Alyssa Milano , Kesha, Lady Gaga, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gabrielle Union, Barry Crimmins, Anna Paquin, Javier Munoz, Debra Messing, Rosario Dawson, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna Arquette, Evan Rachel Wood, Ashley Judd and I all share something in common, and it wasn’t our early 1990s love for New Kids on the Block (well, maybe all share that, too). More commonly, we are just a few of the many who can say, “Yeah, #MeToo.
Unfortunately, accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault aren’t the outliers. They’re universal experiences. The reported numbers are far lower than actual numbers. Why, then, does society treat those on the receiving end of these unsolicited acts as some weird, freakish anomalies?
Silenced Into Shame: #MeToo
It seems many neck-in-the-sand people are ignorant of how their reactions serve as silencers on abuse disclosures (let’s hope it’s ignorance and not maliciousness). For example, too many buy into the mythological “just desserts” theory, and they assume a victim’s mistakes caused their victimization. Victims did it to themselves. Obviously, there’s little logic in this. But these people think themselves smarter, wiser, persons, and they make authoritative judgments about what they didn’t experience. Here are a few such authoritative comments from my friends:
“No, no–he didn’t really ‘assault’ you … I can assure you, that never happened … he only touched you once … he admitted that he touched you inappropriately, and I have to forgive him … I can’t judge him for something he did in the past … no, I didn’t know about that [other] time … are you sure you didn’t just put yourself in a bad situation … it was so long ago … well, it was just two times … you didn’t tell me [back then] it happened more than once, so why should I believe you now … no, I can assure you, he has no other victims … well, no, I don’t actually know [if he has other victims] … I don’t get why you’re bringing this up now … well, it is a little weird he [just a few years ago] named his child [my first name] … no, I don’t know why he named his child [my first name] … maybe you should ask his wife … I thought [the naming of his child] was a slap in the face to his wife … his wife’s the one who should really be upset, not you … well, there’s no reason he shouldn’t volunteer around children, he’s a father, you were a teenager when he did that to you, not a child … people who touch children are the real sex offenders … he only did it once … you act like it was horrific, like he raped you … there was no penetration … did you ever tell him his coming into your [home and around your child in recent years] made you feel uncomfortable … maybe you should just talk to him … I don’t agree with involving [the community] … I question your motives … seems to me this is a great platform for your career … he isn’t like Bill Cosby because Bill Cosby’s victims couldn’t fight back … well, if you were asleep, then, I guess that is worse … what happened to [me, my husband, etc.] was real abuse, way more traumatic than anything you ever experienced … you need to just go to therapy like everybody else and deal with this privately … I believe you, but we’re good friends [with the offender and his wife], though, so this is tough for me … even though I don’t support you in this, it doesn’t change the way I feel about you ….”
These responses aren’t unique to a few of my so-called “friends” (newsflash, real friends would zealously advocate for you and would never stand to see others degrade or dehumanize you). These are classic responses to disclosures of sexual assault when the offender is known–a friend, a family member, or a respected person in a community. When abuse occurs within closed communities, personal experience becomes a football play in review on a flag. Community members presumptuously play the part of referees without regard to instant replay.
At the risk of sounding impolite, the above presumptions were pretty pompous and arrogant. I loved these people–still do. Yet, in their bias, my “friends” rewrote truth as a fiction narrative in their own minds. My “friends” minimized what occurred. They marginalized, invalidated, and grossly disrespected me. Worse, they were (are) wrong. Tragically wrong (read my letter to the offender here or the offender’s letter to see how wrong).
At the time of my offender’s abusing me, I disclosed to friends that he “inappropriately” touched me. It was a general statement without full details (typical of initial disclosures) because I didn’t know who I could trust with the full truth. Friends never followed-up because it was quickly hushed away. When I tried to bring it up again, the reactions were “here she goes again,” as if I was overreacting, being too sensitive, and irrationally feeling unsettled by how everything was “handled” (or not handled).
The thing is, at seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, I carried the facts of what happened with me. But I didn’t know the appropriate sexual violence vocabulary under which to categorize those facts. I couldn’t call it what it was because I did not know what it was until a psychiatrist helped me understand the definitions. Then, I could see, yeah, I was sexually assaulted. Yes, there was grooming. Yes, it was abuse.
Here’s the thing. This was an esteemed psychiatrist, and I could clearly see the facts met the definition of sexual abuse, but cognitive distortion intervened. I reasoned, if it was “real” abuse, then then my family and friends would have taken it more seriously, right? If they didn’t think it was a big deal, then it couldn’t be abuse. When my doctor handed me the “crime victim” pamphlet, and urged me to report this guy to police, I recoiled. “I’m not a victim,” I said.
For perspective, this doctor had an impressive resume–distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, fellow of the National Institute of Mental Health, forensic psychiatry specialist, professor of psychiatry, Founding Fellow of the Academy of Eating Disorders, author of 150+ research articles and book chapters, and medical consultant for the National Crime Victim’s Research & Treatment Center. He was Ruby Gettinger’s psychiatrist on Style Network’s reality-documentary series, Ruby. He kind of knew his stuff.
Why was I hesitant? It was the expert conclusion of my psychiatrist against the opinion of my friends. Against the opinion of my church. My doctor told me this environment was bad for me and that this was a serious crime, but I said, “If I report this guy to the police, I will lose everything. My family, my friends, my church, everything.” I cried, “I will be cut off. I can’t. I just can’t.”
‘Divorced’ Your Friends: #MeToo
Experience had taught me this offender had a propensity to wound. Then, years later, after the same actor behaved badly again, I was done. This time, I knew better. What I wasn’t prepared for was being abandoned, disregarded, devalued, and assassinated by the people I held dearest to my heart–my trusted, lifelong friends.
So, as Oprah says here, it was time to divorce them, those so-called “friends.” My friends’ negative reactions to my calling out the same offender’s new offense triggered something. Before, something in me was “willing to tolerate” this negativity, even though it was an utter devaluation of my existence. I looked at myself and said, no more. This is not the kind of person I will be. I am not someone who is silent about flagrantly offensive behavior. I was no longer willing to allow others false comfort at my expense (or my children’s expense). As Oprah says, “I will not allow you to treat me this way…and when you get some sense, call me, and let me know that your senses has returned.”
Truth Hijacked: #MeToo
Especially appalling (it honestly disgusted me) was how others would hijack the truth and twist, distort, or reshape it into something more palatable for them (read my post ‘Only Touching’ for more on this). What’s sad is, as I suspected, I got a phone call confirming the existence of other victims. My instincts were right. The red flags weren’t hyped up over-exaggerations. This shows it is more than naïve to reshape truth–it creates public danger, and it puts unsuspecting individuals in harm’s way.
Underlying the twisting of truth are cognitive distortions.
It is very tempting to side with the accused when that person is someone we have seen only as “friend,” “brother,” “cousin,” “colleague,” “son,” “neighbor,” “husband,” or “father.” But we must be more circumspect. Sexual offenders come from all roles, communities, and backgrounds. They lead double lives. Therefore, when reports of sexual violence come from inside our communities, we must press pause. We have to recognize our own cognitive bias and admit were are not equipped to be judges. Otherwise, we may find ourselves hijacking others’ experiences.
We must be respectful of those who speak truth (the #MeToo voices). Sexual harassment and assault survivors aren’t lottery winners. There are no prizes or jackpots handed out to persons who brave speaking about their most private, personal traumatic experiences. There’s no service medal given to those who make themselves publicly vulnerable by disclosing they were targets of sexual violence. These persons risk losing lifelong communities, families, and friends. To suggest survivors disclose for personal gain contradicts reason. Worse, it’s just cruel.
Health Harmed: #MeToo
Another problem with typical responses is the propensity to rush judgment and make “at least” statements. Sexual violence isn’t a club or sport. Victims are not in competition with one another, and we need to stop playing the comparison game. Comparing victim’s experiences is an emotionally abusive way to invalidate individuals and distort reality. There’s no “real” sexual assault, “pseudo” sexual assault, or “quasi” sexual assault. It’s all real. It’s all traumatic. It’s life.
What is trauma? Here is my former psychiatrist defining trauma and explaining the connection to bulimic forms of eating disorders (my “friends” and “family” should be in the middle of an “aha” moment; pay close attention to the video around 9:25 and 14:00):
To those who’ve said the above things, if you don’t like reading someone’s #MeToo experience, then do more to prevent it. Hold abusers accountable so they know sexual violence won’t be tolerated. Otherwise, expect it to happen. Own your willful ignorance, and deal with the consequences of that choice. Each single act of any form of sexual violence is a violation of a person’s autonomy. Each act of sexual assault is traumatic. Period.
“Lenore Terr, a child psychiatrist who did the first longitudinal study of traumatized children writes, ‘psychic trauma occurs when a sudden, unexpected, overwhelming intense emotional blow or a series of blows assaults the person from outside. Traumatic events are external, but they quickly become incorporated into the mind.'”
Sexual assault has many immediate and lasting effects on victims. It effects the victim’s physical, psychological, emotional, social health. It is a public health problem–not a personal health issue. The level of trauma victims suffer depend on many factors:
- Age of Victim & Duration of Assault(s): The greater a person’s exposure to trauma, the more of an impact it will have on a person’s social, physical, and psychological development. This means those who are very young and those who endure multiple, longer episodes of assault have their physiological survival system permanently altered. Not only does it alter the victim, though. Research shows it alters the physiological systems of the victim’s offspring, too. Yeah, impacts of violence are that far reaching.
- Circumstances of the Assault(s): The more sudden and unexpected an attack, the higher the threat of physical danger associated with attack (e.g., physical confinement, use of force or weapons, etc.), and the more an actor exposes a victim to social, public, or community harm, the greater the impact.
- State of the Victim When Assault(s) Occurred: Victims who were mentally incompetent, drugged, sleeping, very young, or otherwise incapacitated are more likely to suffer greater neurochemistry changes in their responses to dangerous situations. Humans, like many other biological species, naturally adapt to situations they are powerless to change. Their bodies involuntarily become tonically immobile. This adaptation causes later social, sexual, and immune system impairments.
- Response of Others Following Assault & Disclosure: Sexual assault is a public problem–not a private problem–where public, community, and institutional responses to disclosed assaults directly impact victims’ recovery, health, and well-being. Negative reactions, in the form of interrogations, displaced anger, and/or disbelief, become secondary assaults on the victim. This multiplies and compounds the trauma.
“Often victims of sexual violence are simply not believed. These circumstances make it much more difficult for victims to seek help and recover from their experience.”
Each case of sexual harassment and assault is a problem with our society, our culture. It’s a problem with our media, our entertainment, our workplaces, our churches, our universities, our K-12 schools, our military, our sports leagues–it’s a problem with us. #MeToo
Blamed For Someone Else’s Actions: #MeToo
As shown above, we, as a society, have a problem in responding appropriately when brave victims come forward to expose abuse. We do not treat these unfortunate targets of violence with dignity. See this in the Corey Feldman interview on The View. When Corey Feldman speaks of the abuses he and his deceased friend, Corey Haim, endured as children, Barbara Walters levies this attack to shame him: “You’re damaging an entire industry.”
No, Barbara, Corey Feldman didn’t damage the industry. He shouldn’t be the one apologizing. Actors who commit violent sexual crimes damage the industry. Actors who commit violent sexual crimes damage our communities, institutions, businesses, schools, churches, and homes.
But–real talk–the blame doesn’t end with the sick, disturbed violent actors whose hands violate others. No. There’s some culpability to be shared by those, like Barbara Walters here and my friends above, the compliant, complicit “shamers.”
Yes, to you who’ve stuck your necks in the sand when confronted with direct evidence of sexual assault, only to stick your nose in a victim’s disclosure later, those who’ve responded to victims either with detrimental arrogance or cool indifference, those who’ve withheld authentic support–you are culpable. You aren’t responsible for the initial abuse–you ARE responsible for your re-traumatizing. You are part of the reason someone out there has a social media status reads #MeToo. You have permanently scarred. You have compounded trauma. It’s on you. It’s on me. #ItsOnUs
Outing the Truth: #MeToo
And–real talk–to the friend who couldn’t “support” me, but who said it didn’t “change the way [she felt] about” me? I don’t know that you’ll ever read this, but just in case you do, this is to you. I never asked you to choose me. But I did ask you, at least, to choose neutral. You couldn’t do it. You were so certain, and you were certainly wrong. You broke my heart.
“Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to, was a tenet I absorbed with my baby-food.”
Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
We have known each other forever, and yet it is obvious you never knew me. If you did, you wouldn’t have had to question my motives. Your dismissive words show how little you valued me, and that cut deep. It doesn’t hurt anymore. I did the right thing. Go on Twitter and read the #MeToo and #ChurchToo experiences for yourself.
I absolutely still love you, and I forgive you for injury to me. What still bothers me is your recklessness left others at risk. When I asked you about his other victims, I already knew they existed. I didn’t ask the question without knowing the answer. You were dangerously biased against the truth. I knew, once the truth outed, you would have to confront that reality for yourself. Now that you know better, do me this favor. Please do better by your next friend.
And if you don’t better even after this, then I hope you find a reputable psychiatrist somewhere who can help you conquer your cognitive distortions. I also hope you watch the Kesha video below because, yes, my old friend, I am praying for you. I truly am.
Remember this: Jesus was so angry with the desecration of holy places that he overturned tables, purging the temple on the Monday before his Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection. Any who shifted beyond neutral into active support for this person who preyed on the vulnerable will have to answer for it. You won’t have to answer to me, but you will have to answer to a higher authority one day. #ThatsOnYou
Taking a Stand & Changing the Culture: #MeToo
Below, I leave you with these three videos. May you watch, not to judge, not to condemn, but to empathize. It is far easier to prevent this crime than to heal those broken by it. 1. Lady Gaga’s official video for “Til It Happens To You.” 2. Kesha’s official video for “Praying.” 3. Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens To You” at the Oscars (with sexual assault survivors joining her on stage).