A reflection on the "#metoo" movement, the prevalence of sexual violence, and support available for survivors
The #metoo hashtag started trending last week, encouraging anyone who had experienced harassment, abuse or assault to post #metoo to ‘show the extent of the problem’. Hashtag campaigns, by their nature, scrape the surface. You cannot fit a nuanced explanation of the varied impacts of the patriarchy into 140 characters, or find one short phrase which will summarise how all survivors feel. This is possibly why half of my friends have been very keen on the campaign, with many sharing their own experiences, and the other half are significantly less keen on survivors being responsible for raising awareness of the very violence which was committed against them.
The wider response to the campaign has had many expressing shock at the number of posts prompted by the hashtag, but the statistics on sexual violence are readily available: 90% of women have been catcalled, 10, 273 sexual offences were reported to Police Scotland in 2015-16, 16% of boys will be victims of childhood sexual abuse, 1 in 10 women in Scotland have been raped. Although there is less awareness of how these issues affect boys and LGBT people, how common it is for women to experience sexual violence is hardly shocking news to anyone who has been willing to listen. (As a case in point, the #metoo campaign itself was actually started 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, but took off again when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the idea last week - indicative not just of how hard it is to be heard when you speak about violence, but of who is more likely to be listened to.) Although realising that these statistics connect to people you know is jarring, the level of surprise in the media begs the question why people need to be shown time and time again that these are the intimate, painful ways that individual women have suffered before they will acknowledge that this is a problem.
One purpose of the hashtag was to raise awareness, but it has also prompted survivors to express how they feel. The power of breaking the silence around sexual violence can be huge but the emotions behind someone choosing to tell their story are extremely complicated and personal. For some, the unity of a hashtag that lets them declare what happened to them will be freeing. A person who has had to tolerate the unwanted compliments of the ticket man on the train every day may well feel that the anger that has built up would be well expressed through a defiant tweet. Someone who has had similar daily attention but from an employer with the ability to fire them may feel differently.
We know how hard it is for people to talk about sexual violence. The reality is that there will be a significant number of people who have experienced sexual violence who will not feel comfortable revealing that on the internet who we are therefore not seeing in this discussion. For many, the barriers created by their trauma, the shame instilled in them by their abuser, the cultural background they are from, the ongoing presence of the abuser in their life, the gender role that society presents them with will all mean that speaking out in any way - let alone on social media - does not feel like a viable option.
Although there are similarities between the experiences of survivors of sexual violence, no two people will ever feel completely the same about what happened to them. It is worth considering how people with different identities and different stories may relate to the #metoo campaign and feel excluded from it. After all, if this is a conversation about survivors, it should be a conversation which is mindful of all survivors. Drawing upon the shared knowledge we have as women can help us support each other but it is also important to recognise our differences as we witness each other’s truth. This is what allows us to move beyond our own experiences to an awareness of collective experience.
The people I have seen posting on social media do not all have the exact same story. The thing they have in common is they all live in a patriarchal culture that normalises such violence. #Metoo focuses on the victims. It does not shine the spotlight on the people who are truly responsible for the prevention of sexual violence: the people who commit it. Nor does it highlight the gendered power imbalances, male entitlement and objectification which are the overarching causes of rape, abuse and harassment. Female survivors have been speaking out for decades and progress has been hard earned. Perhaps the real issue is that the people with the ability to change the rate of sexual violence - perpetrators, legislators, bystanders - are not listening. If we truly want to raise awareness to prevent violence, they need to be our focus.
Hopefully, what #metoo has been is a chance for some survivors not to feel alone. It has been a chance to be heard and a chance to listen, to find and give support, to show compassion in response to vulnerability. Although the majority of men sympathetic to the cause may well have already been aware of the reach and impact of male violence, or be survivors themselves, perhaps for some this has been a wake-up call. If you are a survivor who has been empowered to speak out by this campaign, we hear you. If you feel the need to talk further then I urge you to reach out to a friend who you can trust, a reputable helpline or a local support centre. If you are a survivor who has found this a reminder of how silenced you are or who has found the hashtag triggering, then look after yourself and know that we care anyway, whether we know the details of your pain or not. But if you are a man who feels upset by the number of posts you’ve seen, then do not let this feeling go unused. Do not let that discomfort pass you by and settle yourself back into more familiar patterns. Here are some resources that might help you be better at challenging predatory behaviour or supporting survivors.
Because ultimately fixing male violence isn’t on us. It’s on you.
- Written by Ailish
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