This is essay is part of the OOPS course Law and Sexuality.
Sexual assault often goes widely unreported, in part because it operates around shame. It remains omnipresent in society through the power of shame to silence victims. Unfortunately, all too often women who do decide to go public with their experience are highly scrutinized and the veracity of their trauma questioned, to the extent that the experience of reporting has been called a “second rape.” Thus, silence reigns. Recently, allegations against Harvey Weinstein sparked public discourse about sexual abuse, rupturing this silence. On October 15, 2017 actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a photo that read: “if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of this problem.” #MeToo quickly began trending as millions of women responded, often adding a more detailed description of personal trauma.
Although the recent trend of “Me Too” was activated by Milano, it was actually Tarana Burke who founded the Me Too campaign over a decade ago in 2007. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Burke explained how Me Too was inspired through her search for healing, after she was sexual assaulted. Her idea comes from what she calls “empowerment through empathy,” which uses the “power of empathy to stomp out shame.” She explains that “Me Too was about reaching the places that other people wouldn’t go, bringing messages and words and encouragement to survivors of sexual violence where other people wouldn’t be talking about it.” In part thanks to Milano’s tweet, the internet is now one of these places that is being reached with Me Too, where survivors of sexual assault are sharing their stories.
Through Burke and Milano the ‘Me Too’ movement has been utilized in different ways. Both aim to break the silencing culture that allows sexualt assault to carry on. Burke created Me Too so that other survivors can reach each other; whereas Milano’s tweet was not about connecting survivors–although it does do that–but about showing the pervasiveness of sexual assault in our country. Her tweet stated her goal was to show “people” the magnitude of this problem. I wonder, however, which people she means to address. When sexual assault occurs the victims are often blamed and discredited in an effort to delegitimize their accounts. Because of this, many assaults go unreported. The net result is that rape, and sexual harassment more generally, is misunderstood as rare, aberrant events, when in fact they are ubiquitous. It is important that sexual assault and rape culture are talked about and that the shame surrounding rape is broken. However, we should be especially sensitive to, and critical of, the burden we place on survivors to display their trauma in order for sexual violence to be legitimated.
For example, in “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” Judith Butler questions the limitations of the goal of legitimacy through state recognition while also acknowledging the significance of institutional legitimation. Although in this essay Butler criticizes the focus of political struggles in gay marriage, we can apply her argument here in order better to examine the role of legitimation in sexual violence. It is imperative for survivors’ stories to be supported and listened to. We need to create a world where people feel that it is safe to report their rapists/assaulters and to know that there will be justice. A large number of assaults go unreported because of the shame and stereotypes that come along with it. Clearly this must come to a stop and silencing culture must be destroyed. Moving to minimize the weight that is placed onto survivors to prove that sexual violence happens is a step in this direction. Butler states:
Legitimation is double edged: it is crucial that, politically, we lay claim to intelligibility and recognizability; and it is crucial, politically, that we maintain a critical and transformative relation to the norms that govern what will and will not count as an intelligible and recognizable (28)
In the case of sexual violence, legitimation operates in many frameworks. It is de/legitimized in the media, in courts, in the discourse and language we use to talk about it. I side with Butler in her stance to question this legitimation. How many survivors are needed to share their trauma for sexual violence to be legitimized? This is not the first time that a movement like this has sprouted. The #YesAllWomen trend comes to mind as another example. At what point does the visibility of sexual violence become another echo chamber of the internet? What does it take for our culture of sexual violence to be recognized and legitimated, if it is not a shower of personal testimonies. We have countless statistics that prove sexual violence is a serious and pervasive problem. Most women, trans folk and GNC people know the hard and lived realities of sexual violence that informs daily experiences such as making sure their friends get home safe, going to the bathroom together, crossing the street when it feels safer. We do not need a hashtag to learn that sexual violence is a problem. Who are those who do? Will a hashtag really cause them to deeply question themselves and their actions? Has it in the past? This violence is being done actively by others, why is the spotlight focused on the pain they have caused others and not on the actors of this violence?
Further into her essay “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” Butler writes:
Sometimes violent boundaries of legitimating practices that come into uneasy and sometimes conflictual contact with one another. These are not precisely places where one can choose to hang out, subject positions one might opt to occupy. These are non places in which one finds oneself in spite of oneself; indeed, these are non places where recognition, including self-recognition, proves precarious if not elusive, in spite of one’s best efforts to be in a subject in some recognizable sense. (20)
For people who have experienced sexual violence, the burden of exposing it becomes theirs to shoulder. It then becomes their responsibility to open up and share if they want to be recognized as victims and have their claims taken seriously. We see this tension through the terminology fluctuations between victim and survivor that take place when talking about people who have been assaulted. For people who do not feel comfortable sharing, or do not feel like they deserve to, legitimating their struggle through the recognition of others becomes another form of violence. What happens when people are denied victimhood?
Sexual violence is real. It is important for such pervasive violence to be recognized, called out and examined all the time, not just when a scandal occurs. Having platforms and space for people to reach out, support, and share with each other is equally important. However, clearly, it should not take millions of personal trauma stories to legitimize this reality as a social and political problem. People should not have to posit themselves as victims in order to scream for change. Since this form of violence is mostly experienced by women, this is a largely gendered issue. They know, live and are raised to be aware of this violence. We should not need to raise up our hand when asked if we are survivors, we know the answer. Making space for healing is important work, work that should not be taken lightly. Talking about our experiences is a part of healing, and through it we can legitimize ourselves and have our existence recognized. But I don’t think we can depend on exposing this violence to others to be enough for political change. Instead we can follow Butler’s lead and ask: who are we trying to gain recognition from and why? By continually trying to prove our pain, what do we hope to gain? Is there another way we can approach this without having to show our scars?
Burke, Tarana. “Meet Tarana Burke, Activist Who Started “Me Too” Campaign to Ignite Conversation on Sexual Assault.” Interview by Amy Goodman. Democracy Now. N.p., 17 Oct. 2017. Web. 22 Oct. 2017.
Butler, Judith. “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” Left Legalism/Left Critique (2002): 229-58. Web.
Milano, Alyssa. “If You’ve Been Sexually Harassed or Assaulted Write ‘me Too’ as a Reply to This Tweet. Pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n.” Twitter. Twitter, 15 Oct. 2017. Web.