Tarana Burke, speaking at a church in Pittsburgh last week, told the story about when she first knew she needed to say “me too.” She’s been telling it for twenty years now, since long before the actress Alyssa Milano famously suggested, in response to the first wave of Harvey Weinstein scandals, that abuse survivors tweet the hashtag that was shared around the world. It was long before comedian Aziz Ansari became the emblem of a world of men whose entitlement to their own pleasure leads them to disregard women’s anxiety and discomfort. It was long before film heavyweights Catherine Deneuve and Michael Haneke cried puritanism, or whinged about their Valentine’s Day fun being spoiled by a clenched jaw and crossed legs.
The origin story Burke tells, and which she will recount in her newly announced memoir, is about the time a thirteen-year-old girl came to her with a story of sexual abuse. Burke herself had been abused, and though she saw her own pain in this girl, she did not tell her.
She did not say the two words that would one day turn the world upside down. And so she committed to not just say them to every black girl who had suffered alone, but to grow her organization for young women of color, Just Be, Inc., where others could say it alongside her. It had nothing to do with Hollywood, or the vagaries of consent.
Late last year, everything changed. Suddenly, her words came to define a so-called movement, one that bound the sexual abuse of women of color together with the same thread of gender and power that wound through male entitlement in the dating pool.
“I had to decide, am I going to be in conflict, or in service?” Burke told a packed crowd in Pittsburgh’s Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside last Tuesday night. She said she worried the words “me too” would “never hold the same meaning as it’s held all of these years; it would never serve the same people it’s served all these years.”
The day after Burke spoke, a story quietly broke about a girl who was murdered. Mujey Dumbuya was a Michigan high school student who had immigrated to United States from Sierra Leone with her family when she was just 3 years old. She had hoped to become a police officer someday, expressing a desire to use the law as a force for social justice. But last year, Mujey, then 15, was raped in the parking lot of Ridge Charter Park Academy. Her accused assailant was a school employee who was known to have a string of previous offenses, including violent sexual abuse against girls Mujey’s age and younger. A couple of weeks ago, his trial was scheduled for April. Shortly after Mujey committed to testify, she disappeared. Her body was later found in the woods.
Burke’s two words ― me too ― were designed to comfort people like Mujey. But instead, they now brand a diffuse movement, a so-called era. The New Yorker published a piece about “Reading Ovid in the Age of #MeToo;” Time reported on the “#MeToo Olympics;” even the “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Goes #MeToo,” according to NBC. Worthy stories lie under these headlines. But what are they about? Certainly no one like Mujey.
This isn’t a question of territory. This is a question of erasure. And more than that: it’s the conglomeration of vastly important and often disparate issues under a single brand, which ends up serving none of them. These issues may coexist on the very wide spectrum of the imbalance of sexual (and sexualized) power. But giving them all the same name of a symbol and five compressed letters, is becoming ― to borrow even more of Burke’s language ― an act of conflict, not service.
It’s a thrilling and revolutionary development that we are finally discussing women’s pleasure en masse and challenging assumptions and norms that have existed in our mating rituals. The nuance that has emerged in such conversation is essential. But you know what’s not nuanced? Violent abuse. And to use this hashtag as an umbrella over the myriad emerging conversations about gender and sex and power adds doubt and distraction to a realm that requires an entirely different discourse. It’s far too much work for two tiny syllables to do on their own.
The notion that the minefield of dating can be packaged together with abuse is a problem. It means that neither necessary conversation gets its due. It means that redefining sexual pleasure becomes tethered to abuse. It means that abuse becomes a thing that exists on a spectrum of misunderstanding. And that the package is wrapped in the language developed to strengthen and heal the members of our society with the deepest wounds, and with the least widespread power, means taking what others have forged of ingenuity and suffering and using it to illuminate the concerns of the self. Those concerns matter. But they have no business appropriating those two words, which were intended to speak to surviving abuse.
Just as a person needs a name, a problem needs a name. Things that don’t matter are the things that don’t have names. Eve was long unnamed, and therefore unpersonified, unknown. Betty Friedan understood the importance of naming: she described the assumptions of women’s natural preference and aptitude for domestic labor as the “problem that has no name.” (You know it by the name she coined for it, the name that made the world believe it mattered: “the feminine mystique.”) But we have many problems. But we shouldn’t give them one universal name, gather us all under the same mantle, or group the extremes of abuse with the complications of how we desire and express desire. By labeling everything #MeToo, we may as well be labeling everything a woman problem.
This is not a single movement, nor is it a single problem. But by giving a single name, we are suggesting we have a single problem to solve, a single conversation to have. It may appear to confer solidarity, but we only need to look as far as Tarana Burke to know it doesn’t. A single name eradicates the complications, perhaps not in some of our own conversations, but in the larger cultural one. And it creates false equivalencies where no equivalency exists. There is no equivalency between whether a guy feels like he can flirt with you and what Mujey had to face alone in the woods. Those false equivalencies are too easily weaponized by people who want to hold onto their own power. We can’t just have one label, or one hashtag, or one conversation. To call it all by the same name becomes as dehumanizing as giving it no name at all.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.