#MeToo is the latest example of hashtag activism. Following Weinstein-gate, social media exploded with mostly women survivors disclosing their victimization online.
The “me too” campaign went viral and caught many people by surprise.
But sexual assault, like domestic violence, is nothing new. Both are national and global epidemics. Were people simply unaware of the magnitude and scope? Were men oblivious to the experiences of women in their lives, the constant battle fatigue of fending off unwanted advances and sexual harm? Have we become so inured to the mundanity of victimization that it took a dethroned movie mogul to snap us out of it?
Well, yes, in part. But there’s more.
When women do speak out, we are often not believed. And women have not been believed for a very long time, like since the Pliocene.
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Worse, victims are blamed for what happened to them. Perhaps they were wearing the wrong clothes, or behaving in an inappropriately enticing way. Like walking on the street in broad daylight. Or maybe they were someplace they should not have been, like a friend’s bedroom or a bar.
As our Facebook feeds lit up with #MeToo, we were gratified to see so many compassionate responses. But there were other reactions, too. Some commentators questioned the value of hashtag activism to effect real change. Others posted to reassure women they do not have to disclose. A few wrote to set the record straight on #MeToo’s origins in black feminism.
But some “feminists,” including fashion designer Donna Karan, defended mogul Harvey Weinstein. And others engaged in the worst kind of victim-blaming, suggesting that what women wear and how they behave are key to understanding why they become victims. Karan subsequently apologized.
The lesson here is to choose your words carefully if someone trusts you with their story. Your shock does not excuse victim blaming.
As both survivors and advocates, here are some things we want you to know:
Sexual assault is happening all the time, to somebody, somewhere, all over the world. And somebody, somewhere is doing the assaulting. Those who are most disadvantaged and unequal in society are most likely to be victimized. And those with more power are more likely to victimize. This is largely about men victimizing women, but anybody can be harassed and raped and murdered because of their gender.
Those who commit such acts know how to shame, blame and manipulate, too. On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good. The process of leaving an abuser can be arduous, frightening, dangerous and confusing. Support of the victim is crucial and needs to be unwavering.
Even if sexual assault or relationship violence has never happened to you, it is still real. If the #MeToo conversation is triggering and brings you pain, you should not blame victims.
If you do not know what to say to a victim, then listen as carefully as you can and affirm you believe them and that it’s not their fault. Do not ask what they were wearing or why they were in a certain place at a certain time or why they didn’t fight back or any of the other questions people ask survivors.
Stop with the daily micro-aggressions that perpetuate the notion that women do not know what we are talking about. No mansplaining and no more labels. Women who disclose are not man-haters or shills or liars or “femi-Nazis” or any of the other misogynist terms used to coerce us into silence.
Edna Meza Aguirre, JD, CFRE, is a bilingual and bicultural first-generation Tucsonan. She is a 2016 Public Voices Fellow. Monica J. Casper, Ph.D., is an award-winning sociologist and writer.