I admit I avoided participating in the #metoo movement which swept social media late last year. Oh, I knew then that I’ve been sexually threatened, but the whole thing seemed too murky – I say #metoo and everyone wonders: was she raped? whistled at? grabbed?
I assumed people would wonder about me, but I never asked any of the hundreds of women who hashtagged in my social media feeds: what happened? which experience do you think of when you hashtag #metoo? and are you OK?
I’ve come to realize that #metoo needs another step. We’re so accustomed to thinking of ourselves and other women as victims that the hashtag confessions hit us like a wave, washing over us the feeling of something we already knew.
Although there was liberation in confessing that we had been hurt without repercussions, the details of what happened to the women who hashtagged [and those, like me, who could have but didn’t] in a way don’t matter anymore.
Many of them couldn’t press charges, which is one of the bummers of sexual assault – washable evidence.
But the useful thing that can come out of the movement is for all victims of sexual violence to feel so enraged at being violated that they are compelled to report the crime, right now, immediately … while the evidence is still fresh.
Not as a hashtag confession months or years later.
When I was researching for a local newspaper article I wrote about sexual assault early this spring, I spoke to many women who had been assaulted. Every single one spoke about the period after the attack as being traumatic in some way – whether recalling the attack, confessing, testifying or having evidence collected.
One of the women I interviewed has crossed my thoughts so many times since we met. I first met Tracy at the elementary school she works at and she was warm and friendly – one of those people you just like instantly.
We met in a diner on an icy February day and sat in the back room, cradling thick white coffee mugs, and Tracy told me that she had been raped twice while serving in the military.
Tracy let me understand the process of re-victimization through evidence collection that I had known only as a theory before –
“When I reported the first rape, they took evidence. It was horrific, the two nurses were so cold” Tracy told me “they pulled hairs from my butt hole and the whole time I kept thinking: why aren’t they pulling hairs from HIS butt hole?”
As she was talking, Tracy was half laughing and half crying, and I was weeping too. How could anyone hurt the strong, wonderful woman I saw before me?
It is slowly dawning on the western world the burden that women carry everywhere they go – how much effort goes into selecting clothes, choosing routes, checking shadows, looking back, charging cell phones, communicating our whereabouts and wondering who we can trust.
But we need more understanding and instruction so that when someone talks about sexual assault, whether that assault happened 40 years ago or ten minutes ago, we lean in and ask more – because it can compound the hurt and add shame if we don’t.
There have been two occasions I would say #metoo about – one was when I was 21 and traveling in Amsterdam and stayed with someone I had just met – a young man and his wife and baby.
This man, with no prior warning, tackled me while I was getting out of the shower in the morning and I ran out of the tiny apartment dripping wet, grabbing my huge backpack on the way to my train to Paris and leaving a soggy towel behind a bush in the front garden.
When I got to Paris, I told the woman I was staying with what had happened, and she berated me for trusting a stranger. She didn’t ask if I was OK. She just very squarely blamed me for staying with someone I didn’t know.
In contrast, my second experience, which happened in the same era of my life, had a happier ending.
I was hanging out and drinking with two guys I knew from high school, but neither very well. One started to pressure me for sex, and the other guy looked at him squarely and said “you’re being a dick. I think you should go outside and calm down.”
He did, and I went home and, being 20, never acknowledged either man’s actions again. I should probably write a thank you letter to my defender’s parents for raising a man who was full of matter-of-fact respect.
Years have passed since those incidents, and a few days ago, I realized how protected I am from daily dealings with strange men when I was approached while waiting in line at the King Scoopers in Arvada, Denver.
“You’re cute,” a 40 ish man with a ponytail told me “are you married?”
The words themselves – unthreatening. The whole interaction – scary as hell, especially given how unprepared I was, and how deep into reading about Harry and Meagan Markle’s home life.
Last month, a 22-year-old comedian named Eurydice Dixon was raped and killed in a popular Melbourne park. When I lived in Melbourne when I was 22, I walked and rode through a lot of parks at night.
The response to Dixon’s death shows that the mainstream narrative around violence against women in Australia is stretching, and may even be on the cusp of shattering the ways women are blamed for being attacked by men.
National newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Clementine Ford which criticized the police response to Dixon’s violent death.
Melbourne police issued statements encouraging calls to 000 [Australia’s version of 911] by anyone who didn’t feel safe. Local Superintendent David Clayton warned, “This is an area of high community activity… so just make sure you have situational awareness.”
Speaking about rape and murder as being part of community activity normalizes the way Dixon died, and neatly leaves out a call to perpetrator’s: if you feel violent, or worry that you may rape someone, please call 000 for help.
Ford writes in response:
“The language used towards women when we exercise caution is contradictory at best and disdainful and mocking at worst. Exercise caution, but stop being so paranoid. Be prepared for danger, but don’t treat individual men like they might be a threat to you. Don’t put yourselves in harm’s way, but quit acting hysterical about every little shadow that crosses your path. Be wary of strange men, but don’t you dare be wary of me.”
Police officers are often first responders for sexual assault and have a great responsibility to respond well. As part of my sexual assault article, I spoke to the chief of police in nearby Libby, Montana – Scott Kessel.
Scott was concerned that in his year in Libby, there had been no reports of sexual assault.
“It’s either positive or ominous,” he said, “and I suspect the latter.”
Our county health nurse, Riley Black, is working with Scott and the police force to make reporting sexual assault easier. As it stands, victims in our rural community have to travel two hours to Kalispell to be examined for evidence, but Riley will soon be opening a clinic in Libby specifically for sexual assault examination.
“I want it to be as comfortable as possible,” Riley told me “so it doesn’t feel like a punishment to be examined.”
Riley, who is herself a victim of sexual assault, was one of the only women I interviewed for the article who didn’t appear to blame herself for the attack. She never once said “I was so naive”, as the majority of women did.
This, as well as Riley’s warm and direct presence, make her the ideal person talk to about a sexual assault, someone who would lift you out of doubt and never ask “what were you doing/wearing/saying?” but instead ask “how could he?”
In a Denver supermarket last week, the ponytailed man responded to my confusion and back-off vibes correctly: he came up to me, eyes lowered and said gruffly “you have a great evening.”
As I left the store, I peered around the entrance, checking around the pallets of flowers and fruit for the man. In the blazing sun in the car park, with bags full of organic blueberries and bread for my kids, I checked over my shoulder.
I longed a little for my 21-year-old pre-Amsterdam self, who would have assumed all was well and drifted on.