On October 15, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:
Me too. 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.”
The next day, in an article by Sophie Gilbert for The Atlantic entitled, “The Movement of Me Too: How a Hashtag Got Its Power,” it was confirmed that in the 24 hours that followed Milano’s tweet, the hashtag had been tweeted nearly half a million times. On Tuesday, October 17, Milano credited activist Tarana Burke with the creation of the movement, one that Burke began in 1997 after a conversation she had with a 13-year-old girl who shared her experience with sexual abuse.
In an interview with Ebony Magazine not long after Milano’s tweet went viral, Burke said that, “[‘Me too’] wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”
Burke posted a series of tweets in the days that followed that explained why #metoo was started and who she started it for. But she went on to say that “since #metoo has become popularized, it has become a tool for healing across the spectrum of survivors around the world. And I’m glad.”
Me Too (Nothing New)
Leaving the train station on my way home the other night (to write this article), two young men were sitting on the stairs sharing a cigarette, blocking my way. I asked them if I could please get by. As they moved out of the way, one of them asked, “How you doin’ tonight?”
I quickly gauged my situation: Since I was alone with these men on a train station staircase and it was around 10:30 p.m., I decided the safest thing was to politely answer, “Fine thank you,” and walk on by. So that’s what I did. Then one of them shouted after me, “You got a boyfriend?” When I didn’t respond, he shouted, “What? Can’t I just talk to you?” As I kept going — more quickly now down the stairs and out of the station — he followed me, shouting, “Hey. HEY!”
My pace quickened as I headed home. I held my pocket mace in my hand. Suddenly, I heard someone running up behind me and I panicked. The footfalls got closer and closer; my body grew tense, my breath shortened, and I started to sweat. Then … they passed by. I realized the person wasn’t the man from the station, just someone out jogging for exercise. My entire body relaxed. I felt relieved and happy that a potentially (very) dangerous situation hadn’t occurred.
When I got home, I immediately told my roommate what had happened. She nodded. Something similar had happened to her recently in our neighborhood. And another time after that. And again after that. And so it goes.
Such instances offer only small glimpses into what it’s like to be a woman and live in the world, interacting with it and navigating its dangers on a daily basis. I feel comfortable enough with myself and my personal history to admit that I’ve experienced sexual assault and so have many women in my circle of friends and acquaintances.
The News and the Damage Done
According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), one out of every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. RAINN’s statistics also state that of those who have experienced sexual assault 48 percent were sleeping or performing another activity at home; 29 percent were traveling to or from work or school or traveling to shop or run errands; 12 percent were working; 7 percent were attending school; and 5 percent were doing something else unrelated to the above activities.
We’ve been bombarded by the media with daily updates regarding men in power who’ve been accused of sexual assault: Harvey Weinstein; Louis C.K.; Jeffrey Tambor; Kevin Spacey; Andy Dick; James Toback; Senator Al Franken; Founder and President of the Foundation for Moral Law, Roy Moore; children’s author Dallas Clayton; former Backstreet Boys singer Nick Carter; Matt Lauer; Charlie Rose; Garrison Keillor; and of course, our actual real-life current president, Donald J. Trump.
But the vast majority of us don’t know these powerful men personally. So what do we say when we talk to the men in our own lives? How do we maintain relationships, friendly and otherwise, with men when Louis C.K., now a known sexual predator, said in a bit from his 2013 HBO comedy special, “Louis C.K. Himself”:
How do women still go out with guys when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women. Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them.
I decided to talk to men who work in many different industries to find out how the tidal wave of sexual assault survivors coming forward was affecting them.
I spoke with artists, comedians, teachers, students, men who work in the film industry, and stylists. I spoke with men who I know and respect, and whose opinions I value. Did they know anyone that had been sexually assaulted? What does it mean to them to see women coming forward with their stories of abuse? It’s a difficult subject, but keeping an open dialogue is one way we can continue to help people’s voices be heard.
She Said, He Said, They Said
When asked what he thought about how women are finally sharing their stories on public platforms, William Morris, an assistant programmer at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles said, “It gives me hope for a sea of change coming, wherein women are no longer endlessly silenced for speaking out. Not only in terms of sexual harassment and assault but in all avenues of life, as the workplace and [professional]world has been historically only accessible to women if they don’t ‘act up’ or ‘cause problems.’ It means the world to me that this is changing.”
Tim Stone is an artist and instructor at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Stone said, “I think it’s wonderful that women — and men — have been coming forward and joining the movement. I feel sad but very proud people have the courage to do something so hard. Hopefully this will help ease stigma and the culture of victim-blaming.”
Women and men. It’s important to point out is that sexual assault doesn’t only happen to women. It happens to people, regardless of their gender. According to advocacy group the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC):
The NSVRC understands sexual violence to be an overarching term that includes an array of behaviors, both physical and nonphysical, that constitute unwanted or age-inappropriate sexual activity that can impact people of any age or gender. We believe that sexual violence is rooted in power inequities and is connected to other forms of oppression including ableism, adultism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, racism, religism, sexism and other constructs that value certain people or groups over others.
Nigel Kindrick Lee, a stylist at Karma Salon in Springfield, MO and burlesque performer with Cherry Bomb Burlesque, shared with me his personal story of sexual assault.
“I️ was 17 years old. A man in the steam room offered me some lotion and reached under my towel to put in on my body and started touching me. I️ ran out. No one took me seriously or addressed the incident until long after it had happened.”
For the first time, a lot of us feel safe speaking openly about what has happened to us. In sharing our stories we gain strength. As for Kindrick Lee, he said the flood of people publicly disclosing their experiences has made him feel “empowered” and “not so alone.”
Ian Wojcikiewicz (MFAW ‘18), said, “I feel that men have a responsibility to realize it’s not some man vs. woman thing here. I feel like there’s this narrative surfacing that #metoo is some sort of gender-role coup. That stance seems incredibly stupid and damaging. I think men have a responsibility to reevaluate how they interact with other men, specifically in the workplace.In my own work experience, I can remember moments where harassment is played off as a joke and I’m sure most people have very similar stories. It’s not a joke, and creating an environment where that is clear is paramount. People should be afraid of the consequences. Maybe then they’ll think twice before stepping over the line.”
Taking Charge, Making Change
So what do we do? How do we move forward knowing what we know now and encountering new information every day that suggests that men we may have previously held to a higher standard are the same ones that are putting women in harm’s way? How do we combat abuse of power and work toward creating safe spaces where people can share their stories, be heard, and work toward change?
Bill Shultz, an artist, barista, and urban farmer currently living in Missouri, said, “The question isn’t, ‘Have I acted in a way that perpetuates this culture of dominance,’ but how have I perpetuated a system which I wouldn’t consciously want to support?”
“ [That’s] an important question. Thankfully, I have been ardently engaged in this work for a little while now, which prepared me to receive the impact of the #metoo movement,” added Shultz. “I would encourage other men to really open themselves to the importance of the movement, to not become defensive, to let go of any ego-driven, snap responses. Slow down and let the message really sink in. Then consider — really consider —in what ways have I participated in violence, whatever the scale? How have I upheld systems which support such pervasive victimization? Be willing — without self-shaming but with self-responsibility — to uncover challenging thoughts and memories. Let the answers sink in and impact you, men.”
Since the initial tweet, the #metoo movement has gained international attention, earned praise, and also faced questions and scrutiny. Some believe that #metoo is doing more harm than good: Numerous articles written in the past months have decried the message of #metoo, suggesting it lumps in “legitimate sexual assault” with “trivial sexual assault.” (Is that a thing?)
But the sheer number of women and men coming out in support of the stories being shared, sparked by the now-infamous hashtag speak volumes about changes that need to be made in culture. TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year” is “The Silence Breakers,” awarding, en masse, all the whistleblowers of 2017 the distinction of being huge culture changers. (TIME’s “Person of the Year” in 2016: sexual predator and President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.)
We’ll see even more women and men come forward in the days leading up to a new year — and after it. Each will provide a new opportunity to have open discussions with one another. Each will bring a new chance to make real change. I don’t want to sound overly optimistic; I’m a realist. But I feel good: At the very least, there’s a conversation happening, here. There is strength in each one of these stories. There is strength in sharing. There is strength in making your voice heard. There is strength in working together to make change.
For those seeking help or needing to reach out in some capacity, there are many Chicago-based organizations that offer legal counsel, support, and opportunities to get involved. The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), The Chicago Burlesque Community Against Unsafe Spaces (BCAUS), The Long Walk Home, Rape Victim Advocates (RVA), and LifeSpan are all good places to start.
Students of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) are encouraged to contact Counseling Services at 312-449-4271 to speak with a confidential resource about options for dealing with sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. Visit the website for more information.