There’s been a hashtag spreading on facebook, asking all people who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault to post #metoo, as in, “I have also been a victim of sexual harassment and assault.” It’s a demonstration of solidarity with our fellow victims, in hopes that others who have been lucky enough to avoid it start to see how prevalent the problem of gender-based violence is. The problem is that this puts the onus on survivors to describe the problem and contributes to the re-traumatization that is unfortunately process in survivors’ lives.
When I was scrolling through facebook yesterday, seeing that so many people in my life had been affected by gendered violence, I felt a twinge of shock and horror every time I saw the hashtag. It made me deeply disappointed in the world that these beautiful, strong people had to see the worst in humanity and all I wanted to do was reach out through my computer and give everyone a hug. Eventually, after a few hours of lying catatonic on the couch, illuminated by the blue light of my nightmare rectangle, I wondered why I felt that like my brain had just run a marathon. I realized that I wasn’t sympathizing with my fellow victims, but that I was empathizing, and that with each hashtag that popped up, I was re-living my own trauma. It’s a necessary and natural process of emotional labour that I’m happy to expend for my loved ones, but I couldn’t help but to feel like this labour wasn’t helping anyone. All it was doing was making me feel guilty for not posting a status of my own, and draining me of energy that I desperately needed to be able to care for myself. And I feel like this isn’t the point of a hashtag aimed at helping survivors.
Another part of this that I don’t even want to talk about, but that I have to acknowledge, is that different experiences produce different traumas. Every individual incident of assault is a little bit different, and each survivor is different. With that being said, it seems a little counterintuitive to have a hashtag that subsumes acts that differ in how violent they are, despite having the same cultural root. I don’t mean to invalidate anyone’s experience of sexual harassment or assault, or how they process their trauma. I just wonder why survivors of intimate partner violence are suddenly being called upon to share their immense trauma, possibly interrupt or set back their process of healing, and put in more emotional labour than those who have (thankfully) not experienced the same degree of violence. Sexual harassment is horrific and deeply unsettling, but something about sexual assault and rape is different. When I’m sexually harassed, my walls are already up. When I was assaulted, my walls were down and that made me feel so much more violated that I can’t even begin to compare the two experiences. I wouldn’t hesitate to talk about how I had been sexually and racially harassed in the past, but it’s more personal to share the story of when I was an inch away from being raped, and I don’t like that this hashtag movement assumes that people who have different traumas are all equally comfortable talking about it.
For all of the survivors that couldn’t post a hashtag, I see you. I feel you. I understand your guilt, and I lived it too. Hell, I wrote a bunch of words because my guilt was eating me up. And I will never stop using my privilege to speak up on behalf of all survivors because the ones who cannot raise their voices are the ones that need our care and support the most.
I realize and acknowledge that the creators of the movement had the best intentions, and that they could not have imagined the negative ramifications that this might have on survivors of very recent, violent traumas, or survivors who might not be ready to talk about it. And that’s okay. Ultimately, the hashtag isn’t for survivors — it’s for the nice guys in our lives to see how prevalent the problem is, if they didn’t already know, and to finally commit to doing something about it. Survivors are already very aware of the impact of sexual violence on our lives. We don’t get to live without our traumas, and we don’t get to put aside the flashbacks that we get every time the topic of sexual assault comes up in our newsfeeds. This hashtag is for everyone that’s been living with their heads in the sand, happily ignoring the fact that we live in a society that condones and celebrates violence against women, in all forms. And this is your call to wake up, reprimand your fellow men, and believe survivors if they gather the immense amount of energy and bravery needed to come forward.
And at the end of the day, it’s a hashtag. It will fade from our collective consciousnesses in a few weeks, and maybe surface when sexual assault comes up again. But this is how movements move forward, baby step by baby step, and I’m proud of myself for being able to say, #metoo .