I was 11 years old the first time I felt “that”.
I still hadn’t quite grown into my front teeth, weighed a scant 65 lbs, and wore my mom’s oversized cable-knit turtleneck fisherman sweaters that I pulled from a shelf I could hardly reach.
He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, tall, attractive, and my substitute teacher.
New in town and stuck in a book more often than not, I welcomed his warm demeanor and friendly approach. I thought he paid so much attention to me because we were friends. When he insisted I hug him before I could leave class, I thought it was because he valued me and believed me to be smarter, or somehow better than my classmates.
My best friend’s mom was singing at at a pub the night things went too far. It was early in the evening, and minors were still allowed in. My best friend and I laughed to one another when we told the greeter that we were “with the band.” As we mingled in the packed venue, we spotted him and a friend at a table. He lit up when we walked over, and knocked a glass of water over as he got off his stool to give me one of his classic long hugs that I’d now learned to expect.
“Sorry he smells like Rainier” his friend, another tall, young man joked.
It was then that the bass guitar went to work, followed by light drums, then the singer. Before I knew what was happening, I was pulled out onto the floor in front of the band that was soon filled with drunken adults dancing in their Birkenstocks and Patagonia zip-off pants. He grinned lazily as he spun me around in circles, not so much dancing as he swinging around a girl one-third his size. The music slowed into a sultry blues ballad, and he pulled me toward him. His hand slid from my waist to my lower back, then over what would [much] later develop into an actual ass. I smelled the beer his friend had joked about, and couldn’t even make out the words his gravelly voice purred into my ear.
I was glad when the song ended. I pulled away hurriedly, said goodbye, and found my friend at a table across the room. I never saw him again.
“That.” I can’t even label it correctly. I don’t think there is a word or term that really encompasses the varied emotions and sensations that occur when someone is sexually assaulted. Humiliation, confusion, guilt, and shock are just a few that surface at the moment.
It takes a lot of courage to talk about these things. We hear that 1 in 4 women report being sexually assaulted, but know that the actual rate is significantly higher. What about all the other instances that don’t get reported? We don’t report cat-calls, which many people sadly believe are earnest compliments; we don’t report our teachers or parents’ friends or coaches or friends’ dads when they are just a little too nice; we don’t report the pathetic dudes who brush their hands across your ass in crowded streetcars…
Which is why you’re seeing those two words splashed across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram this week.
The two syllables, seemingly innocuous in any other context, represent a lifetime of struggles for men, women, and everyone in between.
Activist Tarana Burke spoke about the weight of the phrase when she recounted a story in which a young girl reached out to her for help, but ultimately left her speechless and flustered. The young girl, visibly shattered from being denied support so blatantly, silently urged Burke to consider the ways in which we interact with survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. The two words she did not speak are the very instruments she now uses to inspire others to support one another, including actress Alyssa Milano who resurrected the term via Twitter:
“Suggested by a friend: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
People have reacted in many different ways to this movement. I’m not here to say which response is right: to vocalize one’s experiences and support the movement is honorable and welcomed; to remain silent or unsure is also completely respectable.
You see, when a person is made to feel like they no longer have control in their life (which is, typically, what the end result of a sexual assault looks like) it is so important to restore that control to the survivor. Telling a survivor what they should or shouldn’t do is actually quite damaging, intentional or not. They are likely already feeling so much guilt over the incident. It is wrong to inspire more guilt in them by saying that their silence is detrimental to the cause.
If you truly want to help a survivor, allow them to make their own choices, free of judgment. Having been subjected to a crime or traumatic experience does not in any way make them less able to make their own decisions. Let them have power over their life.
On the other hand, there have been so many wonderful humans who have come forward and shared the phrase. I want everyone who hasn’t knowingly experienced sexual assault to know this one thing, if anything: this is huge. It’s “coming out.” It’s difficult, terrifying, and oftentimes dangerous to do so. When you “out” yourself as a survivor, you are opening up an incredibly private facet of your life that the inherently curious human population wants to dissect. You are putting yourself in a position to be mocked, blamed, accused, and judged.
So when you see a Facebook status with the words, “me too,” PLEASE oh please do not comment these things:
- “OMG what happened?!”
- “wtf who assaulted you??”
- “when did that happen?”
You get the idea.
Nobody wants to have an open forum and relive that traumatic experience, so please don’t make them. A simple “like” will do.
Finally, there are the ones who simply aren’t sure if they can/should post it. You, my dears, are the ones at which the whole campaign is aimed.
Sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are manifested in so many ways that it is impossible to effectively “diagnose” someone as having experienced it. You yourself may have absolutely experienced sexual harassment and not even realized it.
The ways in which this particular type of hatred thrives are typically, like most of the “-isms”, disguised cleverly as compliments, traditions, cultural norms, beliefs, values, etc.
If you’re unsure whether or not you “qualify,” I challenge you to look at your interactions with other people and think critically about your place in the world. But also, don’t feel like you need to have experienced something as damaging as getting felt up by a teacher in a bar. It’s all about how the experience made you feel.
Were you ever made to feel like you were worth less because of your status as a woman? Have you ever walked past a group of men who shouted inappropriate things at you? Did you ever feel like you had to sleep with your boyfriend because it was your anniversary and you “owed it to him”? Did you ever feel like you were being stared at by a strange man on the subway? These count.
Perhaps you’re one of the [very] few lucky ones who really, truly haven’t felt like you’ve been there too. If you’re seeing your friends posting this status, then clearly someone you know/care about has. Be there for them. Thank them for sharing.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you choose not to share, thank you for empowering yourself to make that decision on your own. If you do choose to share, thank you for educating yourself and the ones around you.
I know you want sexual violence to stop. Me too.