On October 17, 2017 I posted # metoo on my Facebook page. On March 16, 2018, I was raped.
The now famous online campaign started on October 15, 2017, when a tweet using the words ‘me too’ went viral. The phrase was first used over ten years ago by activist and social worker Tarana Burke, who hoped it would become something of a secret message of solidarity for survivors; something that one victim could see on a bumper sticker and know that she was not alone. ‘Me too’ was never meant to go global. But global it went; the hashtag was posted on Twitter around noon and, by the end of the day, had more than 200,000 uses. On Facebook, 12 million posts contained the hashtag in the first 24 hours of its usage. Forty-five percent of Facebook users in the United States had a friend who used it. Coming just weeks after the Harvey Weinstein assaults came to light, the tag encouraged women to ride the tide of openness. The message was simple: if you experienced sexual assault or harassment, you tell the world with the tag.
When I first posted the words, I felt a huge amount of empowerment. I was part of the movement. Yes, I had been groped in crowds. Yes, I had been harassed on the street. But I wasn’t alone. I was standing next to millions of women. We were like an army that refused to be silent. The attitude was defiant. Activist, actress, and member of the Me Too movement Mariska Hargitay wrote: “sexual assault and domestic violence are difficult things to talk about. Talk about them anyway”. The anger and solidarity gave me a sense of safety. We had strength in numbers. Yes, I had been a victim, but not anymore. Now that people were talking, I was a survivor. It wouldn’t happen again.
But it did happen again.
After it happened, I didn’t know what to say. I was a victim again, and I was in more pain than I had ever been. In a time when women were celebrating strength and resilience, I felt weak. But I had already come forward, I had already voiced myself as part of the movement. Could I say #metoo again? Would people listen a second time? Anything I said would have earned some likes, or perhaps a comment or two. But I couldn’t make myself believe that anyone would listen to my second proclamation. I couldn’t shake the feeling that no one had listened to the first one.
Millions of women had come forward. Millions of men had liked and shared their messages. But it still happened to me again. Nearly a year after #metoo started, we are no closer to solving the problem of sexual assault than we were. Tarana Burke’s first reaction to the tag catching fire was that it was going to be a ‘disaster.’ She thought that victims of sexual violence would not benefit from the publicity. Words do not equal action. Though some companies have changed policies, the vast majority remain unchanged, and rape culture is alive and well. At a roundtable discussion at the United State of Women Summit, Burke implored anyone who would listen to take the action that she knew was needed to follow the words: ‘we have to be in a moment of strategy right now. Organizing has to happen.’ If #metoo was to succeed in changing our society, people need to do more than speak up. People need to listen.
Mary P. Koss, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona, asked rapists if they had “penetrated [women] against their consent,” and found that they most commonly say yes. But when asked if they committed “something like rape,” the answer is almost always no. Around the time of #metoo’s eruption, many articles came out arguing that perpetrators of sexual assault were seeing the posts and ‘taking a hard look at their beliefs,’ and changing their behaviour. But Koss’s research proves otherwise. Rape is a vile and violent act, but most rapists don’t think they’ve committed the crime. If I told my rapist that what he did was rape, he wouldn’t believe me. If he read this article, he would not assume it was he who caused it to be written. When he sees #metoo posts, by me or by his other victims, I have no doubt that he feels no remorse. I never said no to him. He would say that I wanted it, and it’s true that I was an active participant until suddenly the enjoyment was replaced by fear and pain. If he had asked me what I wanted, I would have said I wanted to leave. I never told him no, but I certainly never told him yes.
And I can’t tell him. I can’t point him to a hashtag and tell him he’s the reason why. I can’t even pass him on campus without feeling ill, and I would never expect another trauma victim to educate the man who assaulted her. But someone has to. If #metoo has done anything, it has made me aware of how little real education has come from likes and retweets. What we as survivors need is not an online revolution. We need everyone to know exactly what rape and harassment are. We need there to be a firm understanding that the lines are not blurred. Rape is sexual intercourse, or any other form of sexual penetration committed by a perpetrator against a victim without their consent. Sexual harassment is any unsolicited or unwanted contact of a sexual nature. Perhaps if these foundations were universally understood, more perpetrators would examine their own behaviour and see where and how it is wrong.
Ideally, the volume of women coming forward would be enough, but the reality is that #metoo, in all of its viral glory, is staying primarily in the virtual world. While some real work is being done by activists (and their efforts are in the right direction), the vast majority of the millions are being lured into a false sense of security by a movement that seems bigger and better than it really is. The vastness makes it easy to forget that real change takes more than talking. Until legal reform demands education or social pressure forces it, the problems will not disappear. A hashtag isn’t enough to keep me safe.