On my 18th birthday, a good friend of mine gave me a small, unconventional gift. It was a small folding knife, which I carry in my bag to this day.
This friend is one of the hardiest survivors I know, having faced more challenges in his childhood than I have faced in my life. Let me put it this way – if the world ever descended into war or apocalypse, he would be the person I’d run to. This friend is also very kind and honest. He knew I wasn’t physically strong enough to take on those who might harass me or cause harm to me, so he gave me the means to protect myself.
Whilst I am incredibly grateful for his gift, it saddens me that he and I both saw it as a necessity. In the wake of numerous sexual assault allegations sweeping the Hollywood landscape and the rise of the hashtag #MeToo on social media, I felt compelled to write for the first time in a month and talk about how much this bothers me.
#MeToo is giving those who have been sexually harassed a platform to speak out and find solidarity in each other’s stories, all across the world. I can see it in my own life as my friends, colleagues and even teachers begin to address the assault they have faced. What concerns me is the fact that it took a scandal of such magnitude (the Weinstein allegations, in case you haven’t seen the news) for the world to start listening, and for victims to feel safe enough to talk. Why are rape and sexual assault only newsworthy when it happens to ‘people who matter’?
This is not to say that I am devaluing the traumatic experiences of the women in Hollywood speaking out against Weinstein. They are just as important as our own; unfortunately, the media doesn’t see it the same way.
On that note, as much as I think the #MeToo movement is empowering and a great space for women (and men) to talk about their experiences, I’m concerned about the long-term effect. Just one scroll through the stories under the hashtag and I begin to feel as if I’m being swallowed up by the sheer volume of trauma. When the news and the web moves onto the next scandal, are these victims are going to be left vulnerable and with their personal stories spread across the web? Part of me thinks yes.
I am a big believer in catharsis and the healing power of sharing stories. In fact, I wrote about my own experiences with sexual assault only a few months ago. In the wake of this, I felt liberated but raw from reliving the experience. Others were reaching out, telling me how brave I was and how they have been in the same situation, and it’s deeply upsetting to realise just how many of my friends could relate.
“[Sharing stories] can help victims not feel quite so alone and make others understand the breadth and depth of the problem,” says Guardian writer Jessica Valenti as she discusses the benefits of talking about sexual assault. “But the truth is that nothing will really change in a lasting way until the social consequences for men are too great for them to risk hurting us.”
In other words, although victims are speaking out and finding a support network, nothing is really being done to change the environments that allow these assaults to happen in the first place. The stigma surrounding rape is still so great that many women and men choose not to speak up, in case they are judged or harassed. And for some, the trauma is still too fresh to relive and reclaim. I thought I was ready to speak about my experiences, but after writing about it I found that my emotions began spiralling downward. The only thing helping me up was the support of my friends and family, and the strangers who came forward and said “It happened to be too”, or perhaps more powerfully, “I believe you”.
In the last few days, I have seen a rise in the use of the hashtag #IBelieveYou – across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media networks. Support websites have been established to help those dealing with sexual assault. It’s a step in the right direction, both in our lives and in the Hollywood film industry, and the first step we need to help keep victims safe and let them heal.
If a victim chooses to speak out about their experience, they have opened up their wounds and shared something deeply personal with you. The most powerful thing you can do, regardless of your own experience, is let them know you believe them. Validation is everything I needed 18 months ago, and it’s what I received when I spoke out. I can only hope that I can provide it to the people around me who desperately need it now.