When "Me Too" is Too Much (And Not Enough)

It’s been almost four weeks since the #MeToo campaign took off on social media. The good news is that its momentum seems likely to propel it for weeks to come, exposing other predators along the way. The bad news is that its momentum seems to be, for now, inexhaustible - and I am starting to get exhausted.

To be clear, I’m not drained by the positive outcomes of the movement. The conversations that we are having as a country and, in large part, as a world about powerful men who abuse others are long over-due. They have been happening in certain circles, often in hushed voices and behind closed doors, and now people who didn’t think this scourge would touch them are learning otherwise. Institutions are beginning to take sexual harassment more seriously, and impose meaningful sanctions with speed and efficacy, making workplaces, schools, churches, and governments safer places.

But as much as #MeToo is being celebrated by the media, who has spent most of the past four weeks clapping itself on the back for shining a light on these abuses, this celebration often takes place at the expense of the victims. The conversations we are having in cafés, break rooms, and classrooms are framed as low-stakes discussions about the relative merits and effects of these stories. They are happening to other people - mostly wealthy, straight, cisgender white women with relatively good financial situations. The key players are people like Ellen Page, Portia DeRossi, Jenny McCarthy, and Terry Crewes, not Jane from down the street or Marcus from work.

What has become so frustratingly obvious about the #MeToo campaign is that, for too many people, its very name is antithetical to its public profile. The statement of “Me too” - “It happened to me too” - is supposed to elevate consciousness and show people just how many others around them have been affected by sexual violence. Instead what has happened is that it’s become a striated, polarized database of elite Hollywood actresses and anonymous low-profile social media users with radically different levels of support and attention.

The harm in this, of course, is that in attempting to show the universality of this problem, the #MeToo campaign has essentially replicated the hierarchy of importance that society imposes on survivor stories. The more famous the perpetrator, the more “perfect” the victim, the more extensive the cover-up, the more sympathy applied. If you can’t or don’t name your perpetrator, if they’re not a big name celebrity, and if the “cover-up” amounted to simply acknowledging the reality that the criminal justice system is not structured to support victims of sexual violence, you’re scant out of luck.

What this has produced, unfortunately, is a trauma-driven spectacle of validation seeking from the largely anonymous thousands who populate social media. Scroll through a tweet thread or comment section, and you see this sort of exchange:

“I’ve been dealing with this for five years. It wears on me every day.”

“Try twenty-five.”

“You think that’s bad? Fifty three years.”

“I was assaulted five times between the ages of six and twelve. I’m in my sixties now and it still hurts every day.”

This kind of truth-telling, as innocuous and good-natured as it might be intended to be, creates a kind of escalation pattern in which the stakes to perform your trauma are elevated. The more legibly awful your story is, the more people will reach out to support you. As Dave Cullen writes in his book Columbine, there are those who endured the worst kind of violence who walk away largely unaffected and those who were far removed from the epicenter yet were severely traumatized. Trauma is individual, imperfect, and to some degree irrational. Comparing notes can be helpful in reminding people that they are not alone, but it can also lead to intense feelings of inadequacy - “I can’t be feeling that bad, it only happened a year ago”, or “I’m just overreacting, I was only groped and all of these women went through so much worse.”

For Black women especially, the fact that the conversation is almost entirely dominated by white women preyed upon by white men means that for those dealing with the added pressure of misogynoir their stories get even less attention. The incredible journalism from Buzzfeed on R&B singer R. Kelly is just one example of this double standard. According to reporter Jim DeRogatis, Kelly is continuing to hold women essentially captive in several of his homes and is controlling every aspect of their daily lives. By and large young Black women, his victims are often made to lie to their parents and change their behavior according to his whims - not to mention the sexual abuse.

One would think that the story of a major-label artist holding multiple women captive would have been the sort of thing that would have ended Kelly’s career like it did Kevin Spacey’s or Louis C.K.’s. Instead, the story has been largely dismissed by the media, in part because the victims are not “sympathetic enough” - i.e., they are not white. Young Black and Hispanic women are more often abused than white women, and at much younger ages. But because we are conditioned to believe not only that these women are inferior but that they are sexually deviant, we dismiss and deny their experiences in favor of narratives that better suit our paradigms.

But besides the ways that #MeToo is failing to tell the stories of survivors in authentic, honest ways, it also seems like there is no way out. There is no end game. It could be months, years, or decades of exposures and stories of abuse. It’s as if in an attempt to clear a forest of dead and diseased trees, the woodcutters are trampling on the fragile undergrowth, struggling to find sunlight and grow. We need to be having these conversations. What we don’t need to do is step on the backs of survivors - especially marginalized ones - to have them.

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