Staff Editorial

Twitter Users Shed Light on Sexual Assault Prevalence but Hashtag Misses the Mark

While #MeToo brings attention to the prevalence of sexual assault in American culture today, it fails to account for the the varied experiences of individual survivors and fails to call Twitter users to action beyond their computer screens.

When allegations of sexual assault take over headlines in the media, it’s difficult to recognize or imagine progress, especially when those accused aren’t punished. Take President Donald Trump or celebrities Bill O’Reilly, R. Kelly and Bill Cosby as examples. These men were involved in allegation after allegation of sexual misconduct against women. Film producer Harvey Weinstein is only the latest big Hollywood name to be accused of this type of sexual violence.

Over the course of more than 20 years, more than 40 women have accused Weinstein of either sexual harassment or sexual assault, according to CNN.

Weinstein was a man in a position of great power and reputation in Hollywood, which is a reason many victims didn’t want to accuse him.

Ronan Farrow, a reporter for The New Yorker, wrote in an article,  “Virtually all of the people I spoke with told me that they were frightened of retaliation. ‘If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life,’ one former employee told me.”

It was that power and reputation that shielded him when those survivors did come forward, despite dozens of women speaking out and amplifying the others’ stories.

This Weinstein scandal, brought to attention by a New York Times article Oct. 5, sparked a #MeToo campaign on social media after actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter.

Some may think the #MeToo campaign just started last week, but it actually started more than 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, an activist and social worker. Burke started the “Me Too” campaign to empower young women of color through unity who’ve been affected by abuse.

A number of female celebrities followed Milano and came forward to share their experiences. They encouraged others to come forward, and as of Oct. 17 there were more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions in less than 24 hours, by 4.7 million users around the world on Facebook, according to CBS News.

It’s a good thing people are coming forward with their stories, but people shouldn’t be shocked at the sheer numbers of people who are expressing their experiences. There are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). That means every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, according to RAINN.

While the #MeToo campaign has shed light on the widespread horror of rape culture and the epidemic of sexual violence against women, it isn’t enough to fix the problem, and it might not have been inclusive enough. Movements such as this show the mass of a widespread issue, but there’s a problem with trying to include all the different kinds of sexual violence into a two-word hashtag.

Some people may have felt more pressure by the campaign to come out and share their assault experiences, despite not wanting to or not feeling ready. An opinion piece in The Washington Post by Katharine Viles described that she feels sharing an assault experience on social media is a double-edged sword.

“I can’t reduce the past two years of my life to a hashtag that someone else might use to describe street harassment,” Viles said. This push to disclose sexual harassment and assault on social media — though admirable in spirit — feels more like an ultimatum than a choice. Saying something feels impossible and saying nothing feels untenable. I don’t know whom #MeToo is for, but it sure as hell isn’t me.”

There are people out there who are still too afraid to say something about what happened to them. According to RAINN, the most common reasons survivors are afraid to report attacks are that they fear retaliation, believe the police won’t help, believe it’s too much of a personal matter, report the crime to a different official, believe what happened isn’t important enough or don’t want the attacker to get in trouble.

The outpouring of support on social media may have helped people come forward with their experiences, but it’s okay not to post as well. Posting about your experiences isn’t needed to validate what did or didn’t happen to you. If you choose to post because you feel it will help you and those around you, that’s okay. But if you choose not to post because you still aren’t ready, that’s okay, too.

Even if the #MeToo campaign didn’t inspire every survivor to post about their experience on social media, it may have inspired some to come forward to someone they trust.

There have also been men who posted #IHearYou to offer an allied stance to those who have posted #MeToo. But in some ways, it can be seen as men thinking women need their support in order to feel comfortable sharing their stories. It can also dismiss the fact that those posting #MeToo inherently mean #IHearYou as well and can skew attention toward allied men as they receive praise for reiterating a woman’s idea or experience.

Some men also took it upon themselves to say they can fix the problem that started the #MeToo campaign by spreading the #IHave hashtag — offering a channel for men to apologize for being complicit in rape culture, or to admit they sexually harassed or assaulted someone. Again, not only is this taking attention away from the original message, but it also doesn’t fix anything. How does confessing to an internet world filled with millions and millions of people do anything for sexual assault survivors? Sure, confessing may make the attacker feel better, but the victims still have to deal with the trauma.

The #MeToo campaign movement was overall a positive thing to see, but the different things that came out of it, such as the #IHearYou and the #IHave hashtags, aren’t helpful long-term. We recognize there’s no perfect way to respond to a victim and everyone’s situation is unique, but there are ways for survivors and advocates to communicate aside from social media.

Advocates, if you want to help, put down your phone and talk to someone. The support shouldn’t stop on social media — we need more action in real life. There are ways to show support to survivors respectfully, such as avoiding judgement, checking in with them periodically and knowing available resources. You can get involved with national organizations such as End Rape On Campus and National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. You can also get involved with Chicago organizations such as Rape Victim Advocates and Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, to name a few.

If you or someone you know is dealing with sexual violence, call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) to speak to a trained staff member in your area.

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