Recently, we have seen a flurry of news scandals relating to sexual harassment and sexual assault such as with several prominent politicians, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Cosby, the DJ in the Taylor Swift case, Kesha's producer, and now Harvey Weinstein. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, when daily claims of different celebrities and other aspiring actresses being sexually harassed and assault mounted, the #MeToo was popularized by Alyssa Milano as a means for individuals to speak out about sexual harassment and sexual assault so that people could get an understanding of the depth of the problem.
As a sexual trauma specialist, people have asked me my thoughts about #MeToo, in some cases in hopes that I would support their disapproval. I have heard the controversy that it should only be for men. I have heard people claim that the movement minimizes "real" trauma experiences. I have heard the criticism that it shames people for not speaking out or that people are being judged for not using #metoo, and in some cases there has even been a backlash of #notme in response.
Sexual violence continues to exist because of the silence and the complicity of silence that surrounds it in the culture. Survivors do not feel safe sharing their secrets, because the culture does not allow them to feel safe enough to do it. Often the most severe symptoms people experience in relation to their traumatic experiences dissipate once survivors speak out about their victimization and are able to let go of the burden of secrecy. Secrets tend to be a source of shame. I celebrate with those that are able to speak out and simultaneously my heart hurts for those who may be in very real circumstances that keep them from safely sharing their stories. They may not have had choice over their victimization, but they do get to choose when and to whom they share.
Women and Men speaking out with the #metoo breaks the silence that surrounds and sustains sexual violence. It allows women and men to see that they are not alone. It is empowering to those that bravely share their stories and receive the support of a community of other survivors, who are then inspired to share their own stories. Watching the newsheadlines break of Ashley Judd, Rosanna Arquette, Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino, Claire Forlani, Heather Graham, Angelina Jolie, Rose McGowan, Terry Crews, James VanderBeek, America Ferrera, Reese Witherspoone, Jennifer Lawrence, McKayla Maroney and many others was both heartbreaking and inspiring to see what a watershed moment this was. The damn was broken. The possibility for change and the promise of healing awaits. Indeed, Reese Witherspoone gave a speech at Elle Women awards this week and was quoted as saying "I felt less alone this week that I have ever felt."
It does not matter whether a person experienced sexual harassment or assault or rape, the point of #metoo is that no one should have to experience any of those things. Every form of sexual violence is "real." It impacts one's self esteem, confidence, sense of safety, identity formation, their beliefs about themselves, and their overall health. I recall a professor once who gave the account of being french kissed as a teenager by parent that was taking her home after a babysitting job. She polled the classroom and asked the class is we thought this was sexual abuse (It is). A few of us uncomfortably raised our hands. She stated that she did not think it was because it was disrespectful to other survivors who had it worse. Today, when I am going through worksheet with definitions of child sexual abuse with clients, my awareness of tongue kissing on the same list with vaginal penetration takes me back to the memory of that moment in class when I saw a woman struggling so much to come to terms with her own trauma, that she felt compelled to poll her classroom to tell her she was not a victim. I see this all the time as a therapist, new clients who are struggling to come to terms with their own victimization will often enter my office telling me that they do not think they "belong there," that they are taking up the space of someone who had it "much worse" than them, but in truth these are all just ways of minimizing their own experience. What they are really saying is " I do not want to see myself as a victim." To realize that means you admit you were powerless at the time of your victimization, which implies that you cannot control everything. This, in turn, is scary knowing that the world is an unpredictable place and that bad things can happen to good people. Shaking someone's worldview is tough. Helping someone transition from seeing themselves as Victim, to Survivor, to Thriver is ultimately our goal. It helps to remind people that trauma is trauma, it does not matter what form of sexual violence happens to someone, or how one perceives it, none of it is ok.
To critics that suggest that #MeToo is only for women, remind them that 1 in 6 men experience sexual violence before they are 18. Although women are at higher risk of sexual violence throughout their lifespan, arguably men face even more stigma around speaking out due to cultural beliefs about masculinity and myths about sexual orientation. Men experience the same trauma symptoms as women. Bottom line: Sexual violence is never OK. Any movement that gives people the courage to share and get support and validation, should be praised. We cannot change a problem in our culture until we acknowledge that a problem exists. There are people in powerful positions preying on other people and they need to stop. This week we took a step forward by bringing the secrets of the perpetrators' wrongdoing to light.
Megan Garza, MA, LMFT 2011011850 MO
Sexual Trauma Therapist
Megan Garza, MA, LMFT is a certified Specialist in Treating Trauma at a Supervisory level and is Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in work with sexual abuse survivors.