What About All The People Who Can’t, or Won’t, Say #MeToo?
There are so many of them, and so many reasons — and they mostly don’t mean someone hasn’t experienced sexual harassment, abuse, or assault.
Since I started writing this series discussing the #MeToo hashtag and the conversations it has launched this week, I’ve heard from lots of people who, for various reasons, are not participating in the whole thing. Some of their reasons are things I would have guessed, but some of them I really didn’t see coming, and they’ve really caused me to see some new perspectives. So let’s talk about few of them. This list is by no means exhaustive — there are as many reasons not to say “Me too” as there are to say it, and most of them are deeply, intensely personal.
Before we go any futher, a quick point of order: By no means do I think any individual is obligated to share anything whatsoever. If you can’t say Me Too, I’m not judging you for that. But if you’ve been on the fence for any of these reasons, I hope my responses give you something to ponder; and if you’ve been wondering why some people who you know are survivors aren’t speaking up, I hope this gives you some perspective on a few of the hard reasons why people might be staying silent.
I also want to say, in case it isn’t obvious: we’re talking about some triggering and challenging stuff here. I’ve been trying to make sure I use the #MeToo hashtag for all of it so that people who really don’t have it in them to see and read this stuff can readily choose not to. But this article is likely to contain particularly button-pushing stuff.
Buckle up. Here we go.
“This isn’t about me because I’m not a woman. I’m a sexual assault survivor, but I feel like it’s more important to direct awareness to how serious this problem is for women.”
I can see that, and I can also respect it. In fact, I can and do respect anybody and everyone for making their own individual choices about whether or not to participate in the whole Me Too thing.
Myself personally, though, even while I can understand and respect this choice, I can’t agree with it; it doesn’t make sense to me to say we want to get a sense of the magnitude and scope of the problem of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse — and then limit the scope of who should be standing up to say they’ve experienced it.
“I don’t want to accidentally talk over women or derail their discussions.”
Okay. I can see this one, too. But I’m afraid my response is: look, at some point, you’re gonna have to get out there and learn how to have conversations with women without doing those things. If you can’t do that, it’s never going to matter how many women stand up and speak out; nothing will ever change. And whether you mean to or not, you’ll still be buying into and perpetuating a lot of really old cultural baggage that keeps women marginalized. We need you to get out there and learn to engage constructively. We need you to practice doing it. Yes, you’re probably going to suck at it in the beginning — that’s the way it is with anything you’re just learning to do. But all it takes is practice. If it’s a priority for you to be able to engage productively with women, start doing it. You’ll get better at it in time. Pro tip: the fast track to leveling up in this arena involves periodic shutting up and listening.
“I’m not sure if what happened to me really counts. I don’t want to talk about my experiences because I’m afraid they’ll minimize the experiences of people who have been through far worse.”
That’s a tough one, and I can relate; I felt very similarly myself, for a long time, even about one specific incident in which an adult man held a knife to my throat and said, “You’re going to do whatever I tell you to, like a good girl, aren’t you?” I was 11 years old. And he was right; I absolutely did whatever he told me to. I was compliant. So, I told myself, it didn’t count. He left no visible wounds on my body. And, I mean, I said okay.
By my middle teens, I had concluded that it did count. But by then I’d watched what happened to women and girls who came forward and talked about stuff like this. I had heard my own family and friends say all kinds of judgmental shit about girls who let themselves get raped, about girls who didn’t manage to avoid it, about girls who were never the same and let the experience ruin their lives (so sad). So it counted. But it was a secret, a shameful one. And the decision to hide it when it first happened? That decision was forever, I figured.
By my late teens I did talk about it. I was beginning to find some catharsis in going to survivor groups and talking about it with others. And then one day, in such a group, someone blew up at me. She threw at me every single thing I had ever said to myself, minimizing the experience so I could just keep going. Things like “You weren’t even injured. They broke my collarbone and sprained my ankle. I was covered in bruises and scrapes. I was screaming no, no no, and it didn’t stop. You didn’t even try to say no. You didn’t fight back. You just did what he said to. I would have rather died.”
It took me a long time to come to grips with that; to find a way to hold space for both me and this woman who had suffered direct and concrete violence while I had suffered threat and coercion. And when I started telling this story to other people — the one about how, yeah, I really shouldn’t put myself in the same category as someone who’d been dragged down and alley by multiple assailants and brutalized more directly and obviously — some of those folks said “Geeze, I dunno, I mean, it’s not like anyone had a knife at my throat.”
There is always someone who’s had it worse. There’s always someone who’s had it better, or at least, not as bad. And it’s a natural tendency, in looking at the hardships you’ve been through, to want to put them in the context of all the hardships anyone could go through, or has been through. Sometimes it’s comforting, like when I can tell myself it’s a shit day because I’m at the emergency room with my husband who just had a heart attack, but at least he didn’t have it in the middle of the night and die so I woke up next to his dead body. Okay, maybe that’s a weird definition of comforting, but then again, weird mental dances — that’s trauma for you. That’s how you survive. And my point is, it’s not a contest.
Mostly it’s not a contest because nothing in this involves winning. It’s all about losing, but continuing along anyway. But it’s also not a contest because there’s really no way to judge it; no way to award bonus points for bruises and detract style points for having pissed your pants.
As to the fellow survivor of a much more brutal assault than any I ever withstood, and her harshness towards me? That wasn’t actually about me. It was about her, and where she was at on her journey, and what she needed in order to just keep going. It took me a long time to understand that, and oddly enough, what made me begin to understand it was the time when I snapped at a housemate who I felt was bringing up her sexual assault all the time as an excuse. “You don’t understand!” she yelled at me one time, “I’ve been raped!” And I yelled back, “So what? Who hasn’t? And yet, most of us manage to handle the dishes when it’s our turn!” Our other housemates gaped at me in horror — rightfully so.
Part of what I think is so powerful about #MeToo is that you don’t have to go over all of that. You don’t have to get into details. You don’t have to tell your stories. I say “stories,” because who among us has only one? Who among us can only count them among single digits?
“No, really. I mean I’ve been catcalled a few times, and I’ve been in situations that were arguably sexual where I didn’t feel comfortable, and I’ve had some sex I don’t feel great about having had, but no, I’ve never even been groped in a bar. Maybe it’s because I’m not attractive.”
Oh man, this one pushed all my buttons. Like, all of them. I wanted to jump in there and say “I think you’re minimizing what happened to you,” or “Sexual situations where you’re not comfortable and things keep going DO count,” or all kinds of things, but it didn’t seem like any kind of good idea to do that. I would have responded if someone had addressed such a comment to me — but I can’t make myself try to convince someone to recontextualize their world view about themselves on this one.
But I read the comments, and I gave ’em some real serious consideration. I’m still sitting with some of them, thinking about them, thinking about the larger picture. Like what to do with the commenter who said all this me-tooing felt like bragging to her. For now, I mentally put her comments in the same box with the people who say talking about having been sexually assaulted is just attention-seeking. Why do I have that box at all, you may ask? Well, it’s so that I can set such comments and thought processes aside, instead of internalizing them and making them about me. I only open up that box and look at it and think about it when I’m feeling strong enough.
After that knife at my throat thing, I thought maybe it was because people said I was pretty. Maybe I’d be safe if I wasn’t; if I was weird-looking, if I practiced dubious hygiene, whatever. I wanted that to be true. It just wasn’t.
But it’s also true that if you aren’t conventionally attractive, what you get hit with is usually different. I’ve spent some time being fat; that’s a whole ‘nother crop of bizarre sexually oppressive stuff that comes at you.
Again, surviving and getting on with one’s life in a world that is constantly filled with all these conflicting messages about value, worth, and who is believable? It can require each and every one of us to come up with our own inner narrative that we must believe just to keep going.
Part of what’s challenging about #MeToo is that it makes it hard to keep those walls and fictions intact. It makes it hard to maintain the facades we have to maintain so that we don’t think the world is a deadly, dangerous, terrifying place.
But, sincerely, some people really don’t have a story that makes them feel like they can say “me too.” And I would say, if they identify as anything other than a financially secure white cishet man, they’re lucky. That’s all — lucky. And if that’s you, please know I don’t grudge you your luck. But I really hope you won’t take that luck and turn it on yourself and use it to treat yourself like shit for not being hot enough to get raped. I hope you will instead try to reinforce in your own mind the narrative that you’ve been fortunate — that it is a good thing not to have suffered this type of thing.
“I’m not playing this game. This is going to be yet another one of these typical white feminist bandwagons, and where have all these Beckys been while we women of color have been out here for ages and ages saying all this same stuff? Dang, I mean, people are even giving credit for this to a white actress when the whole movement was actually started a decade ago by black woman activist Tarana Burke. I’m not participating in this erasure of black women’s heavy lifting on this front.”
Yeah, I hear this too, and I’m right there with you because it is pretty glaringly obvious how often white women don’t notice what’s going on until it affects one of our number. It’s pretty cringeworthy. And I’m sorry. Which isn’t enough. So just like many are asking men to do regarding this hashtag, I want to tell you that I have some concrete actions I’m trying to always put in play on this front: boost signals for women of color, engage with white women and call them on their failings even when they’re well-intentioned, and be ready and willing to listen and be schooled myself when I miss the mark. And no, I don’t need a cookie for that.
“I can’t talk about my sexual assault in this crowd. This crowd reminds me of the straight cishet woman who grabbed me in the public bathroom, shoved me against the wall, and ripped off some of my clothes to make sure I wasn’t hiding any genital secrets that meant she thought I didn’t belong in that bathroom.”
It might surprise readers to know that this same scenario has happened to more than one person I know. Like, it’s happened to enough people I know that I have found myself wondering: is there some right wing radicalization organization that is teaching its cishet white women to do this systematically? I can’t go look; I can’t want to know the answer to that question. The past couple of years have been brutal on this front. And we spend a lot of time saying things like “I’ll go with you,” but what does that even mean? And how comforting is it as a thought, really? Like, would I have been comforted if a knife-wielding man with a tendency to leer at my ass said he’d protect me from… who? Other men who appear to be just like him? I don’t think so.
And sadly, this one, where I’ve seen it discussed, has not always been well-received by cisgender heterosexual women — including those who have publicly said “me too.” I have even seen, alas, some discussions where someone talking about their experience along these specific lines has been told it doesn’t count, and to please stop diluting the attention that should be directed towards sexual assault as a women’s problem.
And to that I say: so, how are we defining “woman,” then? And why should sexual assault play into that? What benefit do we gain from not recognizing that the same system which all but guarantees that women will experience sexual violence makes the same guarantee to just about every identity that isn’t within a narrow range of masculine presentation? And that it’s the same system that keeps so many men locked into rape culture?
This one’s particularly hard for me because of facts. Those facts: sexual assault is more commonly committed against transgender people than any other single demographic. Put another way, more anecdotally, I know lots of people. Every single trans person I know can say “me too.” Every. Single. One.
“What’s the point? It’s not like anybody actually cares.”
There is no response I can give to this except: I see you. You are not alone. And you’re right: sometimes, for all intents and purposes, it really is like nobody cares. I have been there. I’ll probably be there again, in that headspace. And the best thing I can tell you is: YOU care. And that’s your right. Don’t let anybody shut you down on that. You’re not alone. That’s what attackers want you to think. It isn’t true.
“I refuse to say these two words. I refuse to be, as a survivor, once again the person who is supposed to stand up and rip open old wounds to prove there’s a problem. We know there’s a problem. We know what it is. Hold assaulters accountable. Take stands. Push this back on who should be carrying it, and off the shoulders of those who have already suffered for it.”
I don’t blame you at all. This week has eaten my life, and it’s only… is it Thursday? I guess it’s Thursday. Surviving the swath of different things I’ve survived, that fall under the general heading of sexual assault, harassment, or abuse? It’s cost me a hundred times, in hours spent thinking and talking about it and striving to heal, the time it took to actually withstand the assaults and whatever. And that’s not even counting all the skills I’ve learned, all the things I’ve tried, all the routines I’ve developed, to make it possible to just walk in the world without being consumed by hurt and rage and fear.
You, my fellow survivor, don’t owe me, or the world, jack shit. You don’t.
“There’s no way I can say me too. If I did, my husband would want to know who it was, and when, and he’d want to do something about it.”
also seen as,
“There’s no way I can say me too; my parents don’t know and if they found out they’d make me marry him and kick me out of the house if I refused, even though I’m only 15 and don’t have my work permit yet, and there’s nowhere I could go.”
also seen as
“Oh god, I can’t tell; it was my cousin, and my friends are all ‘that’s hot,’ and it really wasn’t. And I don’t actually want to ruin her life.”
also seen as
“I tried to tell. My mom said I was lying when I told her what her dad did. I think he did it to her too. I think everyone knows. I just have to keep my head down till I can get out of here.”
For so many of us, the horror that would come from it being known that we’re survivors seems far, far worse than the horror that is living with it in secret. And oh boy, do I ever get this. I mean, I didn’t tell my parents because I thought they would blame themselves. And they would have. Who wouldn’t, upon hearing such news from your prepubescent kid?
It is not at all uncommon for survivors to rationally and sanely conclude that the best path forward is for them — us — to just eat it. To pretend it never happened. It’s better than tearing the family apart. It’s better than breaking the hearts of those who thought they could protect you. It’s better than having to go through the “but then what happened?” gauntlet. It’s better than not being believed.
But there’s another level of nuance here for the people whose attackers, abusers, and harassers are relatives or family friends. I mean, first, we should probably make a quick mention of the fact that most people are raped by someone they know — not by strangers. So this is actually a really large percentage of survivors.
So picture this: you’re a non-income-earning parent of multiple children. Your assaulter is your spouse, who is also your sole source of revenue. You live in a state where legally, nothing your spouse does to you can be considered rape; they have the right to do it. You don’t have a bank account. You don’t own the car. You’ve never been further than the next county over and that was only once or twice. Everyone knows you and your spouse. You don’t even have a high school diploma because you dropped out when you found out you were pregnant the first time in 10th grade. Where are you gonna go? Can you take the kids? No, he’ll come after you for kidnapping. If he doesn’t just shoot you on the way out the door, like he’s threatened to before.
It’s not that it’s easy to say “me too” if you’re a financially secure person with a source of your own income and the means to get a long way from your assaulter. It’s that it’s essentially impossible to say “me too” if you’re in a situation like I just described.
What I’m getting at here is this: the “Me too” posts I’ve seen in my circles? They’ve mostly been from people who, like me, have the privilege to be a long way from their assaulters, never see them again, and so on. It would be easy to conclude this means “the scope and magnitude of the problem” is that it’s more prevalent in higher-income, higher-education populations. But that’s not true. It’s just safer for us to come forward.
One last point on this: I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of people share “Rules for dating my daughter” type memes suggesting that if you and said daughter were to engage in consensual sex, even, this guy’ll come after you with his shotgun and you’ll be sorry. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’m not going to do it in this piece — but I am going to observe that it is people living in that cultural continuum who seem the most afraid to say “me too.” And I don’t think they’re wrong to be afraid. Honestly, there’s probably enough in this dynamic alone to keep us talking for months — assuming we can stand spending months talking in depth about sexual assault, harrassment, and abuse.
And that brings me to the last point for today:
“I can’t say Me Too. Hell, I can’t even read all this me too stuff. I can’t. I can’t take it. Every word of this, all this attention, all it’s doing is forcing me to relive my own experiences of being assaulted, over and over, again and again, and right now, it feels like there’s no escape. I’m glad that apparently some people are really getting something out of this, because I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
Yeah. Wow. I hear this. I hear this loud and clear. I’ve been there too. I have no doubt I’ll be there again. Writing this series — and I’m not even done — is some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done. It’s fatiguing in every way a thing can be fatiguing, which is crazy, because it’s not like I’m digging ditches or roofing a house or whatever, but man, is it ever fatiguing.
If this is you — if you just can’t take it right now — well, okay, then you’re probably not reading this because I’ve been trying to make sure I keep the #MeToo tagging obvious and I’m making it as straightforward as I can for you to be able to push this to the side and compartmentalize and continue dealing — but anyway, yeah. If this is you, and you’re reading it against your better judgment, please know that I see you, too. And I’m holding space for you. There’s no way this is the last time we’ll go down this whole crazy road of talking about this stuff. Some one of those days, you may be the one with the cycles and strength to do the hard talking, and I may be the one in the basement with the shades drawn and notifications off on everything, binge-reading my favorite escapist space opera.
You don’t ever have to say these two words. You don’t owe anybody anything.
Abby Franquemont is a writer and speaker who lives in Southwest Ohio with her family and more than enough cats to field a basketball team.