The allegations of sexual harassment against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, and the lack of outrage, seem shocking. Sadly, incidents like these aren’t limited to Hollywood. Ordinary women bravely share their experiences of harassment at work.
A flood of personal experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault have been shared on social media this week under the hashtag #MeToo, after a series of allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein brought attention to an issue that extends far beyond Hollywood.
Actress Alyssa Milano helped #MeToo go viral with a tweet Sunday asking women who have been harassed or assaulted to reply “me too” to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” An outpouring of personal and emotional experiences from people around the world quickly followed.
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The “Me Too” movement didn’t begin here, though. It was started more than 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke to help young women, “particularly young women of color from low wealth communities,” who have been sexually abused, assaulted, exploited or harassed.
In an online post, Burke said the movement “started in the deepest, darkest place in my soul,” after a heartbreaking encounter in 1996 with a young girl.
Burke was working as a youth camp director and one day a “sweet-faced little girl” who had exhibited some behavior problems asked to speak with her privately. The girl proceeded to tell Burke about her mother’s boyfriend “who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body.”
“I was horrified by her words, the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut, and I listened until I literally could not take it anymore,” Burke said. “Then, right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and immediately directed her to another female counselor who could ‘help her better.'”
Burke said she will never forget the look that fell over the girl’s face.
“I will never forget the look because I think about her all of the time,” Burke said.
“The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed again — it was all on her face.
“I could not find the strength to say out loud the words that were ringing in my head over and over again as she tried to tell me what she had endured … I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper … me too.”
Burke founded Just Be Inc, “a youth organization focused on the health, well being and wholeness of young women of color,” in 2006 and launched the “Me Too” campaign. Burke’s goal was to let women who have suffered sexual abuse, assault or exploitation know that they are not alone and to build an extended network of women who could empathize with survivors.
Burke is glad the issues of sexual harassment and assault are getting so much attention, but she admits she was initially concerned that the social media tidal wave could drown out her project and that a decade’s work could be “lost to a hashtag.”
But that feeling quickly passed as she saw the ability of those two simple words, “me too,” to unite people.
“I feel the reason people started using ‘me too’ is there is beauty and power in those words,” Burke said. “It’s been really amazing to watch this thing do what I always thought it could do.”
Yet, Burke wonders where the survivors who have summoned the courage to share their stories will go from here.
“There’s this moment that is happening that is wonderful and it’s viral, but there’s no discussion about what you do with this now,” she said. “What do you do with those feelings?”
“We’re talking about mass disclosures across social media,” Burke said, cautioning that the initial elation of coming forward is often followed by feelings of guilt, fear and shame.
Burke believes it is crucial that women who come forward find a support network of empathetic people who have had similar experiences.
“It’s about survivors talking to each other,” she said. “The hashtag is about people saying, ‘We’re here,’ and telling the world their stories. The flip side is more about survivors talking to each other and saying they know what it’s like. An exchange of empathy provides an entry point for a lot of people to see what healing feels like.”
Is it a turning point?
Burke wants to see the discussion about sexual violence elevated to a social justice issue because she believes the problem will never go away if its root causes aren’t addressed.
She has seen the spotlight focus on issues of sexual harassment and abuse before, only to turn away with little change. And while Harvey Weinstein is a “pretty big fish, it’s not like we haven’t seen it before. It’s not like we don’t know.”
Burke said Milano contacted her Tuesday and the actress discussed ways they could collaborate in the coming weeks. They are scheduled to appear together Thursday on Good Morning America, according to Burke.
“For some people, it’s a flash in the pan,” Burke said of the #MeToo hashtag. But she said it’s also “going to activate a lot of people. Even if only 10% of those folks want to stay involved, I count that as a major win.”
Burke plans to seize the opportunity to “ground this moment in a larger movement” that addresses the “systemic” causes of sexual abuse and exploitation.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Burke said.
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