Viral Activism: Psychologists’ Reactions to the #MeToo Movement
By Dr. Kristin Daley & Dr. Rachel Kitson
By now, most know the backstory on the two word phrase populating social media over the past weeks. Its origin goes back ten years ago, when Tarana Burke coined “#MeToo” after poignantly recognizing the pervasiveness of the issue, and her lack of words to empathize and support the victims. She relied on the simplicity of the statement to open discussion and create a safe space for community and activism. Initially, she was hoping to empower young women of color who survived sexual assault or trauma by giving them a way to be validated and freedom from having to disclose more than they were comfortable doing.
As of late, Burke has stated she is proud to see it’s resurgence as a movement, following Alyssa Milano’s tweet to raise awareness for the magnitude of the problem for anyone who has experienced sexual or gender-based assault or harassment. Milano has described her motivation to reignite the phrase as a way of reducing shame and isolation for survivors, as well as to acknowledge and bring awareness to the atrocity so so so so many have faced.
Given the magnitude of the movement, two of our clinicians (Doctors Kristin Daley and Rachel Kitson) who have experience working with victims of sexual trauma were interviewed regarding their reactions and thoughts on the #MeToo outbreak.
What was your initial reaction to seeing the increase in popularity in the #MeToo movement?
Dr. Rachel Kitson – I think I was slow to pick up on it as a movement. I’m not very prolific on or attached to my social media accounts, and my husband (who I thought was even less social media oriented than me) was actually the first person to draw my attention to it. He noticed his mother had posted “me too” and filled me in on how the phrase was being used/co-opted. I encouraged him to ask his mother about it, as he had been unaware of her experience. I figured that was maybe what part of the movement was about—starting a dialogue? But I guess my first reaction was actually a little negative.
I wondered “What woman can’t share a “#MeToo?’”– which I know is part of the problem.
After perusing my own social media account and seeing all of the “#MeToo’s,” I admit I felt a little irked. I think it had to do with the simple acknowledgment of having faced some sort of sexual harassment or assault felt too vague and not proactive enough. It felt a little vaguely hostile as well– people cryptically referenced their perps… and a bit like an attack on men in general in some cases. I guess I didn’t know what to do with “it” at first, and that bothered me. I work with these people who have been victims, and I want them to have a space to talk.
I also want it to be known that this is a problem, but something about the forum was distressing to me: how were these people who were coming out about their trauma doing in the wake of self-disclosure? My hope was it was empowering, but something about it seemed slightly reckless, at least at first blush…
Dr. Kristin Daley – I happened to check Facebook and saw that a dear friend had posted the statement, “#MeToo” and the description as to why she was posting.
My gut reaction was sadness for what this friend must have gone through, and also some sense of reverence for the challenges many women face. As the status updates appeared more and more frequently, I found myself feeling that it was overwhelming to realize how many of my friends and family had not only been through sexual abuse but also were brave enough to share it openly. After a couple of days, I realized that I pretty much felt that every woman had been through some type of experience, and the cumulative impact those experiences have on our sexual identity.
Did you have something to share, and if so did you?
KD – My first impulse when I saw the posts were that I wanted to create a post of my own. Yes, I have been through these experiences, but the challenge is that it is not something I would ever want to discuss in a public forum. Because I am impulsive, I found myself composing the post before I thought through what it would be like to be so open about something that is so private. I also thought about the people in my life who can see what I put out on social media, and didn’t necessarily want to feel open to discussing these experiences with all of those people.
In particular, I have a son who has recently entered the world of social media, and I don’t want him to have to view me in that light. I do plan to discuss these issues with him, and already have to some extent, but I also want to protect his version of me as a mom, a very benign and sexless character. I decided to inhibit the impulse.
RK – I have a son too, but a toddler—but even so, I definitely also thought about how my audience might respond to me sharing. So I stewed on it for a day or so, reflecting on the fact that I TOO had been a “victim” in at least one blatant assault and many many other questionably insidious forms of harassment…and I started to get pissed off. Most of my social media contacts are white and privileged people, and there were very very few active contributors who weren’t also acknowledging their “me too” status… which just reaffirms the sickening pervasiveness of the problem. But I toiled with how to share my status.
I felt horrible for all of us who have been aggressively targeted due to our sex or gender identity, but also a sadness for the men who perpetrated– what a sick drive to have, and what the hell happened to them that they don’t respect and value other human lives. So I shared, I posted, and I watched as my newsfeed continued to be flooded with other women’s and men’s reactions to the movement.
What do you see as some of the ramifications of this movement?
RK – I think it varies greatly. For some, it provided an empowering forum to put in black and white that this had happened. There are few forums in life to share such information, and I think that helps strip the power of the trauma and provides community support, awareness—-and ultimately, hopefully, CHANGE. Change in the sense that people recognize there needs to be more communication with our sons and daughters about their sexuality and sexual health—not to mention issues of respect, self-worth, healthy relationships, etc. I think for some people it was maybe a little traumatic to bear witness to. For those who have been a victim and have not felt empowered and have not spoken out– I think watching this unfold could be very difficult.
Many victims feel guilt, shame, and like they are somewhat at fault or let whatever happened, happen. They don’t feel emboldened, and this could have been hard to process. I think some people who became aware through this movement that people they loved and knew had been victims could potentially feel blindsided, and struggle to know what to do with the information– to bring it up or not? But I also think part of the elusiveness is the point. There needs to be a discussion. People need to know this is happening to more than not. We know one of the best ways to curb certain behaviors is through social pressure and perception. If people think what has been going on is “not a big deal” or “okay” people will continue to feel emboldened to act on these impulses. If they know their friends and family members are victims, they are more likely to be proactive about speaking out against it and thus swaying public perception and attitudes.
KD – To me, there are effects for this movement that can be near and broad. For individuals, the effect can be the disclosure of very personal information, which can stimulate some important yet painful conversations. In thinking about the disclosures, I am very hopeful that people can be open and accepting, but there are likely going to be some people who try to minimize or discredit their experiences. In my own work, I see that there is a lot of fear about how the information will be received, and it is essential to hear and validate the personal history.
Discrediting the victim has been a pretty effective legal strategy in courts, and I have been an unfortunate witness to the way that people’s trauma gets devolved into a “he said/she said” legal dead end. There can be a tendency to perceive a person’s sharing as being part of the bandwagon, which can be used to invalidate their story. However, the challenge with the popularity of the movement can be that the overall message gets lost.
When we assume that every woman has been through sexual harassment or assault, we actually reinforce rape culture.
This happens in two harmful mindsets: 1) the assumption that being harassed or assaulted is a normal experience for women, and 2) the recognition that women overcome these experiences so are not affected by them. Both of these concepts are chilling to me.
Where would you hope to see the efforts of this movement manifest?
KD – My hope is that the movement can grow to a place where we can see the influence in the cultural way that we handle sexuality. As I stated earlier, it is not that I feel people should be open about all of their sexual experiences (especially in contexts that may not feel appropriate) but maybe that we can make room for the idea that boundaries need to be respected and healthy sexual contacts occur when both people are excited to be participants.
It would be great if we could revise the way we handle victims of sexual assault so that their experience is much less invasive, but I am unsure what that would look like.
I do see that victims usually end up being traumatized many times beyond their initial experience in the assault- the first trauma is with the rape evaluation (if there is one) and the traumas continue every time someone doesn’t believe their story. Yes, there are false accusations, and I would like to see greater research into the probabilities behind reports made.
For the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, the cumulative impact of so many victims should have cracked that case a long time ago, if only we protected the identities of victims. Rape feels like the one crime when there is a greater burden on the accuser over the accused. There are still countries where a woman is secondary to a man, and her value is limited to her ability to be a bride and a mother.
My hope is that we can raise generations of men and women who can be much more respectful of the boundaries of individuals, and also able to identify what a healthy sexual relationship would encompass. For my own small microcosm household, sex education is going to include healthy sexuality and understanding boundaries; we will all process why mom would have shared #MeToo.
RK – I guess ultimately I would hope to hear more people in power (politicians, professionals, teachers, leaders, influencers) talk about sexual health, healthy sexual relationships, and sexuality in general. It is such a huge part of our identities as humans and I think it’s total crap that we shy away from it so much. It just breeds ignorance and abhorrent behavior.
We need to have it be a part of our educational curriculums and the legal system needs to protect and advocate for the “me too’s” and the mental health field needs to provide care and treatment for both the perpetrators and the victims.
[blockquote text=”No one is EVER asking to be raped. No means no.” text_color=”” width=”” line_height=”undefined” background_color=”” border_color=”” show_quote_icon=”yes” quote_icon_color=”#f7c520″]
If a woman dresses or acts a certain way, that does not invite assault. But we must also teach our girls to assert themselves and to project self-respect and self-love— to feel good about themselves and their bodies separate and apart from what men think of them. We need to teach our sons and daughters how to healthily display affection and act on their attraction. We need more education on our identities as sexual beings.
And this extends out to the LGBT communities as well. If we can understand and advocate for sexual health across the spectrum of gender and sexuality, I think it will allow for acceptance of the fact that a healthy sexual identity and relationship exists regardless of gender identity or who you want to have sex with.
#MeToo: Moving Forward
Overall, our clinicians are also in agreement with Burke’s hopes for the movement: that it moves the conversation in the direction of healing for victims, and for sexual or gender-based violence to be given a voice in terms of social justice. She stated she feels healthy survivors share responsibility in creating a safe space for healing survivors, for which this movement provides forum.
Burke also expressed concern for survivors not having space to process their experiences within the en masse movement and being bombarded by the messages shared experiences on social media.
The ramifications and lastingness of the movement are to be determined with time, but our hope is that those who participated found it enlightening and/or empowering and that it is fostering awareness, healthy discussions, and ultimately makes “me too” a less shared experience moving forward.
Let us know your thoughts on the movement and your reaction to our reactions!