Trauma-informed reader response to the ill-informed article, “Publicly We Say #MeToo. Privately We Have Misgivings.”
I have wanted to write about the missing voices from the “me too” movement for a while now, but have not due to a host of reasons (lack of time, insecurity about my writing, fear of people’s responses, etc.) However, The New York Times Magazine contributing writer, Daphne Merkin, has expressed an opinion that likely is held by many, and it’s an opinion that I believe should not go without being appropriately challenged (read the article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/opinion/golden-globes-metoo.html). Aside from Merkins’ self-proclaimed sample size lacking all diversity aside from age, “The women I know — of all ages”, Merkin seems to lack any sort of a trauma informed opinion, which is an incredibly dangerous and ignorant thing to do when discussing such a traumatic topic. My intention for the rest of my response is to illustrate two things:
1. The host of female voices that are inherently missed in an internet-based movement.
2. The incredible necessity of understanding the neuroscience of trauma and abuse when discussing sexual assault, abuse and harassment.
While I appreciate Merkins’ right to free speech and I respect Merkins’ autonomy and ability as a writer, in my opinion she has both crossed and reaffirmed dangerous lines in this nation-wide discussion of, “is sexual assault really that bad?” The following response to her question is lengthy, but I view approaching the subject of trauma without careful nuance to be dangerously irresponsible.
The first point that I would like to make is that the title of the article (Publicly We Say #MeToo. Privately We have Misgivings) is unnecessary. We know people have misgivings about #metoo. That is precisely the point of the movement. Victims of sexual assault have known forever that society has misgivings about what has happened to them, or what the correct punishment should be for their perpetrator, or if society really wants to rid itself of the patriarchy, or if we are all just more comfortable keeping the patriarchy intact. You do not need to tell us you have misgivings, the movement would not exist if you did not.
The second point I would like to make is that the concerns you raise that cause you to have misgivings are so superficial in comparison to the hell that women are fighting against, it makes me wonder if you have any idea what you are talking about. If your biggest concern is that the future of flirting is in jeopardy, then maybe I can redirect your concern to the thousands of girls ages 0 to 18 that are being raped 20 to 30 times a night all over Southeast Asia. I wonder if that is more worthy of concern that a man “biting the bullet” in a bar.
Additionally, if your other biggest concern is that men are going to be wrongly accused and that we do not have correct “due process”, then maybe I can direct your attention to the tens of thousands of black American men who are currently serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. Maybe you could also consider the ways that the system is structured to have black men recommitted once they finally get out. Do not tell me you care about justice for men if you are not up in arms about how our justice system actively treats black men. I wonder if the very non-hypothetical situation we are currently in deserves as much attention as the still largely hypothetical situation you write about.
I want to move on to the dangers of only listening to opinions that are just like ours. I did about 30 seconds of research on Merkin and found out that she has a master’s degree and lives on the upper east side of Manhattan. I have no doubt that Merkin does in fact know women “of all ages”, but I would wonder who else she conferred with when writing her article. Were there women in a different socioeconomic class than her? What about women who were born with physical or mental disabilities? Were there women from different ethnicities, races, and cultural backgrounds? How about women who grew up in the foster care system? Did she talk to anyone who has spent any amount of time living in government funded housing, or using government issued food stamps? I wonder if she talked to any women who are homeless? Did she get the chance to talk to any women who are immigrants? What about women who suffer from mental illnesses? How about female immigrants who have not yet been able to become American citizens? What were the things she heard from women who do not identify as straight? Or women who were biologically born as men? I am just itching to know what she heard from these different kinds of women.
One of the biggest problems with the naysayers of #metoo, is that most of their opinions feel so white washed and upper class it’s almost sickening. I am highly doubting they are taking into consideration the tens of thousands of women outside of their own social bubble who they do not personally know. Women who are currently being sexually assaulted, torture or abused, who do not have access to the internet, aren’t yet verbally capable of writing on the internet, are not rich enough to access the internet, aren’t old enough to understand what is happening to them, etc. Maybe the all of the rich elite in our country need to consider all of the reality that their money protects them from. This movement has brought to light tens of thousands of women who have been abused, but because it is based on the Internet (a luxury of the owners of smart phones, computers and homes), it inherently looses out on tens of thousands more.
What about the women Merkin has not yet heard?
A few things about myself: I have a master’s degree in counseling, I have spent 1.5 years working as a counselor, I spent four months working with under aged girls who were rescued from the sex trade in Indonesia, I have worked with young girls in some form or another (camp counselor, dance teacher, volunteer, etc.) since I was 14 years old, and I am an incredibly good listener and a very safe space.
I share this because I have SEEN and I have HEARD and I have BEEN WITH and I have WEPT FOR woman after woman after WOMAN who has lived through hell and has somehow survived to tell about it.
It was a long time ago that I lost the luxury of not intimately knowing the details of women’s truth.
My work in counseling has brought me to a domestic violence resource center where my job was to provide therapy for victims of domestic violence. It also brought me to a community mental health center where my job was to provide counseling for our clients there. If I had about 5 minutes I am pretty sure I could make anyone vomit from the stories that I know and that I can’t forget. I have endless horrific anecdotes that I feel comfortable sharing like, “her father started raping her at age 4”, because the information does not even slightly allude to who I might specifically be talking about. I can say that I know women whose parents prostituted them for drug money when they were barely more than an infant, and that would not even give you a general location on the globe of where this women might be living. Hearing stories from the upbringing of a woman who is now “mentally ill” leaves me with no questions about why she has the symptoms she has. Hearing stories of what a woman’s road to homelessness was often leaves me with no questions of how it is she does not currently have housing. People have lived lives that most of us could not even begin to fathom, much less judge the outcome of.
Maybe Merkin needs to wonder how some of the following women might help her hear their stories: How would a homeless women log onto the Internet and compose a tweet ending in #metoo? How would a four year old conceptualize what is going on and post a Facebook status that says, “my father rapes me at night #metoo.” Why would a woman living under the constant threat of her abusive partner risk her life and her children’s lives to post an Instagram with the caption #metoo? What about the women who have died at the hands of their perpetrators, how do we suppose they will rise from their graves?
Think about whom it is that you haven’t heard from.
Merkin might argue that this wasn’t what she was talking about when she wrote her article, but the unfortunate thing is that this is exactly what she is talking about. This is what we all are talking about; it’s just that most people’s lives don’t touch these truths, so most people don’t think about it. Money creates a great buffer to all kinds of suffering. Poverty creates a great barrier to being listened to. It is the attitudes of the rich elite that set the tone for what is just and who receives justice in our society. I don’t think this is a fair or good distribution of power, but this is what actually happens.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that having access to money is a huge factor in a woman being able to access safety. If a woman is living in section 8 housing with her abusive partner and only knows people who are also living in section 8 housing who are also abusive, it might make sense why she chooses to stick with the abuse she already knows she can survive. Some women have never experienced a life that isn’t hell and don’t know that they have any kind of right to safety.
Getting off of that particular soapbox, I would like to move onto another one: trauma.
I am pretty sure that if Merkin had any grasp on the effects of trauma on the brain and body, she would be asking much different questions that the ones she currently ponders in her article. In this article she wonders, “What happened to women’s agency? That’s what I find myself wondering as I hear story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands.”
My guess is that Merkins has no idea how horrifying, insulting and ignorant her question truly is. Aside from the horror that happens to women ages 0 to 18, lets discuss some possible answers to what has “happened to [adult] women’s agency.”
The first thing I would like to pose to Merkins is this: The majority of the adult women that I work with STARTED being raped or molested at an incredibly young age. Maybe the women who couldn’t “say no” were no stranger to abuse, and maybe there are good reasons why they froze. There isn’t a switch that goes off in a women’s brain that at age 19 that undoes all of the physical, psychological, and neurological damage that abuse does to a human person. Most likely that woman learned a way to escape her body or shut down, and most likely her brain has maintained those neural pathways into adulthood. When is the last time you tried to rewire your brain in a moment of panic? This question is obviously stupid because no one can, but I ask it because it seems like this is what Merkin expects a woman under threat to do. When the human brain and body perceive danger, the reasoning center of the brain goes off line (the prefrontal cortex) and we instead become directed by the amygdala, which is part of the autonomic nervous system. Maybe you’ve heard of fight or flight? Resent years of research have proven there is actually a third option our brain might choose, which is to freeze. When someone is terrified their brain takes over and they unwillingly go into either fight, flight or freeze. If a woman freezes when she feels terrified about what a man might do to her (a substantiated feeling based off of either her experiences or the experiences of millions of women), it is very likely because of an automatic brain response, not carefully deduced logic. If you want to read an incredible book on this, I would recommend The Body Keeps the Score, written by Bessel van der Kolk, who is the leading trauma researcher in the United States. He might illuminate a few things for you.
Even if a person doesn’t understand the biology of trauma, I think we can agree that Merkins’ paragraph on “why don’t women just say no” is at best arrogant and at worst the exact kind of thinking that keeps the patriarchy in power and children being bought and sold around the world for access to their bodies. It is clear that there are many different kinds of shoes that Merkin has not walked a mile in.
Here are some situations that adult women frequently find themselves in that Merkin might want to muster up some compassion for: What about the women whose husband will beat her or beat their children if she refuses to have sex with him? What about the thousands of homeless women who have to decide every night between shooting up heroine to stay awake, or knowing that if they choose to sleep they will wake up to being gang raped? What about the women whose family member is molesting them every night and threatening to kill them if they tell? What about the women with disabilities who live in care facilities where they are regularly molested or raped? What about all of the women whose locks on their doors have been removed so they cannot stop a man from coming in every night and raping them? What about the women who are abducted all over the world, beaten senseless, gang raped to the point of exhaustion or near death, forcibly addicted to drugs, all for the sake of making them compliant with their new role as a prostitute? What about the women who have died at the hands of their sexual abuser? What about the women who do not yet have “legal status” in the US whose partner knows she cannot speak up about her abuse or else she will get deported and risk leaving her abusive partner to care for her children?
I am not sure “agency” has anything to do with these situations. Unaddressed trauma biologically removes the option of someone simply saying, “I’m not interested.”
This is why #metoo is not an overreaction. Arguably it’s an under reaction. It is just SO HARD to talk about all of the very real sexual violence that is happening all over the planet.
Unfortunately, responses like Merkins’ do little more than expose how deep into our hearts the patriarchy has reached. It is astonishing to me how uncomfortable the general public is with men receiving consequences for their own actions. To me, the way that men and women alike have rushed to the defense of men makes me ask the questions, “how far are we from truly believing that women are humans, and what would it look like if the world truly believed that women are human beings?” At the moment it seems like we settle for bare minimum behavior from men.
There is one point on which I agree with Merkin. I agree with her when she says, “We need a broader and more thoroughgoing overhaul, one that begins with the way we bring up our sons and daughters.” This is right on. What if our sons believed that women are humans and what if our daughters believed that women are humans too? What if we focused more energy on teaching the skills of listening, compassion and generosity for others instead of using their downfalls for our own gain? What if the rich members of our country were to be less afraid of loosing their status and power, and became courageous enough to do the things that might actually help those in need?
I would like to pose one more question that I think is an underlying theme to what I have written here, “what if we considered those who are commonly viewed as a burden to society (the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the lesser abled) to be human too?” I ask the question because I don’t think that we currently view these people as humans. If we REALLY believed they were just as worthy as us, I think we would feel that the #metoo movement is a wonderful start but it’s still hardly enough. And we would work tirelessly to see justice, safety and value brought to all people everywhere.
Finally, to Merkin directly, I value the platform that you’ve given me to respond to your opinion, but from here on out do not ever refer to the unfathomably resilient women that I work with as “frail as Victorian housewives” ever again.