What happens when women speak out?

The reality post- “me, too”, its emotional toll on women and the predictable “not all men”.

Full disclosure: I work with survivors of sexual assault. I present regularly on topics including sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape culture and causes of all of these. This may be somewhat incoherent as it is also personal.

Content Warning: Discussion re: sexual assault and harassment.

It hadn’t been the first time I had disclosed my sexual assault(s) in the public sphere. But it was the first time I had done it as part of a mass movement, to showcase the scale of the epidemic of sexual violence against women. Even before posting my “Me, too”, I had anticipated the response I would receive from the general public, and was not surprised that my assumptions were correct. Women, trans and non-binary folk were overwhelmingly supportive, particularly as I disclosed my past experiences, and as I admitted for the first time a series of sexual assaults I had experienced in local bars here in Salt Lake City, each of which happened in full public view. The response from men was, however, mixed.

Sexual Assault 101 — The Basics

One in six women in the USA will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. In my current home of Utah, USA, the number is even higher — one in every three women (what people don’t tell you, though, is that this is the reported statistic — it is estimated that approximately 89% of sexual assaults go unreported) . The average age of a woman to experience her first sexual assault is 14, with the youngest reported being 3 days old, and the oldest 97 years old. Overwhelming evidence and research shows that sexual assault is not a crime of attraction. It is based on power, privilege, entitlement and is absolutely a tool of the patriarchal society we live in. Let’s unpack this.

Growing up in the 1980s/1990s/2000s in urban Sydney, Australia, I had the privilege of attending a performing arts high school, where sex education was comprehensive, available to all and evidence-based. We learnt about contraceptive methods, digital/oral/penetrative sex and sexual assault, yet there was still a plethora of information on healthy sexuality, particularly the sexual gratification of women and the principles of enthusiastic consent, missing. Teachers were very comfortable educating us on male ejaculation as being the end-sum result of sex, “waiting for the right person to lose your virginity to” and “no means no”. But they were not as forthcoming regarding the female orgasm, the general sexual needs of women, coercive techniques used by men to pressure women into “consenting” to sexual acts and the male-centric focus of sexuality in society. What I mean by this is the constant social messages we are given as young women, essentially from birth, which prime us as tools for the male sexual gaze — “making yourself nice”, being polite and not arguing for fear of “causing trouble”, focusing on sexuality as being available for male gratification and pleasure and pitting women against one another in terms of attracting a male “mate” (and this is all with the assumption that one’s sexuality is heterosexual). All this time, males in society are given damaging messages of virility as being central to masculinity, they are being fed the notion of entitlement. Entitlement to an elevated position in society (above women, who are more meek, more polite, more agreeable, more weak), and entitlement to sexual gratification as desired as they get into their teen and developing years. They were taught to categorise women into “good ones” and “sluts”, and that these “sluts” were available to them as they needed. This social construction, plus so much more, leads to the statistics we reach regarding sexual violence towards women today.

“Me, Too” and Collective Impact

In the most recent incarnation of “Me, Too” (not forgetting that it was started 10 years ago by a Black woman, Tarana Burke — recognition and intersectionality being important), women were emboldened to disclose the sexual assault and harassment they have experienced in their lives. The narratives (or silence) were powerful, they were raw. For some, it was an opportunity to feel safe(r) in talking about the violation of their bodies and their being. Celebrities shared stories that they, too, were susceptible to being survivors of sexual abuse, despite their elevated status in society, for the mere fact that they were women.

For many others, it was a painful reminder of the abuse that they had tried so hard to push away — and this effect needs to be acknowledged. Conservatives and edge lords alike enjoy joking about “triggers” and people being “snowflakes”, but the evidence for Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) specific to sexual violence is overwhelming in its debilitating and devastating effects on a person’s ability to cope with everyday tasks after being provoked. While those of us who shared our stories of sexual assault were not doing it with the intent to hurt other survivors, the impact needs to be acknowledged, and apologised for.

Whether women spoke out or were silent on the issue, it still predictably spawned backlash in the form of posts and opinion pieces with the rhetoric of either “not all men!”, “men are overwhelmingly good!” and “men get assaulted, too!”. Because, naturally, women/trans/non-binary folx cannot have space for progress without it being co-opted by men, or the focus being taken off us and being directed towards issues being experienced by men, which are coincidentally never spoken about outside of this arena. What this does is act as a deflection, and take the responsibility away from men to address and correct this issue. Even without blatant victim-blaming, the subtle message this sends is that this is an issue for people who are the vast majority of sexual assault survivors (women), and it is on them to repair it, and the other problems addressed during these arguments.

Emotional Labor — Why Do We Even Need To Tell You This?

I strive for honesty in my life experiences for the purposes of therapeutic process (through writing), and also for others to not feel alone. Had I had someone tell me “me, too” when I was 16, I would not have felt as isolated, I would not have rushed to blame myself for the assault, I would not have buried it for 10 years. However, this is not universal. You are not owed mine, or anyone’s, story. When I work with survivors, I feel privileged that they invite me to hear their story, and to assist them in healing from their experiences. Being privy to somebody’s trauma should never be an expectation — nobody owes you this. The validity of someone’s experience does not hinge on them being willing to share their most painful experiences publicly. The path of healing is not prescriptive, nor is it linear, and healing does not always mean remembering or re-storying one’s experience.

This brings us to the burden of emotional labour that has come with sharing, or not sharing, one’s experience. With every message of “me, too” that I see, I see responses from men asking for either justification of the narrative — “what made it so bad?”, “this is your perception, what about the guy’s perception?”. I see requests for clarification and explanation, and to understand that “not all men are like this, and it’s unfair for you to put this on men”. I see people asking survivors how they can stop men from behaving this way. I see men rushing to say “not me!”, putting themselves up on a pedestal and demanding praise for the simple task of not having knowingly sexually assaulted someone. And as a society, we champion this kind of mediocrity. Men who speak out to simply say “sexual assault is wrong” are held to high esteem, and are considered the heroes of the fight against rape culture. However, the women who are doing the laborious work of disclosing their stories, defending their experiences, educating on rape culture and the sexual violence epidemic, explaining what everything means, shielding loved ones from the hurt they are feeling, and tending to the needs of men and others with internalised misogyny who feel “attacked” by the light being shone on rape culture and male entitlement continues to remain ignored and completely un-valued. This is also on top of the weight felt by the assault or harassment experienced by women, as well as any other issues that may be present. Understandably, people are left to feel emotionally and physically exhausted after this.

This leads us to ask the question — why do we have to lay ourselves out, to be vulnerable and at risk of being attacked, to be believed, or to show the magnitude of the issue? The statistics and research surrounding sexual assault and rape culture are not new, they have been circulating for years. Women have come forward for decades, documenting the abuse they have experienced. Women have been writing about their lived experiences for lifetimes. However, to be believed, and to make some men admit that “yes, generally, women are treated like shit”, we have had to expose ourselves to further pain, further trauma.

So…..What Can You Do?

It’s really very simple. Believe women. Believe people who tell you they have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. Reflect on your own past behaviour. Don’t distance yourself from the issue of male sexual violence against women, just because you don’t think you’ve ever done anything inappropriate in your life. I’ll let you in on a secret — you probably have, at one point. If you find that you have engaged in this behaviour, whether in the past or presently, don’t go asking for forgiveness. Make amends in your future behaviour. But it all starts with listening, it starts with believing, it starts with not minimising the experience, it starts with accepting that rape culture is real.