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Survivors of sexual harassment who are silent still deserve support

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FEBRUARY 19, 2018

Part of the empowerment of the “Me Too” hashtag was the duality associated with taking on its label. It simultaneously allowed survivors to be blatantly visible and subtly inconspicuous. #MeToo not only gave a voice to survivors of sexual violence, but also promoted participation to all who have lived through any and all sexual harassment. The social media platform created a network of solidarity incomparable to other conversations on sexual violence.

At the same time, because of the wide range of experiences that were encapsulated by the movement, #MeToo was able to make sharp, painful experiences fuzzier and more formless. Some used #MeToo as a way to elaborate on their experiences, to announce to their peers that they are survivors of rape, to enlightened them of atrocities endured.

But for many, a simple “#MeToo” was the extent of their status. And because of that, it was impossible to determine what exactly someone’s experience was. Anyone could be a survivor of anything. A survivor of rape could assume the identity of someone who’s been catcalled, and vice versa. Scant details and ambiguous experiences may have been a source of empowerment for some.

Assuming the identity of a survivor is a heavy burden to bear — one which we cannot and should not demand of people. Those who chose to be public about their rape or assault absolutely deserve our compassion and support. But reticent survivors should not feel the pressure to out themselves in order to receive the same support.

A statement sans details, the veil of #MeToo may have served as a stepping stone for those silent survivors. A status could have been the beginning of a survivor’s conversation about their trauma — maybe not with an estranged Facebook connection, but perhaps with a close friend or family member. And that is an invaluable benefit of solidarity.

But for all the statuses tagged #MeToo, we need to ask ourselves, how many who posted received the support they deserved? Social media is an inherently passive form of human interaction; we get to choose when and with whom we interact.

Perhaps a prolonged status received a wealth of comments and direct messages expressing shock, love, empathy or otherwise. But what of those that merely touted the movement’s hashtag? These statuses might have garnered some comments, and likely a mix of like, love and sad reacts. But once we saw 10, 11, 12 statuses in a row, how did we react? Maybe frustration, anger, empathy or despair at the truth they unveiled. How widespread this problem is, how cultural the phenomena, we may have mused. But what of the individual? Was there a saturation point, when another “#MeToo” was exasperatingly accepted as another example of a cultural dogma?

So far as the movement brought survivors together, we should be reflective in how much support we truly extended. The movement undeniably revealed the extent of cultural sexual violence acceptance in our society, a much-needed step in the process of reform.

But how well did we handle the outpouring of statuses? How many survivors faded into the collective #MeToo experience? Consider the bravery and pain the simple action of posting a status may have had on any survivor. A few Facebook reacts is an inadequate response to trauma. How long might someone have deliberated on whether to add their voice to the conversation, only to find themselves without any tangible extension of compassion or love?

I regrettably admit that I extended my hand to very few during the height of the movement. I made a few comments, sure, and I clicked “like” on far too many statuses. But for most statuses I saw, that was the extent of my interaction. There was no private message, no offer of unrequited support, no promise of nonjudgmental listening.

And in doing so, I left the burden of change with survivors. If I, and others, truly want to support survivors, we should do more than merely react to their pain and experiences. We should use empathy and care to push the conversation forward. We should not demand that survivors, and survivors alone, shift culture and lead discussions. Instead, everyone can be an agent of change by listening, learning, educating and advocating on behalf of survivors, regardless of identification as survivor or supporter.

But to be earnest in our support, we must take the time to be critical of ourselves. Growth comes from mistakes. In the conversations leading up to this article, I realized how many opportunities to be an active advocate for survivors I dismissed. I wonder if I could have given someone’s experience needed validation. I hope, at least, that they found it through someone else. No survivor deserves what happened to them, but all survivors deserve support.

To my fellow peers who want to be agents of change but don’t know how, I pose a challenge for all of us: Be self-reflective. Given the reach of our culture of sexual violence, we need to question the times we’ve been complicit in it. When have we seen or heard something we knew was wrong but chose to do nothing? Even further than willful ignorance, when have we perpetuated the exact issues we now want to solve? When have we been disrespectful or derogatory? When have we acted in ways that were harmful or violating? Were we the reason somebody posted “#MeToo”? These might be uncomfortable questions to ask ourselves. But we must come to terms with our faults to ensure we don’t repeat them again. Only then can we sincerely start to listen.

Nathan Park is one of the co-directors of campus organization Greeks Against Sexual Assault.

FEBRUARY 20, 2018