Walk With Me (#2): Advice, Sympathy, Humor, Authenticity

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

We’re all just walking each other home. — Ram Dass

Dear Asha,

I’d like to better understand the ‘me too’ movement. It’s hard to stomach what I see on social media without feeling like it’s further pushing back experiences that aren’t fitting its narrative, but I also recognize it’s easier to blame victims.

Specifically, when it was at its height I was dating a man whose brother was the product of rape of his black preteen mother. I’ve certainly been raped by men, but the first time I remember I was 5, and it was by a much older girl.

Both of these stories don’t fit well. My ex’s is too brutal, and asking him to be outraged about an anonymous white woman’s comparatively minor problems with sexual abuse without providing a safe place for him to speak without career repercussions seems unfair.

For me it’s less of an issue. I suspect I innately distrust cis-women. I know I feel inherently unsafe around women I don’t know. But again, it’s not a thing I feel I can talk about openly. It makes people uncomfortable. At the same time, I feel I can’t say ‘women rape too’ without being labeled a victim blamer.

I think generally my voice and privileges are too loud — so I’m not really concerned I can’t speak. But I feel alienated by the movement, and so did my ex, for different reasons with some crossover. I want to support visibility of sexual assault, and I want to support people being vulnerable. But sometimes I feel like there’s less space around that movement, not more, for other people being vulnerable as well. Ideally I’d like to cohesively be convinced I’m very wrong about these feelings. — Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

When I was 3 or 4 and my brother 7 or 8 he began to molest me, late at night after the two of us had been sent to bed. He used to tell me he was afraid of the dark and I had to sleep in his room so he wouldn’t be scared. He abused me until I was nearly 13, for close to a decade.

I didn’t tell anyone about this until I was in college, well away from my parent’s house. For a long time I debated talking about it publicly at all. Unlike you, I didn’t hesitate because I felt my story didn’t fit the wider narrative. I hesitated because I feared it would fit a wider narrative too well, a narrative that I didn’t believe in and wanted no part of.

You see, my older brother is black, and I am white. He did not abuse me because he is black, but there is a long standing, racist narrative about black men (and boys) being sexually aggressive, preying on white women (and girls), and I knew there would be people who would take my story from me and use it to tell that story. No part of me wanted to be a part of that.

All of us who have experienced sexual violence feel deeply protective of our stories, and rightfully so, because we live in a culture that denies, twists, and revels voyeuristically in our stories, but never protects us.

We are never entirely safe, and it can feel like our stories are never safe either. Not even in the hands of people who purport to want to honor and hold them.

But I have found, for myself, that taking the leap of faith to put my story into the hands of others has helped me stand in my truth so strongly that now, after nearly three decades of telling, I don’t need them to hold it anymore. I hold the space for my story. I honor my story and lift it up, no matter what anyone else thinks about it. No one can take the truth of it from me, and no one can twist it either. I will not let them.

I hear your fear that the Me Too movement will not be able to honor and hold your story. Given how the movement has been portrayed in the media, your fear makes sense. Even in the act of theoretically making space for survivor’s stories, the media is still telling its own story about who “good” victims are and who deserves our sympathy, about what sorts of sexual violence matter, and by implication all the sexual violence that does not.

I think we have to recognize the media’s story, and resist participating in it. We have to go to the source and decide for ourselves how we will free ourselves and others, instead of letting the media’s filters turn us away from the work to be done.

I sense that you, like many of us, have only really interacted with the Me Too movement on social media and in the press. I also hadn’t really interacted with the Me Too movement except via the media, but I knew from what I’d read that it didn’t start there, so I went to the source. I read articles and interviews, watched videos and Ted Talks, about and by the woman who started it all, Tarana Burke. I was reminded of what, for me, has been a surefire rule of thumb all my life- follow black women.

Me Too was started by Burke, a black woman from the Bronx, in 2006. She had been an activist since high school and saw a need for healing and support services for young black and brown women in her community who had experienced sexual violence. Her work developed, on a small, local scale, until 2017 when the case around Harvey Weinstein exploded. At that point, Alyssa Milano, an actress who accused Weinstein of sexual assault, put out a tweet asking folks who had also been sexually assaulted or abused to respond with #MeToo.

At the time, Milano had never even heard of Tarana Burke. Like Burke, she simply saw an opportunity to verbalize, with two simple words, solidarity for survivors. The tweet went viral, as did condemnations of Milano for appropriating a black woman’s work. Subsequently, Milano and Burke discussed the movement in public forums, to clarify the movement’s origins. Here’s what Burke had to say about that time period to the BBC earlier this year:

“It’s not just social media, it’s who brought it to social media, and how it was brought to social media,” she says. “Those women who got up and came forward around Harvey Weinstein had no idea that it was going to spark a global movement…

People didn’t know who I was, and people still don’t know who I am. What do you do with a 46-year-old black woman from the Bronx, who’s not polished, who doesn’t look anything like even a black woman in Hollywood? If Alyssa Milano didn’t say: ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t start this. This black woman named Tarana Burke started this’, people would not know my name.”

Burke’s work to expose the prevalence of sexual violence and support survivors continued, but grew to encompass Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, Matt Lauer, Louis CK, and other high profile cases.

Of course, the media focused on those cases because that is their story. When Weinstein was convicted this year (unlike Kavanaugh, who is going to screw us all for a lifetime) Tarana Burke released this statement, which I think speaks to your questions:

“Today, a jury confirmed what we all know: Harvey Weinstein committed sexual assault. This wouldn’t have been possible without the voices of the silence breakers in and outside of the courtroom, the survivors who courageously testified, and the jurors who, despite an unrelenting and unethical defense strategy, voted to find an unremorseful Harvey Weinstein guilty.

This jury worked with an incredibly narrow and unjust set of laws governing sexual assault, and though he was not convicted on all counts, Harvey Weinstein will have to answer for his crimes.

Harvey Weinstein operated with impunity and without remorse for decades in Hollywood. Yet, it still took years, and millions of voices raised, for one man to be held accountable by the justice system.

For some, this has been a Hollywood battle between famous actresses and a larger-than-life producer. Some have tired and begun to ask whether we should care about these Hollywood celebrities.

We would do well to ask ourselves how many of these women’s names we can actually remember, beyond the boldface few? Certainly, Harvey’s name will be seared in our collective memories, but many of the survivors will be quietly taking stock of the impact.

How many careers were derailed? How many entry-level assistants were fired or silenced? How many jobs were lost? How many news stories, that could have exposed Harvey sooner, were censored? How many people could have spoken up, but didn’t? All in the name of protecting a violent sexual predator.

This case reminds us that sexual violence thrives on unchecked power and privilege. The implications reverberate far beyond Hollywood and into the daily lives of all of us in the rest of the world.

Whether you are an office worker, a nanny, an assistant, a cook, a factory worker — we all have to deal with the spectre of sexual violence derailing our lives.

And, though today a man has been found guilty, we have to wonder whether anyone will care about the rest of us tomorrow. This is why we say MeToo.”

What I hear in that statement is a strong push back against the media’s story about who matters. What I hear is solidarity for all survivors.

When asked earlier this year about how the Me Too movement has been affected by its conflation with high profile cases like Weinstein’s, Burke had this to say to the Harvard Gazette:

I think we have to be careful about what we’re calling the movement. And I think one of the things I’ve learned in the last two years is that folks don’t really understand what a movement is or how it’s defined. The people using the hashtag on the internet were the impetus for Me Too being put into the public sphere. The media coverage of the viralness of Me Too and the people being accused are media coverage of a popular story that derived from the hashtag. The movement is the work that our organization and others like us are doing to both support survivors and move people to action. And so in that regard, the movement, the actual Me Too movement, is doing very well. It’s the work that we’re doing on the ground to support survivors, it’s the programs that we’re implementing, it’s the initiatives that we’re standing behind, it’s the way that we’re coming together collectively to move the work forward.

So, what is the work of the movement now? The explosion of Me Too in the media may have its downsides, but it garnered the movement unprecedented attention and resources, allowing Burke to build a formal organization and a website, offering resources for survivors and advocates on healing and support around sexual violence. The movement has also launched an election campaign, #MeTooVoter, “to push elected leaders and candidates to develop solid policy proposals that will support survivors’ healing, provide necessary services and benefits, invest in prevention, and reform legal protections to ensure that they cover all survivors, regardless of the kind of sexual violence or harassment they experienced or where they experienced it.”

And here’s a video of Tarana Burke, speaking about what Me Too is at its heart, in her own words:

Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for you to support the Me Too movement. But I am encouraging you to understand and engage with the movement unfiltered by the media’s stories about it. What you do with the information is entirely up to you. Your healing, your story, is yours to control.

Regardless of whether you decide to work through the Me Too organization or any other to actively fight sexual violence in society, no matter who or when you decide (or not) to tell your story, does not change the reality or importance of what happened to you. What happened to you, and to your former partner’s mother, was wrong and just fucking horrible. I am so sorry. You both deserve the space to have your stories heard and believed, with no negative repercussions whatsoever.

Everyone has a right to have their story heard and believed, and we are all strengthened by that telling. It is not the sexual violence Olympics.

No one’s experience of trauma is more or less important, though there is no denying that some traumas are more or less severe, and some victims are less likely to get support. I do think movements can be judged by the extent to which they fight for the most vulnerable. It seems to be that Burke’s Me Too movement is fighting that good fight.

By sharing your story with me and allowing me to share it here you are also fighting the good fight, even if you never tell your story anywhere else. That matters. Someone may happen upon this and see themselves reflected. They will realize they are not alone, which is one of the most horrible after effects of sexual violence, I think, how it isolates us from each other.

You, my friend, are not alone. Thank you for walking this journey with me. Sending you and yours love.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com. Let’s walk each other home.

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store