“Me Too”: on Sexual Assault

I want to preface this by emphasizing that I in no way want to trivialize experiences people have had as victims of sexual assault. All feelings are valid, and it’s ok to feel hurt even at something that might seem trivial to others.

 

People on my Facebook and Twitter are posting “me too,” which is meant to indicate that they’ve been victims of sexual assault. The comments talk about how rampant abuse is, and I’ve read many anecdotes over the last few days of experiences that have left people living in a state of fear. “The world is not safe for us,” seems to be the message.

 

I felt weird and confused, because I have never felt this, despite having been a sex worker and living in a lot of different cities. I’ve generally felt quite safe my entire life, and never really witnessed this systemic harassment that I see people talk about. I don’t know what’s going on – how is it that everyone’s getting abused around me and I’m left untouched and ignorant to this? I started to write a post about this.

 

But then I remembered – I actually was a victim of sexual assault. There were many instances in my life that might qualify – I was molested as a child, stalked and chased in deserted streets, groped at a party, forced into a handjob despite clearly and repeatedly saying no, kissed without consent, and I once had to physically chest-kick a man out my front door who’d followed me home after I drunkenly flirted with him. Also let’s not forget catcalling whenever I go outside alone wearing anything form-fitting.

 

So, I could also post “me too,” if I wanted! But posting it still didn’t feel right. Remembering these things didn’t make me feel less safe – in fact I had actually completely forgot about a few of the events up until this point. I never really considered them an issue.

 

I think this is because very few of the events made me feel afraid for my life or well being. The forced sexual contact was really annoying and uncomfortable, but I wasn’t afraid they would hurt me, and I think on a gut level I don’t view ‘having my hand shoved onto a dick’ as much different than ‘having my hand shoved onto a forearm.’ It was mostly uncomfortable because of social anxiety – I wasn’t sure how to effectively communicate without ruining my social ties later on.

 

The only thing that left lasting impact was being chased through Istanbul’s deserted streets by a hooded man – to this day I have trouble walking alone at night, even in safe areas. But I never really considered this part of a systemic problem – I don’t know if he wanted to rape or mug me, but both of those things seemed equally physically threatening, and I know several other people who’ve been mugged, most of them men, and I sort of classed it as just an unfortunate thing that happens sometimes. I never once thought of this as having to do with rape (or mugging) culture, and more thought of it as “sometimes psychopaths get born, and sometimes I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I don’t feel like a victim.

 

I have a weirdly high resilience to these experiences, but I don’t want to insinuate that those who don’t are weak. I did not choose to be unaffected, and it’s likely that the reasons for this are random factors in my childhood, or a genetic balance of brain chemicals, or something different and unknowable. I am not stronger, I take absolutely no credit, I just happened to find myself in this position.

 

But with the “Me Too” campaign, I felt a pressure to view the things that had happened to me as part of this ‘systemic abuse’ narrative, as important somehow, as something I should be more upset about. Was there something wrong with me for being so unaffected by sexual assault? Should I get more angry? The idea of offering up my experiences as part of the cause felt sort of appealing, like it granted me special status within this storylline.

 

And the problem here is that if I did choose to label my experiences as something important and troubling, that I would become unhappier and more fearful. People who view their experiences as important and troubling seem to also have a lot of distress associated with it, and it seems like it would be an improvement if they could reach a mental state where they no longer saw them as important and troubling.

 

I’m not at all saying they are failing by “Me Too”ing their experience, only that the state of “Me Too”ing is more unpleasant than a state without labels – and more importantly, that the “Me Too” program might actually increase the amount people feel their experience has been traumatic for them. I’m reminded of my experience leaving home. I was raised a homeschooler in an incredibly sheltered environment by an abusive father. The experience itself really sucked, and was very uncomfortable, but I did not assign it a special label. I didn’t know that my experience was special or important – until I left home and started talking to people from the outside world.

 

People reacted in horror when I mentioned things from my childhood that I thought were normal and common. They said things like, “are you okay? How are you coping?”. As I integrated with my new culture, I took on the horror they felt about my childhood. I started to feel angry at what I had gone through, and this caused me pain at least as great as the experience had been itself. I felt like I was living with a gaping wound in my chest. I felt injustice and crippling rage and suffered through nightmares for years. I defined myself as a victim, and thus I felt like a victim.

 

I would not have been able to heal without shedding my label and the narrative about what I had gone through. The label and the narrative helped me adjust to my new culture, but it also locked me into suffering. I no longer consider myself a victim, and as a result I no longer suffer like a victim.

 

Now, I’m not necessarily arguing that people shouldn’t have reacted in horror. I think probably rejecting my upbringing as ‘deeply not right’ was super important for integrating into a healthier perspective, and I think to some extent suffering from an updated narrative was inevitable – but I do wish deeply, at some point, that someone would have told me to not make it special. I wish someone would have told me that I should feel and process whatever pain I need to feel, but to refuse to give it an identity, to refuse to make it part of me. I wish at least one person would not have reacted with horror. I wish someone had told me this didn’t need to be a story about the poor abused Christian girl who must feel the way a poor abused Christian girl should feel.

 

And in the same way, I sort of want to reach out to the people saying Me Too and I want to tell them that it’s okay to hurt, but this doesn’t have to be anything special. It can just be pain, and then healing. I’m afraid that the cultural attitude that sparks Me Too will lock people into the pain.

 

Please realize I’m not necessarily making an argument against the “Me Too” campaign. It’s very possible that the benefits are greater than this cost, especially in a world where sexual assault is a hidden harm – but I wanted to introduce the concept that going about it this way might also have a cost. I don’t know if Me Too is a net benefit or not, but I see nobody discussing the potential downsides, and I feel a cultural pressure not to. There’s a reason I’m posting this here on my blog and not on my social media.

 

It’s just, despite having a list of ways in which people have sexually abused or harassed me, I am happy. I don’t feel any urge to label those experiences. I don’t feel afraid, and I feel completely free. I want others to know that this is possible, and that maybe one path is by rejecting the urge to put those experiences into a storyline that designates them as special.

19 thoughts on ““Me Too”: on Sexual Assault

  1. Also in the realm of potential iatrogenesis that is currently taboo to mention is the disturbingly strong evidence that PTSD itself is primarily socially constructed/iatrogenic.

    On a global scale there is little to no correlation between frequency and severity of trauma in a population and frequency and severity of PTSD, even when accounting for lower reporting rates. There is also significant cross-cultural variation in what traumas are associated with PTSD.

    There are nations where the trauma rate is 5x-10x higher than a nation like Canada but where the incidence of PTSD is 3x-4x lower.

    There is a strong sense that PTSD objectively exists, independently of the descriptions of psychologists. that PTSD always existed and was discovered, rather than was invented in the 1980s as a response to the Vietnam war to cover a collection of symptoms that were previously separate diagnoses.

    Already several large meta-analyses have found that “Psychological Debriefing”, a treatment currently in widespread use around the world which was intended to prevent people from developing PTSD after exposure to trauma, not only doesn’t work but causes significant long term adverse effects. Literally worse than doing nothing.

    In any other case, a movement of many thousands of people who were found to have been causing long term psychological harm to trauma survivors would be a national scandal, but it has been almost completely ignored by trauma advocates and politicians alike, simply because it is politically unpalatable to say anything that could be construed as unsympathetic to victims. Currently it’s seen as preferable to harm someone with good intentions than help them with supposedly “bad” intentions.

    When such an obvious and well evidenced case of iatrogenic harm at a large scale gains no media traction, the question of whether PTSD diagnosis itself is iatrogenic, is almost untouchable, considering how entrenched the concept is in both psychology and popular culture.

  2. There is some scientific literature that supports this hypothesis.

    One study found that labeling an unwanted sexual experience as “sexual assault” or “rape” was associated with significantly higher rates of PTSD, shame and anger than those who didn’t label similar experiences that way, although there are some confounding variables (i.e. more aggressive/less ambiguous interactions are more likely to be labelled as an assault/rape)

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268138796_Victims_and_Survivors_of_Crime_The_Effects_of_Labeling_Unwanted_Sexual_Experiences_on_Mental_Health

    Cultural narratives that say sexual assault inevitably causes lasting or irreversible psychological damage, that it ruins/destroys lives, that it is a fate worse than death likely contributes to this, as well as puritan attitudes that see sexual violation as a source of shame, dishonor and devaluation.

    I think the definitional grouping of “unwanted” with “assault” is potentially a problem for overfitting experiences.

    As a man I have had multiple unwanted sexual experiences that could be described as sexual assault and even rape (e.g. pressured into sex reluctantly after saying no), but I have never thought of those experiences in that way nor been encouraged to by society or peer group, and they have never been a source of distress or lasting psychological burden. At worst they were momentarily awkward, indifferent or uncomfortable experiences that quickly passed, and I attributed them to drunken lapses in judgement, miscommunication or my own lack of assertiveness rather than malice.

    That is not to say such experiences cannot be traumatic and damaging, but they do not have to be by definition. There seems to be a clear danger of trauma being prescribed by language rather than described.

    There doesn’t appear to be a useful terminology for these types of experience. Much of academic feminist literature
    denies the existence of any gray areas or ambiguity surrounding consent, and considers anything less than 100% explicit enthusiastic consent as a crime and a trauma, even if people to not acknowledge it as such. If you tell people the only way to describe their experiences is using definitions that require them to identify as a victim of a deliberately malicious life-altering psychological trauma, that might have some effect on how they process those experiences. If the nocebo effect can cause allergic reactions and panic attacks, then presumably telling someone they’ve suffered an irrevocable psychic wound can cause some psychological trauma.

    Unfortunately in the current climate, if a statement cannot be easily parsed as either condemning the evilness of crime and criminals or supporting/defending/empowering victims, there is little room for it in discussion.

    Evidence of the iatrogenic harms of over-diagnosis and labeling does not neatly fit into either condemning evil crimes or supporting victims, and so is written off as dismissing the seriousness of crimes or blaming victims for their emotional responses.

  3. Thanks for putting into words many of my feelings on “me too.”

    I’m also a fem who has worked in the sex industry (as a “high end” masseuse going to clients homes and hotels), have traveled around by hitchhiking in multiple countries on my own, as well as lived in NYC for years, taking the subway home alone at all hours of the night… and I don’t feel (or fear) like a victim. It’s not that I have not been sexually assualted or cat-called, it’s that those experiences haven’t been filed into any memorable place within my head. Your comment “I wish someone would have told me that I should feel and process whatever pain I need to feel, but to refuse to give it an identity, to refuse to make it part of me” reminds me of the Buddhist principle of anicca (impermanence) and the teaching to not get attached to any state of being. Feeling an emotion, reflecting and learning from it are prudent responses to difficulties and traumatic experiences; but absorbing an experience to become that experience seems to be ego-driven (a tendency to conflate what is the world with what touches you personally).

    One of the influences on my thinking about sexual trauma comes from an anthropological memoir called Into the Heart by Ken Good. In it he describes a situation in which a woman from a neighboring tribe is gang raped by a group of teenagers in public, and the look of resignation he sees in this woman and the indifference of the majority of people (who are not strangers to her) who go about their business without regard to her predicament. As far as I know the implications of this scene haven’t been studied in more depth (maybe because the anthropologist didn’t want to risk more after the loads of enmity he received for marrying a teenager from the tribe) but it inspired me to think about sexual assault in a different way from the commonly held paradigm. In our culture, sexual assault is not only regarded to be traumatic, it’s encouraged to be traumatic. Could this stem from the puritanical elements that have shaped our culture, the very ideas that treated any “violation” to a woman’s virginity (our best quality apparently) as a trauma? The memoir I mentioned seems to suggest that the woman’s situation is a predictable outcome of having left the security of her spouse and her tribe to travel alone. Everything in the memoir suggests that she will move on with her life as usual, that no one will shame her or reject her for being raped, that being raped will never become her “special” experience. Could the harm done by sexual assault be reduced if the culture in which women experience it not bestow it with this life changing status? I think so.

  4. Interesting point of view however my take on the me too movement is less about overall feeling of safety and more of shining a light on how prevalent the problem is. People often think that bad things happen for reason like you put yourself in that situation and therefore it really could’nt happened to them And I think the me to movement is to try to show people that it can and therefore we should work harder to stamp it out if that makes sense

  5. Interestingly enough, I found your blog through Slate Star Codex, and I can say that you are simply amazing. Literally the same thing has happened to me, but I was (am) still in the phase of being a victim. I felt the same way how you did when those things happened, and only afterwards I “understood” that I was the sufferer and that it was all so terrible… Thank you so much for showing your unpopular opinion, because I was so confused on what to think about this myself, because I knew that I have to let it go but did not know how. Also, your post about saying no to sex felt like you have visited my brain and just deep-dived into my subconsciousness. Your blog is a true gem.

  6. I think your approach is correct. There are real issues of denigration of women, and men for that matter, but people choose to make it a look at me moment rather than deal with the real issues of what it is to be human. I think a lot of the “me too” is people seeing the world only through their own personal experience rather than as it really is. An opportunity to wallow in self masterbation. You have many comments referring to your intellect….I think that is accurate. Intelligent people see the multiple sides to an issue….the ignorant see only their own view. You embody beauty and intellect and I for one am a fan.

  7. This isn’t a comment on this post- I just wanted to say that I stop by here from time to time and enjoy the writing. Came for the boobs, stayed for the intelligence. (that is not a gross pun! oh man, this comment is going downhill fast). I’m just trying to say that your brain is interesting. (Not trying to objectifying your brain, oh jeez). I like your writing! (okay, I think that’s safe, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead).

  8. Yeah, about a month or two ago a guy came into my store trying to tell me that he saw me on Grindr (which I have never used on account of being straight) and tried to show me my coworkers’ Grindr profiles. Then he kept catcalling me from his car every time I walked by for about five minutes. And honestly, the thought that I was being/have been sexually harassed is more distressing than the incident itself, which I feel like would have just remained as a story about a random creeper if I hadn’t seen so much Discourse about sexual assault.

  9. Hashtag activism is a joke. There’s a new one every three months. Feminists have been complaining about rape culture for decades and men still sexually harass, assault, and rape.

    Also, you are participating in “Me Too” by writing this long blog entry and linking it everywhere. The purpose of this “campaign” is to raise “awareness” by talking about sexual assault openly. Which is what you’re doing, except without the histrionic outrage.

  10. Thank you for putting this into (straightforward but also sensitive) words! It outlines an objection I’ve had a long time to this and similar campaigns, but which I am in no position to try to articulate to the world.

    Actually the biggest issue I have with this particular campaign is that it lumps sexual harassment (such a broad category of behaviors that I already assume practically every woman has faced it in some form at some point in her life) in with rather more severe crimes. If the idea were to post “Me Too!” just for sexual assault and rape, then it would still suffer somewhat from the same issue that you outlined above, but at least it might be very educational to me and to a lot of other men, especially if it were limited to just rape (I’m curious as to how many of my acquaintances have suffered these things, and know I might be in for a rude surprise). Instead, the umbrella was widened to the point that it covers something probably all women* have faced, makes it all part of The Narrative, and further muddies a broad range of behaviors that greatly vary in severity and rarity.

    *as well as many men, and probably most men have faced some kind of non-sexual harassment but that’s another issue

  11. Maybe I misinterpreted it but this movement never occurred to me as something that would reinforce a lifestyle of holding onto the label of victim. I thought it was simply a way to raise awareness of how widespread the issue is? Isn’t that why you can simply post “me too” and not have to give a full story?

    That said I do agree with a previous response that this probably has political leanings. I don’t find it surprising that the Conservative party, which produces politicians who say “the female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down” in regards to rape doesn’t see the point of a movement like this. The only people who gave me open hostility in response to a post with two little words were my conservative relatives.

  12. “in fact I had actually completely forgot about a few of the events up until this point.”

    I don’t think you’ve healed, sorry. You think you have, I read that clearly, but there’s much denial. Again, sorry. One day this will come to a head and you’ll better understand how your strength has not helped as much as it has hid your pain.

    Consider too that by calling out others ‘me too-ing’ as non-special you go against the grain – inadvertently making yourself special. And I think you are ….just not in the positive light you proclaim.

    All the best 🙂

      1. Telling someone that they’re wrong about their own lived experiences and emotions is pretty rude. Saying “you are under-reacting because you’re in denial” is fundamentally no different than saying “you’re overreacting because you’re too sensitive.”

    1. That’s an extraordinarily patronizing response. What about Aella’s writing and thinking suggests to you that she isn’t sufficiently self-aware to understand precisely and accurately what she is feeling and why?

  13. I think on balance #metoo does more good than harm. It wasn’t tell the last couple of year on ACF, that I realized just how common sexual assaults were. The Weinstein, Cosby, Clinton, Trump and the Ubers of the world need to be called out and public shamed and condemned.

    But it is important to differentiate the stuff that is criminal (rapes and attempted rapes), from the stuff that is borderline and situational unwanted hugs, and kisses, and gropes at a party where everybody has been drinking are different than the same behavior at work I remember in high school a girl shoved her butt into my crochet and rubbed during orchestra class. I liked her and it. In college a girl during a party grabbed my crochet and then called me gay when I pulled away, and I didn’t like either her or what she did. But it seems laughable to call myself a victim in either case.

    It is also critical to acknowledge than men and woman are very different and respond to different things and even more importantly not all women are alike what is offensive to some woman, is a compliment to others.

    I’m guessing if Aella puts on pink low cut crop top and pair of tight jeans and goes to a bar and the only reaction she gets from all night from any guy is “oh what cute top, I love that shade of pink, where did you get it. Part of her is going to be be pretty pissed. On the other hand if she walks by a construction site and the guys applaud and cheer, she’ll be happy but not afraid. Where as another girl would have completely the opposite reaction.

    “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” The danger of #metoo is that it will create a climate of irrational fear that every man is rapist. Crimes, especially violent crimes in America are way down, just because more woman report this doesn’t mean there has been in explosion of Harvey Weinstein. If anything they are dying out. 30 years ago in my frat, most (but not all) guy felt it was ok to grab a girl’s butt or her boob at party. If she didn’t like it she’d let you know by moving away, and if you had really gone too far she’d slap you, yell at you, or throw a drink in your face. I image very few guys think that way in 2017 especially younger guys.

  14. My gut reaction to this campaign has been skeptical and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Your reason speaks to a convo I had yesterday, in which during lunch with a friend she casually brought up her childhood abuse and other traumatic incidents. She didn’t identify herself with these acts nor did she want to. And likewise I didn’t act horrified, just listened, like any friend would. You put it into words nicely in a way that makes sense.

    The other reason – which a female friend of mine underlined to me – was to question anything that on any level begins to resemble Orwell and Animal Farm. The campaign was essentially asking her for her story with the hopes that it – the campaign – would do something better and good with it than she could herself. Her confidence in this was dubious.

    When I went through my Facebook feed and saw all of the “Me too’s” – including one from my mom (I remember one of her stories from when it happened as a kid) – I also noticed another trend. Every single one of them was from my liberal friends. All conservative friends and family opted out, which made me consider that this – like nearly all other hashtag social media movements – is isolated to particular political parties. I doubt my conservative female friends and family haven’t experienced sexual assault, rape, trauma etc – In fact I know of one specific relative who divorced her husband because of this – but I’m sure they’re attitude toward it is different than mine and my liberal friends for reasons having to do with values and attitudes and a hundred other qualities that make us distinct.

    Still unsure how I feel – and could very well be wrong and am open to that – but the fact that I don’t feel comfortable even bringing it up in any but a few specific settings (comment Thread on your blog being one) – is a sign of something else entirely. Anyway: interesting words as always.

  15. There’s another reason to avoid it, to my mind, which you briefly touched on above but which I want to make a particular note of. The whole “me too” thing is pushing a particular idea about why sexual assault (and sexual harrassment which they’ve lumped in with it) happens, which I think they’re quite wrong about. (Largely in that they’re claiming there is a unified reason — “rape culture” (terrible terminology, but whatever) certainly does seem to be a real thing, but I’m seriously doubtful of the claim that it has any substantial bearing on e.g. the Harvey Weinstein case that seems to have sparked this.) And if I were to go and say “me too” it would be read as endorsing that claim. (As well as other implicit claims like “lumping sexual assault and sexual harrassment is, in general, a useful way to look at these things”.) (Conversely, going on Facebook and saying “You’re all WRONG about this!”, even in much more polite language, it would, I expect, not go well for me…)

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