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How I Learned To Take Sexual Assault Seriously In A Society Where It’s Trivialized

Understanding my “Me Too”

by Elena Sheppard

It was Sunday night when I first started to see the #MeToo hashtag fill my Facebook timeline. At first, I didn’t know what the chorus of my (mostly) female Facebook friends was agreeing to, but then I came across the explanation: “If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste.”

I sat with those words for a minute—“assaulted,” “harassed”—they felt big, bigger than anything I had ever experienced. Me too? To me, sexual assault meant rape. I am, thankfully, not a rape survivor and to stand in solidarity with women who are, felt like I was cheapening their trauma. But then I thought more about the word “assault.” What it really means, in a sexual context, is sexual contact that occurs without consent. Had that ever happened to me? Well yes, me too.   

Sitting in front of my computer, refreshing my Facebook feed (“Me too.” “Me too.” “Me too.”), a few moments from my past came immediately to mind. Walking through a crowded market in India when a person behind me reached through my legs, grabbed my vagina, and yanked me backward. Did that count? Did it still count if I never saw the person’s face? Did it count even though I had read in my India guidebook that this kind of thing happens to female travelers all the time? 

I thought of a night in college, walking home alone late from a party and seeing a male classmate of mine a few paces ahead of me. There was no one else around, he was drunk, and when I went to pass him, he turned around and grabbed me by the shoulders. “I won’t let you pass unless you kiss me,” he’d said. I sort of remember saying, "I’m not kissing you," I mostly remember being shocked. He shook my shoulders, “You better kiss me, or there’s no way you’re making it home.” Did it count if I kissed him? Did it count if everyone thought he was nice? Did it count if I made it safely back to my dorm room alone, with nothing but my own memory to prove that it ever happened? 

What about the stranger who followed me home and pinned me against a wall outside my apartment building, my saving grace being that he was stupid drunk and therefore I could move more quickly. How about the many men who have grabbed my ass in the street? Is it my fault for wearing tight clothes? For being out late? For having a bigger butt? 

And then there is social media. I’ve chosen to live my professional life largely on the internet, which means frequent messages from men telling me they hope my boyfriend beats me or that I should “go get raped.” Isn’t that par for the course? 

I could further rehash moments when I’ve felt demeaned or objectified, but all women, and many people in general, have those moments from their own personal histories to call upon. Their own shame, and degradation, and sexual humiliation to feel. 

Initially saying "Me too" felt like a lie, but the more I thought about these moments—moments I’ve laughed off, or choked back, or just never mentioned—the angrier I felt. The more "Me too" status updates I saw, the more I wanted to shout about the little infractions that happen each and every day that just aren’t right. They are comparatively minor to the unspeakable sexual traumas so many people have faced, but they are aggressions that have been normalized. The disgusting looks and whispered or shouted advances you come to expect when walking down the street, the grabs and demands and leers that make you want to hide or scream. Then there’s the simultaneous fact that women are expected to endure these moments—either silently or coquettishly—while swallowing our discomfort and questioning whether or not it even counts. It does. We do. Me too.    

Sexual assault and harassment are, more often than not, trivialized—“blackout sex,” “bad sex,” “can’t you take a joke”? While we’ve been conditioned to batter ourselves for feeling this harassment as pain, there is power in seeing the vast number of women, of people, who have been victimized and who are willing to step forward and claim their pain as such. This hurt me, whether I’m supposed to tell you it hurt me or not. 

I can’t think of a woman I know who doesn’t have their own version of "Me too." A moment, or many, that made their gut flip over and their eyes burn with rage or fear or, likely, both. Of course, not everyone wants to share their trauma, and we shouldn’t expect them to. That silence doesn’t make their pain or truth any less real, and we shouldn’t rely on people baring their souls, in order for us to understand sexual violence or harassment as anything other than evil. 

Filling my timeline now is a chorus of, mostly, male voices chiming in—saying they’re sorry, that they believe us, that they didn’t realize how bad it was, that they personally don’t know any guys who would ever do something like that, that they need us to teach them how to do better. How do they do better? Here’s how: Consider the truth that you almost definitely do know guys like that. Recognize systemic inequity. Understand that centuries of history dictate that this is how women are treated, and then, resist that. Be better, do better, and don’t make women do the work. 

For many women, their “Me too” represents an unspeakable trauma—an offense or attack for which their perpetrator could be, and perhaps was, jailed. For others, like me, it represents the daily harassment that we face, the endless barrage of unasked for stares, and words, and demands, and grabs. The way we are made to feel small, or exposed, or uncomfortable just being. The way these moments, these tiny consequential moments, can cause us to ask ourselves, Is my pain real? Does this count? And furthermore, Do I? It is. It does. You do. Me too.