#MeToo Can Be a Trigger

Yesterday morning I posted #MeToo to Facebook, and by mid-day I was feeling hollow. Then I made the mistake of going out to pick up some lunch, and only by being out in public did I discover that what I was actually feeling was traumatized. And I am certain I am not the only one.

The idea that #MeToo would showcase how widespread sexual harassment and sexual assault are is a good one, and I certainly hope we accomplished that. I truly hope that this leads us to a cultural tipping point. And yet I think it’s important to address the hopelessness it has brought up first and all the emotions that stirs up.

It’s so important for survivors of sexual trauma to know that they are not alone, and #MeToo shows us that we are definitely not alone. But seeing post after post on social media of people’s sexual traumas is also traumatizing (or re-traumatizing) in and of itself.

Reading just one such post can be triggering. It was for me, and that took me by surprise. This is a topic I teach on and talk about. And, the first #MeToo post I saw was from a friend who I knew had been raped. We’d talked about it. Fairly recently. I hadn’t been triggered when we talked about it.

I’ve even written a book about hookup culture for college women (Hooking Up: A Sexy Encounter with Choice). In that book there’s a chapter on acquaintance rape, and I wrote that I had been raped during my first year of college. It was incredibly difficult to put that in a book, and I considered taking it out. Never before had I told anyone what happened. But I decided it was important for young women to know that it is possible to survive something like this, to continue on with life, and to still fulfill our hopes and dreams.

Each step of publicity for my book brought up a new level of discomfort for me to work through. The worst was when a press release was sent out nationally stating that I had been raped. But I figured, it was in the book, why not? And yet here I am, a few years later, inexplicably triggered by reading a friend’s post saying #MeToo.

My response initially was to shut off Facebook and go to bed. By morning, though, I’d decided I needed to participate in this, that it was important that I do. And yet it is equally important that we acknowledge that not all survivors have posted #MeToo because it is traumatizing and sometimes because it isn’t safe for them to be public about their experiences. As Sarah Heartshorne tweeted, “you only hear the stories we can bear to tell.” For some people it’s too current, too recent, too frightening, too big. For some, they are too young to have access to social media.

In response to my #MeToo post Leslie Wright, founder of Stride: The Wright Foundation for Female Athletes, wrote: “Trigger is right. Triggers anger, frustration, helplessness. Harassment and assault stay with us forever, change us forever. These aren't passing incidents. Like cobwebs in an attic they clutter up our beings. You can't always see them, but you run into them and they cling and distract, again and again.”

I guess I learned that today. I expected to never feel triggered by this again, but when I left the house I was suddenly fearful of every man I saw.

And, when I had first felt hollow? I felt hollow because I was wondering, where are all the men? It felt like a wonderful outpouring of love and support on Facebook from my female friends, but as Anna Walsh states in The Washington Post: “Here’s to hoping the next hashtag that emerges around sexual violence will be from men collectively working to decrease violence and harassment against women. #MenToo have a role to play.”

As women, we can’t do this alone. We can support each other and comfort each other that this is happening, but we need men to participate in ending this behavior, because not only does this affect all women, but it affects all men too.

And it affects men in a variety of ways. It’s important to remember that men are also victims of sexual violence and harassment, but also when a woman is a survivor of a sexual trauma she carries that with her into her future intimate relationships, and this often affects the partner (male or female) in that relationship. This sort of trauma can also make it hard to trust any man, which is why I could hardly get through the grocery store at lunch time today. I was uncomfortable being physically near to any man. And I was amazed that feeling could come back so strongly.

I also think it is important we acknowledge that the risk of being sexually assaulted is highest for young women, between the ages of 16 and 24 (rainn.org). It is important to realize that if you work with high school or college students or young adults, or have friends in this age range, they may be particularly traumatized right now. They also might not be able to identify what is going on for them. They may be reacting and having emotions (and sometimes physical symptoms) without being able to process why.

And, how should we respond if someone opens up and tells us they’ve been a victim? According to Dr. Rebecca Campbell who is part of the Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence at Michigan State University here are some good things to say:

· I’m sorry this happened to you.

· I believe you.

· You are not to blame. This is not your fault.

· Thank you for telling me and trusting me.

· I will support you no matter what.

· How can I help you?

However, in her keynote address at Michigan’s third annual Let’s End Campus Sexual Assault Summit, Dr. Campbell went on to explain that it’s more than just the words we say, it’s how we say them, it’s if we are able to demonstrate that we care,

I also learned from Dr. Campbell’s keynote address that people sometimes disclose with no forethought to how they are saying it or to whom. And that first experience for a survivor of telling someone they’ve been assaulted is incredibly important.

That experience determines whether or not that person ever tells anyone else, how the survivor thinks about their own experience, how the survivor copes, and how it affects their mental health (Courtney Ahrens, California State University, Long Beach).

Also, for those of us who are mandatory reporters, it’s important, Dr. Campbell says, to be clear for ourselves about what this means and, if possible, to make sure to let others know this in advance.

And for ourselves? We can be discriminating in considering with whom and how we share our story. We can remind ourselves that it is not our fault, that we are not to blame. We can reach out for support from organizations that have people who will keep our stories confidential until we choose to share them more broadly, people who are trained to support sexual assault survivors.

800-656-HOPE or rainn.org. 24/7. Free and confidential.

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