We say, they have been violating us for as long as we can remember, that it’s about time that they, the monsters, were publicly called to account, perhaps even named and shamed. We say that by our visibility and solidarity we are strong. The battle lines are drawn, the anger is righteous and palpable; a vanguard of brave women raises their hands, “ME TOO!” — We’re done with compartmentalizing assault and harassment to get through the day, we’re done with being survivors of a pervasive violence that has left its marks on our bodies. We are many, and there is affirmation and courage in our sisterhood.
But the likes and the sad-faced icons are not there in the recesses of my mind when I’m forced to confront violent flashbacks I thought I’d buried. I don’t understand how or why this has tapped into those parts of me that I have long learned to ignore, or told myself I could surpass. Perhaps because my disclosure, my vulnerability, is required to make my participation in this part of the battle authentic. There is a formula to the disclosure, unspoken rules for sharing, even if one diverts away from the cut and paste instructions accompanying the hashtag.
I read the stories of women who have experienced horrors and their bravery astounds me, but I’m scared that if I allow my own experiences to take center stage, even for a moment, they will consume me. I visibly bristle, okay with discussing the prevalence of patriarchy, the support available to survivors of sexual violence, the dangers of the internet as an echo chamber of false securities, and broadening the conversation to recognize sexual violence beyond that of men as aggressors and women as survivors. I avoid eye contact and draw prickly ninja hedgehogs at night instead of sleeping, because that is when the dreams come back, uninvited.
Was this widespread visibility what Tarana Burke had in mind when she envisaged MeToo as a grassroots solidarity campaign, predominantly for women of color in Harlem? Did she ever imagine it would be taken up globally on this scale?
We don’t necessarily see the number of people who’ve reached out offline to those who’ve shared their stories, nor do we see the extent of the negative reactions survivors have to grapple with after their disclosure — inappropriate responses, protective or apologetic promises, or worse, a backlash from family, friends or past aggressors. What about those among us who have experienced sexual violence from people who don’t fit the stereotype of the alpha male harasser, or who isn’t anonymous or random, from a family member, colleague or partner? New vulnerabilities can be created in such instances, when the perpetrator is a “friend” or “follower” and feels entitled to push for some kind of reconciliation.
I can’t articulate some of my own experiences of sexual violence, apart from arbitrary catcalls from assholes on the street. Anyway, I decided a long time ago that I would not allow my story to dictate my life, or to dominate my intimate relationships. And I’m tired of having to deal with other people’s responses. “We’re sorry this happened to you,” they say. “We should have protected you,” they offer. And I’m angry, not really even at them, at me, and that doesn’t fit this proscribed campaign of righteous anger. Because I know that at times it felt easier to go along with it, to zone out, to explain it away.
My female allies feel like distant whispers as I leave the house of a friend in Abdeen and am surrounded by a crowd of young guys on bikes making comments about what they’d like to do to me. I pause, and decide to become the ninja for a moment. I reach behind my back to an imaginary holster, grab an imaginary arrow, pull back my imaginary bow and fire. They laugh, nervously and drive off, and for a moment my odd reaction has shielded me. But even this minor aggression plays over in my head as I try to sleep. It was somehow easier when I had kind of just accepted that this would always be, justifying my lack of response by a desire to not let it take away more of my energy than absolutely necessary. Or maybe this disappearing from myself and zoning out, the fantasy world I have created, where female hedgehogs have weapons and fight back, is how I deal.
I marvel at the strength of the women in the stories on my computer screen who say we’ll make lists of those who’ve violated us, post the pictures of their abuse and out them publicly. And though this may, possibly, make a few of them think a bit harder before they violate us, they will likely never be convicted and may even come back for revenge.
Thousands of us have said #MeToo, cried our hearts out, or lie awake at night reliving the violence. Are any of our aggressors doing similarly? It takes a tremendous amount of courage and risk to post about personal sexual trauma, and I have a huge amount of admiration for those who do. But, there are also many of us who cannot.
This is the first piece in a series of commissioned reflections on MeToo as a campaign. If you would like to contribute your analysis of, or response to, the campaign and its impact, please inbox us on Facebook.