abusers face appropriate punitive measures both legal and social. These things make a tangible difference to the lives of women.
But the larger problem persists. It makes up the fabric of our world, this violence. Nothing less than the dismantling of our current systems, a complete discrediting of what we now consider power, will compel the sweeping change we so badly need to see, that we have waited on for so long.