In the age of social media, it can take only minutes for a hashtag to go viral. Or in some cases, ten years and ten minutes. If you’ve been anywhere near a computer, phone, or tablet lately, you’ve probably seen this hashtag showing solidarity for survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. #metoo is more than just a hashtag, though, and it started long before the hashtag showed up on Twitter and took off like lightning.
Tarana Burke created the Me Too movement ten years ago in an effort to draw attention to the epidemic of sexual assault against black women and girls. Now, the hashtag has gone mainstream as popular actresses and other public figures have taken it up. It is both deeply sad as well as empowering to see women—and some men—standing together in solidarity by reposting those two words to support each other against the cultural gaslighting that makes so many sexual assault victims afraid to speak out.
Two things particularly stand out to me in all of this. One: there is a very common, and very problematic tendency for mainstream pop culture to co-opt movements started by people of color without giving proper credit. Tarana Burke started a movement many years ago and has not wavered from her mission even when it was not one of the most popular trending hashtags of the moment. This is a labor of love for her, and she should be credited for her work.
The other thing that stands out is how badly hashtags and movements like #metoo are needed in a culture where gaslighting survivors of sexual abuse is so instinctive that only an overwhelming number of women telling the same story have any chance of being believed. If only one woman had spoken up about Harvey Weinstein, I imagine very little would have come of it. Only in the face of dozens upon dozens of woman repeating and sharing their experiences has there been any momentum to hold a sexual predator accountable in any way.
There is a massive, pervasive, pernicious cultural bias to disbelieve sexual assault survivors when they speak up. Nine times out of ten the first words out of someone’s mouth when a woman reports harassment or assault are some variation on one of the following:
“What were you wearing?”
“Were you drinking?”
“Let’s play devil’s advocate and look at it from his perspective.”
“Are you sure you’re not reading too much into the situation? He probably didn’t mean it like that.”
“That’s what we called ‘buyer’s remorse’ when I was growing up.”
“You could ruin his life with an accusation like that!”
“Well, you were flirting. You led him on.”
Every one of these phrases is an example of gaslighting someone by implying or directly stating that they have no real right to feel violated, hurt, angry, or upset at being harassed or assaulted, because something they did gave their attacker a right to violate their bodily autonomy. This form of gaslighting undermines the survivor’s belief in their right to exist in life without being assaulted or harassed for simply existing. It gives an easy out to someone violating another person’s rights by unfairly placing the burden of protection on the person suffering the invasive behavior. And it tells the victim that they aren’t really a victim, despite their lived experience of being victimized.
Tarana Burke started Me Too to build a community of shared experiences, a way of fighting back against the cultural gaslighting that silences, represses, invalidates, and ignores the truths of survivors. The movement continues today, bolstered in our national consciousness by the popularity of the hashtag. It continues to be desperately needed in a society where the knee jerk reaction to allegations of sexual misconduct is too often to assume the victim is lying, exaggerating, or doesn’t deserve to feel the way they do.
Eventually, the hashtag will probably fade away and something else will take over our national consciousness for awhile. For those who have posted #metoo, and for those who chose not to, sexual harassment and sexual assault are not trending topics—they are a part of that person’s life. Part of their Truth. When the hashtag stops showing up, don’t let the conversations drop off with it. Hashtag or not, there is power in community and in solidarity.