I first heard about #MeToo once it had gone viral in light of women calling out Hollywood execs for sexual assault. Like many, I was unaware of its roots and felt like it was a social media movement that, while bold and revolutionary, I could not partake in. I simply didn’t feel safe having conversations about my experience online. It also felt more like a movement centered around white women calling out abusers in the entertainment industry, which wasn’t my experience.
But I, like millions of Americans every year, experienced sexual violence and understood the need for a shift that held abusers accountable. Though I shouldn’t need to say it again, women and girls should not be blamed for the violence committed against them. The recent, tragic death of Jonae Jamea Harris is a painful reminder of what refusing men’s advances — even politely — can lead to.
The reality is that Black femmes and queer-identifying people who survive sexual violence learn early on there are few safe spaces for us to call out our abusers and heal in a meaningful way.
When the hashtag first went viral in 2017, Kaia Naadira found themselves reckoning with the fear of verbalizing their truth. Naadira — whose mother is Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement — had been sexually assaulted on campus but never told anyone. “I was afraid of the language. Nobody wants to use ‘assault.’ That’s such a big, scary word,” Naadira told me. Despite #MeToo going viral and their proximity to resources, Naadira initially coped with their trauma in silence.
We often minimize the way we think of healing, especially from violence, because healing is a difficult thing to measure. It requires a lot of emotional and spiritual energy, too. But it can change how we perceive ourselves, our power as a survivor, and our ability to protect others from violence. When Burke coined #MeToo in 2006, healing was at the center of her movement — even if the media’s emphasis was on calling out powerful men who did bad things.
“We almost always talk about [sexual violence] in terms of the person who caused the harm... We don’t think about it as a societal issue, as a social justice issue, as a community issue, that we are tasked with solving together,” said Burke during a panel in November hosted in Brooklyn by The Meteor, a storytelling collective that centers creativity. Burke has always been vocal about the way systems create and protect abusers, and the collective responsibility we have to addressing this systemic problem.
The conversation, moderated by Dr. Salamishah Tillet, was an opportunity for Burke and Naadira to candidly discuss a new movement that encourages healing through intergenerational discussions about sexual violence. “We uphold rape culture and patriarchy, and so healing is important … When somebody is harmed in our community, the first question we should ask is what do they need?” said Burke.
According to RAINN data from 2019, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, only 310 of 1,000 incidents of sexual assault are reported to the police; the leading reasons people do not report are fear of retaliation followed by the belief that police will not do anything. Their findings also show that of 310 sexual assaults reported, only 28 cases lead to a felony conviction, and 25 lead to incarceration. When proceedings do occur, Burke said they do very little to support survivors’ need to feel whole again, and often result in an additional layer of trauma.
This was the impetus for #MeToo International, a database that still offers an array of healing resources for sexual violence survivors at any point in their healing journey. An alternative to sexual violence hotlines, which can sometimes make survivors feel like an “amorphous group,” the site centers support to survivors based on their identities and experiences.
Ultimately, the evolution of #MeToo involves not just healing and agency, but examining and shifting an entire system that lets abusers get away with what they do. For Naadira, holding an abuser accountable wasn’t enough to move forward after being sexually assaulted, largely because our society wholly enabled this person.
“I love when we feel confident to say you have violated my boundary, and there needs to be a consequence, but how do we support you in doing this?” she said.
Talk therapy allowed Naadira to explore parts of their identity they suppressed to protect themselves — but it also allowed them to understand how trauma triggers symptoms of their newly diagnosed bipolar disorder. Once that switch was flipped, Naadira better understood that they were not at fault, and therefore didn’t need to self-punish. For Naadira, prioritizing healing in their fight for justice has been a holistic battle that honors accountability as much as their needs, self-love and joy.
And so, an evolution of the movement revisits its original intentions and forges forward with new force and a mass-driven commitment to both holding abusers accountable and hopefully, preventing future violence. Most importantly, Burke and Naadira continue to create space for Black women who might not have felt as safe speaking their truth a decade ago.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline, Me Too International, or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.