Identity

I'm Tired of Rape Survivors Having to Share Their Trauma Over and Over Again

This week, hundreds of thousands of survivors shared their stories, using the hashtag #MeToo, to illuminate the ubiquity of sexual violence. How many consciousness-raising campaigns do we need to do before we get actual support?

by Sejal Singh
Oct 18 2017, 4:52pm

Photo by GIC via Stocksy

On Sunday, my entire social media feed was flooded by people saying #MeToo — sharing publicly, some for the first time, that they had experienced sexual harassment and assault.

The viral campaign was prompted by a call to action from actress Alyssa Milano, who tweeted that if survivors all "wrote 'Me too' as a status, we might give people a sense of the problem." Milano's message, which was first pioneered by activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago, resonated on an international scale; by Monday afternoon, the hashtag had been tweeted over half a million times and become the subject of over 600,000 discussions on Facebook.

Scrolling through disclosure after disclosure on my feed, I was struck by the sheer number of survivors speaking out. As an advocate fighting to end gender violence, I hear survivor stories every day. I know exactly how pervasive sexual assault is. Still, I was moved by the sudden and overwhelming solidarity I was witnessing and the sheer number of women speaking out.

I kept wondering, though: Who are these "people" who don't have a full grasp of the problem, and what are they supposed to learn from survivors laying their traumas bare? Part of me is so profoundly sick of survivors having to relive their assaults in public, again and again, to "prove" that sexual harassment and sexual violence are everywhere.

Reading through my feed, I started to experience an exhausting sense of deja vu. Didn't we do this all last year, with the viral #WhenIWas hashtag, which asked people to share their own experiences to "reveal just how early sexism, harassment, sexual violence, discrimination start?" And the year before, with #YesAllWomen, started in the aftermath of Elliot Rodger's misogynistic shooting spree? Didn't we do this after Bill Cosby, and after Trump's infamous "grab them by the pussy" tape? Didn't we see an outpouring of support from men promising they'd do better each of these times?

This cycle — a horrific-yet-unsurprising revelation of sexual violence, followed by collective outpouring of trauma and anger—is starting to feel more like a hellish ritual than political praxis.

But after all that, sexual violence remains a rampant open secret, an alleged sexual predator was elected president, and survivors across the globe are once again sharing their painful stories just to prove that rape happens. This cycle — a horrific-yet-unsurprising revelation of sexual violence, followed by collective outpouring of trauma and anger—is starting to feel more like a hellish ritual than political praxis.

We live in a country where one in five women experience a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. One in six women have been stalked. One in four have been physically abused by an intimate partner. Women who haven't experienced these extreme forms of violence still report being harassed at work, groped on the metro, being cat-called every summer.

Every woman and trans person on earth (and quite a few men) experiences sexual harassment and violence. If so-called allies don't know that already, it's because they don't want to.

Every workplace, community group, and campus has its own Harvey Weinsteins—and for every Weinstein, there's countless more people enabling and ignoring him. If #MeToo inspires allies to stop disregarding sexual violence in their circle, then good. But survivors have been speaking out for years, and I've seen too many people go suspiciously silent when it comes time to hold the actual abusers in their lives accountable.

#MeToo is easy to support because the focus is on survivors, not the people who need to be held accountable for harassment and abuse. Everyone is on a survivor's side, theoretically, but not so much in practice. Everyone will condemn sexual violence when the perpetrator is faceless and nameless — but in my experience, that support tends to vanish once a survivor names her abuser, files an HR complaint against the supervisor who groped her, or just asks her friends not to invite her rapist to their parties. Consciousness-raising works—until it demands accountability. (An executive who worked for Weinstein for years reportedly messaged a woman Weinstein had harassed on LinkedIn: "I've fought him about mistreatment of women 3 weeks before the incident with you," he said. "I even wrote him an email that got me labelled by him as sex police." Apparently, that was the limit of his advocacy.)

Too many men say they support survivors, then fail to act when we need them most. That's why it's no surprise that movements to end gender violence are led by survivors themselves — and, it's worth noting, we're winning. Something is changing. Student survivors have forced schools to finally take sexual violence on campus seriously. Powerful perpetrators, from Weinstein to Roger Ailes to Bill Cosby, have been dethroned. I'm certain this only the beginning.

Consciousness-raising exercises like #MeToo are powerful and important, but not because some putative allies might see our posts and finally treat women with compassion and humanity. It matters because we're seeing each other, getting angry, and getting organized. And perhaps #MeToo has women recognizing that, whatever victim-blaming bile gets printed in the New York Times, we're all vulnerable unless we unite. If everyone has experienced sexual harassment and violence, then survivors aren't isolated. Instead, we're an army.

So, of course, #MeToo. But more importantly, what are we going to do about it?