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.