The #metoo campaign has brought a very important and often taboo topic to the forefront recently. What started on social media is now fueling dialogue over dinner tables, happy hours and therapy sessions. As a counselor, I’m thankful for opportunities to give expression to traumatic events that have lurked in the dark because that is where healing begins. However, as with any issue that has spent so much time in the dark, once it’s open for discussion, the pendulum can swing in both helpful and unhelpful directions. All you need to do is peruse the comments of those who have shared via #metoo to see that this is a vulnerable, complicated and even divisive topic.
There is no way that one article (or even one conversation) could cover all of the nuances and complexities involved in these issues. That said, I think it is helpful to start by defining terms. The American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with those who perpetrate it using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims who are unable to give consent.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Coalition defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
The #metoo campaign was intended to shed light on the ludicrous number of individuals (not just women), who have lived through unwanted and unsolicited sexual traumatization. Whether in the form of rape, incest, molestation, intimidation, or manipulation; sexual abuse and harassment are heinous crimes and should not be tolerated under any circumstance. The #metoo platform has great potential to educate, create solidarity and initiate proactivity.
However, after numerous conversations with family, friends, colleagues and clients, I can see how it could also be contributing to stereotypes, misinformation and division rather than garnering the solidarity it intended.
The Good and the Bad
The social, relational, emotional, vocational and even financial costs that result from bringing sexual abuse and harassment to light have, understandably, kept many of the offended quiet. My hope is that heightened awareness of this issue will help those who fear retribution or stigma to speak the truth and bring perpetrators to justice. I hope they will know they’re not alone and will be taken seriously. (And I hope that they will!)
However, the flipside of that issue is tricky. In our endeavor to honor our brothers and sisters who have been injured by sexual abuse and harassment, we also need to be discerning in identifying offenses. Please hear me when I say that some offenses are flagrant and need no further scrutiny. But, when something falls within the grey area of our subjective assessment, I hope that we will not automatically assume malicious intent. I fear that an overinflated sense of political correctness could lead to people becoming unwilling to even flirt or express interest in someone. Again, there are appropriate times and places for these exchanges, and I hope that this dialogue can help to inform ways we can honor each other in the process.
Many of those who have come forward in this campaign talk about regretting not having said something sooner. As I’ve said, there are many very compelling reasons to keep quiet. However, my hope is that as a culture we can begin to assert our boundaries proactively whenever possible. Of course, if someone forcefully overpowers you, there are no words that can change that. But in cases where someone makes what you would define as a crude or inappropriate comment, the best thing you can do is let them know that.
Asserting your boundaries is different than attacking someone’s character. A simple, “here’s how that came across… was that your intention?” may be enough to shut down unwanted advances. As ridiculous as a comment may seem to you, people often have very different ideas of what is appropriate, professional, or flattering. If you let someone know that what they are doing is unwelcomed, then it is easier to hold them accountable going forward. I know this does not apply in every case, but may be especially helpful in cases of harassment.
Sexual abuse and harassment can carry with them a heavy burden of shame. I absolutely believe that the best way to heal and eliminate this shame is to bring it into the light, give it voice, acknowledge that you’re not alone, work through the grief and pain and move forward. Saying “me too” is a wonderful entry into this process, however, it’s not the end.
I fear that #metoo may be contributing to solidarity regarding victimization rather than mobilization. The story doesn’t have to end with the trauma. The trauma is real, and awful and needs to be addressed. But I hope that the story also includes healing, growth, redemption and all the rest of life that contributes to each person’s individuality. I hope those impacted by these atrocities will recognize that this offense does not define who they are or their value. Maybe we should consider something like, #metoonomore.
Some have questioned the campaign for encouraging those who have been violated to make their stories more public. Of course, that is a matter of choice, and no one is required to share at all. But for those who decide to share their experiences, my hope is that their bravery will encourage others to be more intentional about caring for each other.
I hope that we don’t read these stories with judgment or blame, but with compassion and a desire to impact change where we are able. If you read each story as if it happened to your best friend, it might encourage you to say, “How can I make sure I never put someone in that kind of situation?” or, “How can I be protective of those who may not be able to protect themselves?”
Of course this is not an exhaustive list of all of the ways that #metoo could be interpreted or applied. But my hope is that we will use this as a platform for “seeing” each other, honoring each other, and being more intentional about our own words and actions as a result. Let us not use the bravery shown by those who’ve given voice to #metoo to divide us, but to strengthen our collective efforts toward respect and value for each other.