When #MeToo Helps.....then Hurts
It was mid-October when the words “Me Too” took us all by storm and shook the ground, as impassioned, strong voices broke through the earth to let their stories of sexual assault be heard and felt. Survivors worldwide began disclosing their experiences, discussions about sexual assault began to spark, and together we all faced the brush fires stirring in our own communities. What started in Hollywood spread to our personal feeds and many were completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of loved ones who’d been affected by sexual misconduct in some way. Brave, courageous stories were being told, honesty and openness was being more respected, and incredibly moving work was taking off at unprecedented speeds. While difficult, it offered a glimmer of hope to all those who’d been sitting in their silence since they were small children, ignored and mistreated for so long. This could be the turning page! “This could be the moment we’re seen. This could my chance to be believed! The adversity I face every single day just to make it through could lift! …someone will finally understand us!” Unfortunately, over time survivors started to see that the movement that held, and still holds, so much promise was letting them down and, at times, even actively causing them pain. Survivors who were most broken by sexual violence were being left out, others were being unfairly characterized as the problem, and then there were those being lifted into the spotlight with whom most couldn't identify. What aimed to amplify the voices of those hidden and silenced the harshest, instead began doing the silencing and hiding.
It’s been three months. Three months since we’ve begun having daily, public conversations about sexual assault, consent, harassment, power dynamics, manipulation, silencing, fear, coercion, and so much more. These topics are fiercely important. Yet, somehow we’ve gotten to where the conversation's moved on to the smallest of details, even to where we openly analyze the very minutia of one person’s assault, but somehow managed to just jump right over entire groups of men, women and children who are most affected by sexual assault. They were left out of the broader conversation entirely. Men have been almost entirely shut out. We had two famous men come forward with their experiences of assault, but even as more came forward against Spacey, those men devolved into just part of a number count - not people with names and stories, like each individual woman against Weinstein. You also had to work exceptionally hard to find anything about them. On another plane, it has already been well-observed but bears repeating, that people of color have been largely overlooked in favor of powerful, white, attractive women. However, those most neglected have been those abused as children and teens. So, if you are/were a little boy, or a child of color, forget it. Three months and no one with influence has taken the time to speak on your behalf or any of the populations most exposed to sexual/complex trauma. Survivors themselves have been speaking, though. They’ve been sharing their stories, as well as their frustrations, their pain, their sense of invisibility, their disappointment, and their desire to just be seen and be given care. But, these strong souls are forced to talk mostly amongst themselves — with those who already get it. Any attempt at more public dialogue or even education has been so explicitly redirected or wholly avoided. And, that's unacceptable.
Several weeks into the movement, we saw branches like #ChurchToo take off. This brought with it renewed hope for many, particularly the groups feeling most ignored. It felt like there was still a chance we’d get to them soon, to just give it time. Soon the spark will catch. But, then the compassion fatigue seemed more oppressive, sympathies were waning, and many felt their embers being snuffed out after watching it barely trend, never be given a hashtag icon, and the articles about it remain very few and far between (mostly just churches defending themselves). Over time, it seemed that concerns about the direction of MeToo - including its re-traumatizing and triggering effects - were either disregarded or met with hostility. …as if by expressing concern, one was arguing against its necessity or importance as a movement. Which, is worrying at best.
In the last month, MeToo has been increasingly described as a women’s movement. “Thanks to #MeToo, it’s the year of the woman,” “#MeToo gave a chance for women to tell their stories,” “Stars are dressing in black to support the women affected by sexual assault.”. To add insult to injury, men were universally being characterized as the perpetrators. They were emphatically told it’s their turn to LISTEN. They’re told they aren’t to be doing any talking, just listening and taking notes on what they plan to do to help women. Male victims are an afterthought or a parenthetical to an article about women. They aren’t allowed to speak, just learn and don’t abuse. This is dangerous, toxic, and painful. It takes away their voices to come out as victims themselves, and re-impresses to ALL victims that, unless their abuse was at the hands of a male, they just shouldn’t come forward. Abuse perpetrated by women has been responded to wildly differently. Some have even said it’s “not the time for those stories because we’re trying to help women right now”. No. No, we aren’t. We’re trying to help victims of sexual assault. Humans. That includes men. That includes little boys. It includes teens, children and little girls. It means those hurt by women. It means we fight for those hurt for years and years by family members, those with multiple perpetrators, and those who’ve been trafficked, who are poor, who have nothing to their name, and those with no power elsewhere.
THIS IS NOT A WOMEN’S MOVEMENT. IT’S NOT A POWERFUL-WOMEN EXCLUSIVE movement. IT IS NOT A MOVEMENT AGAINST MEN.
This is a movement for survivors of sexual assault. And, to exclude any group is to abuse them again. To say their voices aren’t important, their stories insignificant, motives impure, or not as glamorous a story for a magazine cover, is inexcusable. Being selective with the voices we lift up, and when, says to everyone else, “You don’t fit our agenda, your story is too messy or hard to hear, you can wait your turn”. Only, their turn won’t ever come if no one takes a stand for them. They cannot just be expected to talk amongst themselves indefinitely and expect anything to change. They need the world to see them, understand them, to HELP them.
More Evidence of Inequity
We currently have one of the largest criminal cases of sex abuse against children, teens and adults the U.S. has seen in decades. The number of girls who have survived the abuse of Larry Nassar - former team doctor within USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and Twistars - surpasses the number of Sandusky, Weinstein and Bill Cosby victims COMBINED. Yet, somehow, even in the era of #MeToo, it’s gotten a fraction of the coverage as each of those independently. 140+ girls and women were hurt by one man (as well as the organizations that employed him, and several individuals who specifically enabled his abuse) -- over the span of 3 decades, with many reports against him -- but somehow, the story and all of its lessons has struggled to have any lasting power in the media. Is it because many were children and teens when they were hurt? Because it wasn’t sexual harassment, or abuse to independent woman, and seen as off-topic? Was it too difficult to read? Too unbelievable? How about because they weren’t wealthy or powerful? ..not famous household names to get fired up about? It's because of all those reasons and more. Some of the more ludicrous-sounding ones even have evidenced behind them. There was a sudden uptake in interest, after a whole year of coverage and legal proceedings, only after McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and, most recently, Jordyn Weiber, stepped forward in the case against Larry. Only then was any attention paid to this case beyond the walls of the gymnastics community. It sent a very, very loud and clear message to the 135+ non-famous little girls, teens and adults that they were not really a priority. Their abuse, suffering and stories of survival weren’t something anyone wanted to hear or learn from unless they were already emotionally-invested as a fan. They weren't marketable, nor would they get the clicks -- not even in the days of #TimesUp. But once clout, power and celebrity were introduced, now we have interest. Yet, even so, these girls' fame and power is still not that of a Hollywood celebrity. They provided a bump in exposure, but only a bump. They, too, were given the message that their fierce, powerful, strong and also heartbreaking voices after years and years of abuse weren’t as meaningful as those retelling one night as a Hollywood elite. So, if that’s true for even them, it begs the question to survivors everywhere, sitting in their nondescript homes, with names no one knows, and traumas deemed “too bad”, “too gross” or “too complex”, “What chance do I have that anyone will care about me? Who will help me? Who will fight for me to make my life safer? Who helps make sure that what I'VE been through happens to no one else? Who will help me get the treatment I need but have been denied since I was young? When will anyone believe us? WHEN WILL SOMEONE EVEN JUST HEAR US?!”
If that’s not a repeat dynamic to the questions they asked themselves as children victimized in their own homes, schools, daycares, and sports teams, I’m not sure what it is. #MeToo, #TimesUp, and those championing them the hardest promised to fight for those who couldn't fight for themselves. Who can’t come forward. Who are scared, unseen, and voiceless. But so far, we’ve only witnessed stories of abuse to men, children and teens being pushed out of the discussion in favor of celebrities and those who have power elsewhere in their lives. It hurts. #MeToo hurts. And, I can promise you that was never part of Tarana Burke’s mission statement ten years ago.
Another thing that we MUST keep in mind as we continue to spotlight sexual assault and have extremely important conversations about the behavior of those who abuse — is how it invariably pushes those who are actively abusing individuals, especially children, further underground. …which typically involves worsened abuse. Fear of being caught leads to firmer punishments, deeper threats, drilling victims much harder about not telling anyone, convincing them no one will believe them, and instilling the fear of God (or death) into children who may even momentarily think of telling a loved one or teacher. Teens may be the most vulnerable because their abusers know they have access to the internet and may see these conversations about abuse in the media. They have a unique opportunity like never before to realize “them too” and want to seek help. Unfortunately, those who abuse only care about themselves and will not be scared into inaction; they will only abuse more violently and creatively to insulate themselves deeper. We need to remember that, while we cannot and should not be quieted just because these individuals exist, we need to do just that much more for those presently trapped in abusive environments. If we’re going to have these global conversations — and we MUST — we must also take thoughtful, intentional care of those who are still in danger. Those who are being further endangered by our mission to deconstruct the institutions that make abuse so prevalent deserve better. And, despite beliefs to the contrary, there are absolutely things that we can do on this front. There are actions we can take. We just need to remember to explore them and that this is not just about us sharing our stories and letting people know it’s an issue, but going out of our way to protect others from future victimization as well as rescuing those still in its vice grip.
Above all, we must remember the most vulnerable. A movement FOR the broken, should not leave anyone more broken. Children and most teens are the truly voiceless. They cannot say #MeToo. They cannot put a post on social media and be enveloped in support and care. They may not even know what’s happening to them is even wrong yet. They’re terrified and afraid, just as so many who are now adults but were hurt as children remain. Yet, they’re the ones left out of the global effort to create a better world for survivors right now. We must remember them always. And, we must remember men. The men who’ve been violated but still told to hush up and just listen. The men who were hurt as adults, as little boys, who were trafficked; men who were hurt by women. We must think about anyone who’s EVER been hurt at the hands of a female — who is struggling with that independently, let alone in the public sphere. We must think of those who are not wealthy, who are disabled, who don’t have jobs, who cannot go to court, who are not safe, who cannot share even their story. We must keep in mind every survivor who is too scared to speak against someone more powerful than them because having their motives questioned, being told they’re lying for attention, or are only seeking justice because they want money/fame is too great an assault on their character and integrity to bear. We must keep in mind every survivor whose trauma was severe, unpretty, chronic and whose abuse left them with severe mental health issues. They are not crazy, they are not weak, they are not ‘bad’ or ‘gross’, they are not lesser than. They are just as important as anyone else with a trauma history they never asked to own.
We need to get up close and personal with the fact that #MeToo is meant for everyone. Sexual assault is a HUMAN issue. And, if your movement doesn’t include those who are affected by it most, then it’s causing more harm than good. But it does not have to remain that way.
We want to re-confirm our stance to fight for men, women, children and teens today and forever — regardless of race, income level, ability, mental illness or severity of their story. We will never stop fighting for you and trying to create a better world for us all. That includes helping those already victimized to be seen as a whole and complete person, and to get the treatment and care they deserve. It also includes taking every step within our power to educate the public and clinicians on trauma, particularly complex trauma, and to prevent this from continuing. We have faith that this movement CAN shift in the right direction once more. These conversations are desperately needed. They are invaluable and the strength of each and every person who dared utter the words MeToo, as well as those who bear witness, can not be understated. But, we need to see this opportunity be extended to everyone. We believe that’s realistic, honorable, as well as possible. We also trust that the hope we were initially ignited with can be rekindled.
We are honored to be a part of that fight with you, and we will hold each and every hand - big and small - through the journey.
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