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#MeToo started an incomplete conversation that needs to be expanded

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Woman with short hair looking at the cameraBy: Rebecca De León, Communications and Marketing Manager, Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network

**Please note this entry contains language and material that might be triggering for some readers.

The Silence Breakers and #MeToo

TIME Magazine recently chose to feature the Silence Breakers as 2017’s Person(s) of the Year, praising the paradigm-shifting cultural revolution. Thankfully, TIME didn’t focus on the movement, but rather on the (mostly) women who publicly came out with their stories of sexual assault and their messages of intolerance for sexual harassment and assault.

“The women and men who have broken their silence span all races, all income classes, all occupations and virtually all corners of the globe. They might labor in California fields, or behind the front desk at New York City’s regal Plaza Hotel, or in the European Parliament. They’re part of a movement that has no formal name. But now they have a voice,” TIME stated.

This year, the Silence Breakers rose to public consciousness, largely employing the hashtag #MeToo, which appeared in tens of millions of posts on each social media platform, and continues to be used today. But shortly after #MeToo gained rapid popularity, women of color raised concerns about the lack of diversity, noting that Tarana Burke was not initially given credit for creating #MeToo and its accompanying nonprofit organization/documentary. Social justice advocates also noted the lack of solidarity in response to the previous online sexual harassment against notable black women such as Leslie Jones and Jemele Hill.

From there, notable leaders involved in re-energizing #MeToo, such as actress Alyssa Milano, changed their narrative in an attempt to honor more women of color, and began giving Tarana Burke credit for first creating the hashtag. It went global from there, with #YoTambien and #MoiAussi rising in popularity, as well. While this is a noteworthy step in the right direction, #MeToo still feels like an incomplete conversation, and it is up to advocates and community leaders to continue changing the discourse from one encompassed entirely by #MeToo to one that delves into the complexities of sexual assault and harassment while embracing intersectionality.

Survivors’ burden and re-traumatization

Inherently, #MeToo is the beginning of a dialogue – it’s a phrase that awaits a response. When I saw that some of my friends and colleagues had posted #MeToo on their social media, I often thought to myself, #YouToo? But only in the rare cases where they also posted a lengthy story or video explanation, no conversation ensued. The only responses to the posts were comments congratulating the user – and rightfully so – for his/her bravery, and/or commenting on the #MeToo movement in general. Neither in private nor via social media feeds did we discuss what had happened or where the user was in their healing process because no safety net or “brave space” had been created to talk openly or process the complex emotions associated with experiencing sexual violence. Posting #MeToo is a crucial first step for many to begin that process and find their community of support, but social media platforms’ public nature can leave victims and survivors open to challenge and ridicule, so too many let the conversation begin and end with #MeToo.

The reason many people posted #MeToo with little or vague explanations is the same reason many more didn’t post at all: Asking victims and survivors to take on the responsibility of publicly publishing their story of sexual assault is often re-traumatizing for them.

Although I am a survivor of childhood sexual assault myself, I didn’t post #MeToo to my social media, and grappling to figure out why was triggering. I was reminded of when I was a 16-year-old back in an office of the local police station where a police officer was asking me over and over for hours why I wouldn’t name my rapist. Was it because I was lying? What was I hiding? Why was I protecting him? Didn’t I know that he could be out there violently raping other little girls because I wasn’t allowing them to stop him? Was I really OK with that scenario on my conscience? Did I even care that not pursuing charges meant I’d be denied access to the state’s mental health services?

These are the same questions many sexual assault survivors are often asked, and they ask themselves before saying anything to anyone because they expect to not be believed or to be treated as a guilty party hiding something instead of a victim of a crime. Coupling that with the fact that perpetrators of sexual assault are adept at placing their shame onto the victim helps explain why victims often feel that saying nothing is the best way to protect themselves. When I asked myself why I didn’t participate in #MeToo, I followed the same line of questioning from that police officer. Why won’t I speak up? Is it because I’m hiding something? If I really was a victim, why wouldn’t join this movement to help other victims? Who am I really protecting with my passive actions?

How advocates can lift up the conversation

Although #MeToo and the Silence Breakers have, in effect, realized DV/SA advocates’ dreams of widespread awareness and conversation about sexual assault and harassment, such a movement should not come at the expense of marginalized communities or triggering victims and survivors. The responsibility of fostering integral, intersectional conversations about sexual assault should instead fall on advocates and service providers. We need to allow survivors space to tell their story without placing the burden of giving the movement legitimacy on them.

The core of this conversation is understanding and stopping sexual violence. The complexity of the issue requires more than light conversation; it requires an in-depth understanding of the intricacies and nuances of surviving sexual violence, and the ability to advocate progressively. Often times when survivors come forward with their stories of sexual assault, they are publicly rebuked by the accused, verbally attacked by strangers online, and/or labeled as liars under the guise of protecting the accused’s right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. This re-traumatizes survivors, who often withdraw from society, change details in their story in an effort to clarify or respond to the attacks, and/or rescind their story completely, in an effort to protect themselves.

The trauma caused by the sexual assault makes it difficult for survivors to report, disclose the incident, or participate in the criminal or civil legal system. Advocates working with sexual assault survivors know this. Placing the survivor at the center of our work as advocates means advocates acknowledge, address, and validate their trauma as much as possible while still understanding that same trauma is what drives our work. If we want to know what is really happening in our society around sexual assault, we have to address the complexities of trauma and its impact on survivors. As a society — from those reporting the issues to those investigating these crimes to those closest to the survivors — our responses to survivors have to change. We have to call out inappropriate responses to survivors and address the culture that allows people to commit acts of sexual violence with little to no punishment, while also acknowledging the complicated manifestations of trauma. When we accomplish this, we successfully develop #MeToo. Creating a movement that completely serves victims and survivors requires ensuring space for various marginalized communities to provide an intersectional lens, so we can all keep the conversations relevant and centered around the most vulnerable victims and survivors.

To learn more about myths and misconceptions about sexual assault in Latin@ communities, watch our webinar with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Engaging New Voices.

To see a great example of reporting and exploring the intricacies of sexual violence and trauma, read this article by Pro Publica and The Marshall Project.

To learn more about working with survivors to help them share their stories, check out NRCDV’s recent publication, From the Front of the Room: Sharing Your Childhood Story of Domestic Violence.

To learn more about how to encourage more Latino men and boys to take a more active role in fighting sexual assault and domestic violence, check out the bilingual campaign, Te Invito, at TeInvito.org.

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