Will We Ever Stop Asking Women And Survivors To Fix Rape Culture?

Sexual violence is an epidemic, but we don't need a hashtag to tell us that.


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In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has saturated the news cycle, a new hashtag is trending. #MeToo is the call to action for people who have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime to share their stories. By sharing #MeToo, we’re meant to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”.

Since the hashtag was suggested by Alyssa Milano, thousands of people — primarily women but also men and non-binary folk — have shared their stories. It’s provided some solace or control for many survivors who have so far felt silenced in their trauma. In simply revealing the magnitude of the problem of sexual misbehaviour by men, the hashtag is a success.

Except… we already know this is a problem. So far over 35 women have come forward to level allegations against Harvey Weinstein. It’s one large-scale example of what we know is a systemic issue, not just in Hollywood but in all power structures everywhere in the world.

Before Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct, it was Donald Trump’s. Before Trump, there was Bill Cosby and his half-century of woman accusers. Woody Allen, though determinedly sticking around in Hollywood, has been publicly accused by his own daughter of sexual abuse on a number of occasions.

In Australia, right now Cardinal George Pell is facing historical sex offences in court — and he is just one of hundreds of religious officials who have been accused. And in the music world, Gaslamp Killer is the latest in a long line of music industry insiders who have been accused of sexual assault or rape just this year (including two members of Aussie band The Football Club, and mega-producer Dr Luke).

There are just no excuses anymore. We all know that sexual misconduct is a widespread epidemic in our world. So, why are we still asking women and other survivors to rip open their traumas to prove to us there is a problem we already know exists? And when will the problem finally be laid at the feet of those responsible to solve, instead of burdening survivors who have already endured so much?

Hashtag Activism

Twitter has a long history of bringing people together in the service of a single cause. The hashtag, which sometimes feels a little uncool and is frequently used ironically, does do an impressive job of marrying disparate groups under one unified banner — #… whatever.

Although it’s been long debated, there’s no doubt that social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, did impact on the series of demonstrations and protests that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 — now known as the Arab Spring — especially in regions such as Tunisia and Egypt, where there was high social media access and usage.

In 2015, feminist author Lindy West set up the #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag, which brought together women and people with uteruses who could share their abortion stories to cut through the misinformation spread by “pro-life” activists.

The hashtag is still used frequently today, and it created a movement for women who were previously silenced on an issue about which they felt no shame or regret. As West put it, “it felt, almost, as if many had been waiting for this moment to speak”.

And, perhaps most famously, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was generated during the Ferguson protests against the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, and is still used today to combat morbid racism that kills and imprisons people of colour without the blink of an eye from the world at large. #BlackLivesMatter is still a vital way for people of colour and their allies (here in Australia, too) to signal that, yes, in spite of how the police and society treats them, their lives matter too.

The recent history of so-called “hashag activism” is something that’s derided by many people, often seen as “virtue signalling” a cause without any real connection to it — or any intention of acting beyond the hashtag to get involved. But it has its uses, and connecting like-minded people to a cause that has so far been hidden or ignored — like #ShoutYourAbortion or #BlackLivesMatter — is one of the most positive changes for the better the internet has wrought.

Ripping Open Trauma Wounds

It’s into this murky but generally positive landscape that #MeToo enters, a new #CallToAction to signal boost a worthy cause. And the cause, to amplify the epidemic of sexual violence against women and others, is a worthy one. It’s one that long-time readers of my work will know I am deeply personally connected to.

But I’m much more ambivalent about the origins and possibilities of #MeToo than I am of other hashtag calls-to-action, because to me it feels like women and other survivors doing men’s jobs for them… again.

When I wrote last week about Harvey Weinstein and the widespread problem of sexual misconduct within power structures, I said, “It’s on men to change their behaviour and hold themselves, and each other, accountable for how they exert and abuse their power against those who are more vulnerable. Men need to fix themselves; it’s clear now that we cannot do it for them.” And I still believe that unshakebly.

The crime of sexual violence of all kinds is one carried out almost exlusively by men on women, non-binary people and even other men. But make no mistake: it is men, toxic male violence and our patriarchal justice system at the centre of it. This is men’s problem to solve, and we have been letting them off the hook for far too long.

Yes, sexual violence is an epidemic — but we don’t need a hashtag to tell us that. And I am sick of watching our community turn around and ask women and other survivors to solve a problem they did not create, and one that harms and kills them indiscriminately.

It is not our responsibility to rip open our wounds and expose our trauma in a solidarity ritual just so you can finally acknowledge there is a problem with men’s violence toward women. We have been screaming into a void for centuries; I’m fairly certain one more round of begging isn’t going to convince you the problem exists if you haven’t already accepted it.

For those people who have already used the #MeToo hashtag to create some solidarity around their expeirences, or to heal some of their unacknowledged trauma: it is absolutely your right to do that. But just once I would like to see us NOT asking for women, or other oppressed people, to solve a problem that disproportionately affects us. We have already been through enough — we cannot solve your sickness of sexual violence too.

It’s worth remembering, when we call on survivors for their input in circumstances like this apocalyptic mess with Harvey Weinstein, just what being a survivor means. For me, it means my life is changed forever; I will always carry it with me. So I don’t want the rest of my community calling on me, via a hashtag, to tear open my trauma again. It’s mine, and I’ll share and express it at my leisure.

Call me when there’s a #MeToo for the men who have harassed, assaulted or raped; or for the men who have laughed at an off-colour joke about sexual violence, or looked the other way when their friends behave badly. Call me when there’s a #MeToo for the people who are really responsible.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit an emergency, call 000.

Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.