Broadening our understanding of the conversation on sexual violence

In 2006, community organizer Tarana Burke started the “Me Too” program as a movement to listen to women, especially those of colour, who’d experienced sexual violence. Her underlying message is that no one is alone in dealing with these experiences and through listening and sharing with each other, we can start to heal.

Actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet last Sunday, which did not address any connection with Burke’s movement, suggested women who’ve experienced sexual harassment and assault post #MeToo to give the world a sense of the pervasiveness of this behaviour. Indeed the ubiquity of the experience became self-evident as the hashtag dominated the newsfeeds of most American and Canadian users’ social media in the following days.

But while this widespread participation, and subsequent solidarity, that still continues a week after her post seems to promote the spirit in which Burke originally encouraged the sharing of “Me too”, it has also sparked critical reflections that illuminate the complexity of the larger conversation in which the movement takes place.

In response to Milano’s intended purpose for the campaign, people like Sheela Raja, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have pointed out that the responsibility to raise public awareness should not fall on the survivor – due to the pain involved in recalling a traumatic experience, the doubt of the survivor’s experience it can presuppose, and more. Instead, as Raja told Al Jazeera, we need to realize that, “whether you know it or not, you do know a survivor of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and we all need to operate on that premise.”

Another negative effect that can emerge from the kind of rallying cry expressed by this campaign is one wherein the public sharing of personal experiences becomes a kind of accreditation by which the general public can assess the legitimacy or validity of someone’s views on the issue. This is especially significant when remembering that Burke’s intention in expressing the phrase “Me Too” was solely to assist the healing of survivors – not to jeopardize their healing by asking them to raise awareness. (Presumably, Milano would agree with this, too.)

One major cornerstone of the discussion around #MeToo is a call for critical awareness around who exactly this “Me” encompasses and how identities of race, gender, and sexuality are being addressed. There is the basic desire for people to understand that any identity invoked, in the case of #MeToo – “woman”, must be considered in conjunction with the other identities any given person might hold. There is no one universal, complete experience that comes with being a “woman”; each person who identifies as a woman experiences this identity in a slightly different way based on how their other identities coalesce to form their unique experience in this world.

For example, the Ebony article that broke the news about Tarana Burke observed the regularity with which movements purporting to be feminist, and thus supportive of all women, do not treat the experiences of White and Black women with equal concern or consideration. Black women’s history has already been marked by silencing and repression, so it is imperative to give recognition and platforms where due (and this is alongside the pattern of women, in general, asking for recognition and platforms where their voices have been historically silenced by men in general). A hypocrisy arises when due recognition is not given but certain women continue to purport inclusivity of all women in their movements.

In addition to acknowledging the complexities of what it means to say “women”, inclusiveness in a conversation on sexual harassment and assault needs to involve men. Men, of course, can be survivors, and part of dealing with sexual harassment and assault is acknowledging how constructs of gender affect the ability of men to process and heal from these experiences. This article on sexual assault within the queer community speaks to additional complexities around this aspect of inclusiveness. Michelson speaks to simplistic connections between sex-positivity and assault, especially between two male-identifying individuals, and the difference in effect male privilege can have on those who experience male identity in different ways.

Some of the least charted waters are the ones that deal with men as the perpetrators. The unhealthy constructions of masculinity that men take ownership of not only affect the female, non-binary, or queer populations but also these men themselves, albeit in drastically different ways. As men start to recognize the toxicity of their behaviour and identify its consequences, which it seems should not be solely facilitated through campaigns like #MeToo given its criticisms in particular regarding survivor responsibility, the conversation on sexual harassment and assault needs to include them, too.

Milano’s post included “harassment” and “assault” in the same sentence. Both kinds of actions are caused by the same problems. However, the actions’ consequences have differing levels of severity for survivors’ lives, and this Slate article observes that the actions themselves can range from “creepiness to criminality”. When asked in an interview with the Boston Globe about this distinction between experiences of harassment and assault, Burke did not deny its existence but said that the important factor in the “Me Too” movement is for those who have been wronged, in whatever way, to feel validated: “If… it’s traumatizing to you, then it’s important for you to be heard and to be seen.”

This hashtag will die down and a new one may surface, and new survivors will join the ranks of old ones as all seek healing and support. But if we want those ranks to get increasingly smaller, and if we want real change that mobilizes all kinds of participants, the larger conversation around sexual harassment and abuse needs to incorporate its lessons from the movements, like #MeToo, that are initiated under its umbrella. And we, the participants, can follow Burke’s lead and reflect her tone of acceptance, open-mindedness, and sensitivity as we navigate the complexity of it all.  

By Maya Wong

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.