Accusation of sexual assault and harassment against American film producer, Harvey, Weinstein put the spotlight on sexual abuse in Hollywood. In the post-Weinstein era, other survivors have come forward accusing high-powered men in various industries of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct. News reports and social media have broadcast a growing list of celebrities, politicians, executives, reporters and athletes who have been accused of sexual assault. As consumers of the news, you have the luxury of putting down what you are reading or turning off the TV. Those of you not directly involved, you may feel like a bystander looking in. But for others of you who have been impacted by sexual abuse and/or harassment, the media may have a profound impact on your personal trauma and healing.
Amidst the list of those accused of sexual misconduct, has also been an increase in individuals coming forward as survivors in both public and in private spheres. The #MeToo campaign raises awareness of sexual harassment and assault against women and illustrates the scope of this problem. The hashtag went viral over social media in the wake of allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The campaign’s motto of empowering though empathy is elegantly expressed in the simplicity of the message: “Me too”. *
Although, the hashtag gained viral popularity by actress, Alyssa Milano, the campaign was originally created in 1997 by activist, Tarana Burke. The motivation behind this movement was to help survivors in under privileged communities—where rape crisis centers and counseling services were unavailable—heal from one another. The viral sensation of the #MeToo campaign and the continued number of survivors coming forward in the news shows the prevalence of this issue and demands that sexual assault and harassment against women no longer be ignored.
As a therapist, many of the women that I work with have experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment. It is not a faraway monster in Hollywood, but often existing in their very homes and families. Sexual abuse is in the fabric of their trauma narratives. It has impacted their entire lives. For survivors of sexual assault and trauma, their bravery is present in their sessions with me each week and their functioning each day.
I have had many clients respond differently to the #MeToo campaign and the continued allegations in the media. While a few of my clients feel empowered by survivors coming forward, many who are still working through their trauma are appreciative, but terrified. They are re-traumatized over and over again. They feel an imaginary obligation to step forward and join the movement. This makes them feel exposed and vulnerable. One client shared her feelings about not stepping forward: I still feel like that scared and helpless little girl. I am paralyzed all over again and I can’t do anything about it.
The ambivalence and fear to share publicly their stories of sexual assault and abuse parallels how many felt before they first told someone about their experiences. Will I be believed? Will I be punished? What will the consequences of me coming forward be?
Trauma stays with you. It lives in your body and in your mind—particularly sexual trauma, which can be stored within your most private and vulnerable areas. Understanding the complexity of trauma allows for us to also recognize the complexity of healing. Healing can be visible. For example, when you identify yourself as a survivor and post #MeToo. Healing can also be invisible to others, like when you evolve within yourself, finding resilience and strength where there once was suffering and fear.
I continue to watch these news stories of abusers and survivors unfold. It is hard to ignore or deny that this is happening; abuse is happening to our colleagues, our friends, our family members and even to us. I hope that this will decrease the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse in both public and private spaces. I hope that the consequences for the perpetrators will send the message that these acts won't go unpunished. I hope that this will stop uninvited and inappropriate sexual acts, which have become acceptable in some parts of our society. I hope that this spotlight on sexual abuse brings upon real change. And mostly, I hope that survivors of abuse will feel safe and be able to rise above suffering and heal in their very own way.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, you may consider engaging in therapy. This is not your fault. You do not have to go through this alone. Contact Jamie Kreiter, LCSW here.
*According to recent data, over half of all American women have experienced unwanted or inappropriate sexual advances at some point.