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What Advocates Can Learn From the Successes—and Shortcomings—of #MeToo

How do you create an impromptu campaign against sexual violence? Just ask Alyssa Milano.

“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,” read a photo tweeted by the actress last Sunday. The hashtag drew responses from stars like Viola Davis and Lily Allen, and after just two days, #MeToo generated 13 million Facebook and Twitter posts.

Shelby Chargin—a participant in the campaign and the founder of Girls Behind The Rock Show, a nonprofit dedicated to elevating marginalized music industry workers—attributed the success of #MeToo to the way it united people of all backgrounds behind a common anti-violence message.

“It really brought people together,” she said. “No matter what political party, no matter what race, no matter what type of life experience or privilege you have, if this has happened to you, you can relate to another person who’s been through it.”

The ambiguity of disclosures in #MeToo mostly worked to its advantage, providing a “cover” for survivors of abuse or assault who might be uncomfortable publicly disclosing details of their experience. The vague slogan also allowed different industries to adapt the phrase into unique projects. Girls Behind The Rock Show, for instance, is compiling a video montage of survivor stories from music industry employees who don’t have the stardom to reach many people individually.

But #MeToo was far from perfect. Critics quickly pointed out that Tarana Burke launched a “Me, too” campaign ten years ago, adding to the list of instances where white women have co-opted movements founded by people of color. Though Milano acknowledged the original campaign, recent media coverage of Burke’s movement pales in comparison to Milano. Many folks in the LGBTQ community also pointed out that limiting the action call to “women” wasn’t inclusive of all trans and nonbinary survivors. Bisexual femmes and queer men also reported feeling their stories were not welcome by all participating in #MeToo dialogues. Male survivors were often hesitant to participate.

Aside from inclusivity concerns, Milano’s original post stated that her goal was to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” #MeToo relied on survivors’ work to convince victim blamers and rape deniers, which didn’t always sit right with some survivors.

“I spent the whole day drowning in anxiety,” said Tatum, an abuse survivor who asked to use an alias, “angry that the public actions of rapists and abusers seemingly predicate a massive response by victims in order to ‘raise awareness’ or something. We have been aware. We are aware from the second we wake up until the second we find sleep. It’s a painful, constant awareness.”

They are not alone. Many survivors like Tatum found these posts triggering, and algorithms for promoting trending topics only made the posts more prevalent across social platforms. After survivors like Tatum spoke out, many people revised their posts to include trigger warnings. But, as many survivors on social media are aware, the people Milano is targeting are not likely to look past these warnings. If anything, they could attract trolls. Plus, the vague phrasing—while sometimes beneficial—put pressure on some survivors, like Tatum, to share ambiguously then wonder what onlookers might assume about their experiences.

“I think survivors banding together can be such a powerful tool,” they explained. “But this doesn’t feel powerful to me. It feels coerced and unfair. It feels performative, in many cases. It doesn’t feel right.”

None of this is to say this campaign wasn’t carried out with good intentions; just that there is still room for anti-sexual violence campaigns to improve. Gina Scaramella, the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center—the oldest of its kind in New England—said there might not be an easy way to create a perfect campaign that’s both effective in raising awareness and comfortable for all survivors.

“I think at some level,” she said, “it’s probably not possible to make any campaign trigger-proof because it’s such an individual experience.”

In the afterglow of #MeToo, Scaramella encourages survivors struggling with accounts of sexual violence to practice self-care, and invite people in their support systems to join them. Scaramella also calls on organizers to reflect on the shortcomings of this campaign in order to better prepare for the future.

“I think organizers of even trainings—not just big campaigns or movements—need to do a better job thinking ahead about all of these different reactions that people will have, and what they are putting out there at the start that might help support people who might be in different places about the issue,” she explained.

Take social media campaigns, for example: With advanced planning, those who want to participate can prepare statements or actions, while those who do not could take a break from social media until they are ready. Perhaps some of the inclusivity concerns could have been addressed from the get-go. Scaramella reinforced how important it is that organizers take into consideration the survivors who might not be in the same place in their healing process.

“I hope we all can support people who are not participating,” she said. “For some survivors, it’s incredibly empowering and healing, and for other people, it could feel unhelpful to their process where they’re at, and all things are true. We have to support people wherever they’re at, and encourage people to do whatever they need to do for themselves.”

Above all, Scaramella says she hopes the awareness that #MeToo brought to new members of the anti-sexual violence movement does not die down. She hopes people will continue the conversations that have started and use the critiques of the campaign to actively educate themselves on broader perspectives to include survivors who experience multi-level marginalization.

“Take advantage of all the great writing that’s happening about this issue to let yourself see all the different ways that people think about this,” she said. “From issues of gender inclusive pieces of this campaign, the racial dynamics of the campaign, the feelings of men in the campaign, the feelings of some women in the campaign, I think it’s such a great dialogue that’s happening. Taking it as an opportunity to learn would be really transformative.”

Scaramella also urged allies inspired by #MeToo and survivors who are far enough along in their healing process to get involved in local, grassroots anti-sexual violence movements.

“If people are inspired to get involved,” she said, “they should look for organizations that they can support and become part of their movement and network and what they’re doing, so that we can continue to build.”

(image: Filip Jedraszak / Shutterstock.com)

Tori is a freelance writer and a recent graduate of Emerson College’s journalism program with a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Substream Magazine, idobi Radio, THINX’s Periodical, Culture Magazine, and more covering everything from politics to punk music to cheese. She’s an avid tea drinker, novice outdoorswoman, and a lover of the Oxford comma. Outside of writing, she loves traveling, reading, posting too many photos of her cat on Instagram, and binge-watching Netflix originals. You can follow her on Twitterand read her work on her portfolio.

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