30 Oct #MeToo: Same Issue, Different Hashtag, Different Reactions
I logged onto my Facebook account on Monday the 19th of October, only to see my timeline flooded with stomach-churning and gut-wrenching stories from folks who have been sexually abused. This is not the first time a hashtag has gone viral for allowing many folks to step out and talk about their own experiences of sexual abuse. Remember #ItHappenedToMe on Twitter? Even the #MenAreTrash is centred on the same issue.
So many people have been sexually abused by (mostly) cisgender men. Not a week goes by that we don’t hear or read stories of sexual attacks and the perpetrators are, often, people close to or trusted by the victims. If this is not on the news, it is in our families, in our places of worship or our communities. It is hard to get accurate figures on these attacks, be it on a local or international level. One thing’s for sure, any available statistics are always postulated to be higher due to the incidence of unreported cases of violence – a huge problem on its own because oftentimes and for various reasons, victims are threatened or guilt-tripped into silence. We have a huge problem!
As a child, I was sexually abused by several men including my brothers and I am still dealing with some of the ways this impacted me. I don’t recall ever being threatened into keeping quiet about the abuse. Still, I never told anyone about the violations and the abuse went on for years and my trust in men, along with my self-confidence, crumbled during that ordeal. It was in high school that I finally opened up about the abuse. This was after our teacher told us that if one had been sexually abused but did not report this then it meant they enjoyed the abuse. A teacher. A woman. She said this. I felt ill listening to her say this and so I decided to speak up just to prove to her and, mostly, to myself that I did not “enjoy” being sexually abused. It did take courage for me to talk about this. However, I did not have the courage to say this to my mother and so a counsellor at school offered to talk to her, on my behalf. I believe I was afraid. I was afraid of her reaction. It had taken me years to say this and I wondered if my family would believe me at all. I was also afraid of what my brothers would do to me after this.
My mother, who passed on in 2009, never talked to me about the abuse. I will never know why. She was advised to take me to a clinic and we did. The nurse suggested we also open a case with the police. On our way home from the clinic, my mother asked me if that was what I wanted – to stand in court with “the people”. She couldn’t even bring herself to refer to call her sons by their names. Fear gripped me and I said no. Case closed. I wish my mother had shown me more support. It felt like she took sides, one of many occasions where I felt she displayed a partial form of parenting. Of course, I know she may have found it hard to come to terms with her child being abused by her other children. Still, I needed her support. I needed to know that she was concerned about my well-being.
I bottled up a lot of pain within me and at some point, that pain translated into anger. On several occasions, I would have raging episodes. At one point, my family even wanted to call the police because I went on a rampage and started breaking glasses. With all that I had experienced, the sexual and emotional abuse, I could have done well with some love. I didn’t feel loved and that only added to the anger.
A few years after my mother had been told about my experiences, I found myself in a family squabble that resulted in me blurting out – in a moment of exasperation- how my brother had sexually abused me. Of course, he denied it. Unsurprisingly, he physically assaulted me. Apparently, I was a home-wrecker. Apparently, I was lying because if he had abused me I would have said something at that time. Dishearteningly, the family members present – of which my mother was one – just stood there while I was being assaulted. Being open about my experiences only served to have caused more (undeserved) pain.
Seeing other folks talk about their own experiences makes one realise that we are all just different versions of one song. Of course, whenever a platform is opened for such experiences of sexual abuse, one can expect different reactions from the rest of society. I feel it is important that we be mindful of how we react in such situations where others are highlighting those experiences at the hands of those who are mostly in positions of perceived power over them. The impact of what we say is very likely to override our intention. Words matter. Words are powerful. Below are some of the comments made regarding the #MeToo.
“REAL men don’t rape”
Of course, they do. Those people committing this heinous crime are REAL. Unless the crime is committed by a boy, a child (though this isn’t any more acceptable). Furthermore, we need to stop referring to adult men as boys. “Boys will be boys,” for instance, is a toxic message.
Men who feel the need to say things like “real men don’t rape” seem to be trying to distance themselves from assuming any form of responsibility in the violence. These men, who obviously believe themselves to be the REAL MEN, fail to take appropriate action and call to account the many men who continue to abuse in various ways. Such statements only seem to be a cop out from people who clearly are reluctant to take a firm, substantive stand against acts of violence perpetrated by their counterparts. Given the severity of this situation which is obviously a by-product of the power dynamics in a society that is still patriarchal, it is not enough to say, “real men don’t rape”. With the power afforded to men in our societies, we expect more from them aside from shallow words that offer no assurance of safety to those at risk of being violated by men and hold none of the perpetrators accountable.
“I feel triggered by this hashtag”
It takes a lot of courage to talk about our experiences of sexual abuse. For some, it may even take more courage because being open about those experiences tends to prick the wound that may not even have healed yet or is only starting to heal. Some talk when they know the space is safe enough for them to.
Yes, something is stirred within us when other people talk about their stories of pain. We may feel empathy for those people and/or we are reminded of our own hurtful experiences. Sometimes, this can be too much especially when we are still hurting or don’t want to be reminded of that experience. In the activism space, we have been made aware of how vital it is that we hold space for each other and be mindful of when we could trigger other people. We need to know when our stories, personal or reported, could emotionally disturb listeners and therefore, alerting them of the nature of our stories beforehand is recommended. Trigger warnings serve the same pivotal role as the content warnings provided at the onset of a movie or suchlike.
The amount of people coming forward with their stories was overwhelming and this may have taken its toll on others who have experienced the same ordeal. Some could only express their own dismay at how they were triggered by the process. While I empathise with these people, I want to highlight what such a statement meant. Bear in mind, that in this context we had some folks talking about their experiences and other folks talk about how this triggered memories of their own experiences. The #MeToo allowed a lot of people to talk about their experiences, something that is very important. We have a collective problem. It is everywhere and we seem not to be making any noticeable or commendable progress in eradicating it. While our personal experiences are valid, we need to remember that others’ experiences are equally as valid.
Many folks need an outlet for their pain. People need to talk and let go of a lot of things from their past. If a space is provided that allows them to do this, an exercise that will still be harder for some participants, we need to listen and hold sacred that space. When we express disappointment that such people are overwhelming us with their stories, this can be construed as us placing more value on our experiences and our pain while making light of or wanting to dismiss the experiences of others. We serve to silence other people and discourage them from partaking in what is a crucial process because when they talk about how they were sexually abused, it evokes painful memories of our own experiences. Instead of saying words that may disrupt the process for other survivors of abuse, it may be healthier for us to remove ourselves from that situation. One can log off social media until the process passes thus preserving their mental health while ensuring that those who want to talk are able to do so without being made to feel guilty for making others feel bad.
“This hashtag is pointless”
I understand why someone would feel this way. We have been talking about our pain, shouting and screaming at men to stop violating us for too long now. Yet, the violence never seems to stop. As a matter of fact, it only ever seems to amplify. To make matters worse, men have not been doing a commendable job in calling each other out or helping each other do better. I’m not so sure if this is all part of some “bro code” but, as the famous saying goes, “if you are silent during times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. The silence of men, especially those who believe they are the ‘good, real men’ who would never dare violate others is just as violent and hurtful.
Having said this and in closing, the process is still important. Even if we may not invoke the appropriate reaction from men or society at large, the process may serve as a show of solidarity with others going through or who have gone through the same experiences. It can also prove to be a therapeutic one for those who share their stories. Something happens when we begin to talk about our pain. That something feels a lot like healing…