In light of the #metoo movement sweeping its way across social media, members of the Network for Victim Recovery of DC staff share some thoughts and advice for navigating discussions surrounding the hashtag. These opinions come from their experiences as case managers and attorneys working with survivors of sexual violence. Thank you to our wonderful staff members for their contributions!
Audrey Meshulam, Bilingual Case Manager and Undergraduate Intern Coordinator
Maggie Schmidt, Staff Attorney
Ruth Perrin, Staff Attorney
Sofia Kaut, Case Manager
Disclaimer: At times this article may use the term "victim" instead of "survivor." The use of the term "victim" is meant as a legal term of art, referencing individuals who are entitled to particular rights pursuant to the Crime Victims' Rights Act, 18 USC 3771. NVRDC acknowledges and respects the use of both terms, and encourages individuals who have experienced sexual violence to use whatever term they feel empowers them most.
Is My Story Appropriate for #metoo?
What about if you don’t feel really certain whether or not these stories are your story? The tweet that went viral urged participation from not only those who had experienced sexual assault but also sexual harassment, opening up the “me too” to those whose violation(s) may not have involved touching or fit the cultural understanding of what constitutes rape. Some posts describe inappropriate comments from peers or superiors. Some detail catcalling or other types of street harassment. Some share experiences of having boundaries violated during what was supposed to have been consensual sex. Many point out how unremarkable, if humiliating, these experiences are in a world where they happen so constantly. And a lot of posts seem hesitant, or even apologetic. Hesitant to call out behavior that is so widely normalized. Ambivalent about condemning someone’s actions when their motives were unknown. Apologetic for making a big deal about small acts.
Here is the perspective of someone who has spoken with hundreds of survivors: everyone worries they are making too big a deal of what happened. That feeling is independent of the facts of someone’s case; it has no relationship to how physically brutal an attack is, and it has no relationship to how wrong the assailant’s actions are. And that’s the thing: writing off some forms of abuse or violation doesn’t help us take the other forms more seriously. The opposite is true.
Violence thrives on excuses and rationalizations. It’s okay to say that something is not okay, whether or not it seems as bad as what others have gone through. It is okay to imagine -- and demand -- a world where none of this behavior on the spectrum of sexual violence is acceptable.
-Audrey Meshulam, Bilingual Case Manager and Undergraduate Intern Coordinator
Tips for Survivors: Navigating triggering discussions and choosing whether to participate in #metoo
When sexual assault and sexual harassment are in the news, it can bring up a multitude of feelings for survivors. The news and dialogue about the many allegations against Harvey Weinstein have brought sexual violence into the spotlight. Sunday evening, survivors began to share the hashtag #metoo on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. They invited their friends to post the two words to their feeds if they had experienced sexual harassment or assault.
For some people, the trend is empowering; it’s encouraged them to bring their often-taboo stories to light and helped them find community and solidarity with other survivors. For others, the flood of social media posts that remind them of their trauma has been difficult to see; it’s hard to escape the conversation and it can be triggering to hear about friends’ stories they weren’t aware of before. For many, it’s all a big confusing mess of feelings they can’t identify yet. The pervasiveness of sexual violence is made quite clear on the internet this week. Some people have also felt pressure to participate in this trend, whether it’s from a feeling of responsibility, questions from friends who know about the survivor’s experience, or simply a feeling that if this movement is so popular they should want to participate too.
Navigating social media trends like #metoo can be tricky for survivors. There is no right answer as to whether you should join in on the conversation. Whatever you do is okay, and you know what’s best for you more than anyone else—you are the expert of your experience. If you shared your story or the words “Me Too,” we hope that you have felt empowered and validated by the response. If you chose not to share, know that your story is still real and valid and you are just as resilient and brave as the survivors who chose to post.
No matter what pressure you may feel, you can and should always set your own boundaries around conversations about sexual violence. You always have the right to feel safe and decide what you share. If you shared #metoo on social media, it is not an invitation for friends, family, or coworkers to ask you to tell your story. You own your experiences and it’s okay to say you don’t want to share, just like it’s okay to tell people you trust what was done to you. If social media is overwhelming right now, you are always allowed to take a break, take a breath, and take some time away. Your friends will still be there when you’re ready.
"If you chose not to share, know that your story is still real and valid and you are just as resilient and brave as the survivors who chose to post."
-Sofia Kaut, NVRDC Case Manager
NOTE: If you are feeling triggered, need support, or want access to resources to take action, please consult the resource list below!
Do Survivors Have a Responsibility to Participate in #metoo?
#metoo is a well-intentioned social media campaign. The fact that some survivors have felt empowered to speak out is unequivocally positive, and every survivor who engaged in the campaign should feel proud of themselves for doing so. But we also need to let survivors who didn’t engage in the campaign know that they should be proud of choosing what was best for them. We must recognize and validate the experiences of people who chose not to share their stories. In particular, the social media campaign was framed as something sexual assault and harassment survivors should do so that everyone knows the pervasiveness of the problem.
First of all, survivors of sexual assault shouldn’t be the ones bearing the burden of proving that sexual assault and harassment are a pervasive problem. Survivors don’t owe their social media following their story. They don’t owe anyone their story. Survivors shouldn’t have to expose their trauma for others to believe that sexual violence is a problem. Second, because the hashtag puts that burden on survivors, when that burden is combined with the pressures of engaging in social media, survivors can feel guilt for not speaking up.
-Ruth Perrin, NVRDC Staff Attorney
They can feel like their silence means that they are contributing to the culture of tacitly accepting sexual assault and harassment. Sexual assault survivors already live with guilt and shame that they do not deserve. Survivors’ guilt is amplified when we tell them that they need to speak up and be heard in order for their peers to recognize that sexual assault is a problem. Sharing an experience of sexual assault or harassment is only empowering if it feels like a choice, not an obligation.
Often, sexual assault and harassment makes survivors feel powerless. But, when survivors own their story, deciding who they share it with, and when they share it, they reclaim that power. So, whether, as a survivor, you chose to share your story, or you chose to keep it to yourself, you have claimed ownership of your story, and should feel nothing but pride for that.
"Sharing an experience of sexual assault or
harassment is only empowering if it feels like
a choice, not an obligation."
-Ruth Perrin, NVRDC Staff Attorney
Tips for Non-Survivors: How to Appropriately Talk About #metoo
The #metoo movement is intended, in part, to raise awareness about how common sexual assault and harassment are. Those who were not aware of the problem may now be painfully aware and surprised at the prevalence among their social media contacts. Even if you’re not a survivor, it might be difficult to see this reality. When someone discloses their experience, you might be scared to say the wrong thing or you might not know how to help them. Supportive words like “I believe you” or “I stand with you” can be a relief to survivors who may have been met with victim blaming or accusations of lying in the past. Traditionally, survivors are burdened with an expectation that they need to prove to others—police, courts, supervisors, even friends and family—of the truth in their narratives. We want to shift this norm and stop expecting survivors to justify their experiences. If you don’t know what to say, asking a survivor “How can I best support you right now?” gives them the freedom to tell you what they need. Validating your friends’ experiences and being a good listener are good support skills. You can also remind them that they are strong and resilient, the sexual violence they experienced was not their fault, and they are not alone. Everyone responds to trauma differently, so remember to be patient and try not to take anything personally. Finally, make sure that you are not creating a situation where your desire to help is forced on the survivor. When someone you love is hurting, it’s natural to want to “fix it”, but rarely is there anything you can say to restore them. If a friend or loved one feels safe disclosing to you, please honor and recognize that nothing you say can undo the crime that was perpetrated against them. What you can do is be supportive. Always give options, ask what would be helpful, and let them share their story on their own terms.
What you can do to improve the problem!
Everyone can help to stop sexual violence. While a social media hashtag can be huge for building solidarity, it is not the responsibility of survivors to speak out and end violence against them. The responsibility for sexual violence lies with those who perpetrate it. There is a role we can all play in ending it, however. When you are with your friends and they make rape jokes, catcall, victim blame, or admit to sexual harassment or assault, you can do more than laugh it off. Ask them why they think their inappropriate jokes are funny. Tell them you’re uncomfortable with the way they’re treating people. Educate them about the difficulties that survivors face and how their behavior contributes to the problem. If you see someone harassing or assaulting someone, intervene if you feel safe to do so: interrupt the activity, ask the victim if they’re okay, and hold a conversation with them until the person perpetrating violence leaves the situation. Sexual violence is rooted in systemic oppression, but we can still change our thoughts and behaviors on an individual level. The more people who actively stand against sexual violence, the more society will follow their lead.
Legal Options for Survivors
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are terms that encompass a number of violations of law, as well as violations of an individual’s person. Every jurisdiction (state, territory, district, reservation, etc.) has slightly different definitions of sexual harassment and sexual assault. This lack of consistency across jurisdictions can make it frustrating to know what options a victim has in the face of these offenses. It also makes it hard to know where to start looking when a victim wants to address the sexual harassment or sexual assault. Further, sexual harassment and sexual assault do not always fall into distinct categories. Sexual harassment can escalate into sexual assault.
Sexual harassment is typically defined as coercion, bullying, comments, or inappropriate touching of a sexual nature that create an unsafe or uncomfortable environment. Individuals commonly report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, on the street, and many other locations. Victims of sexual harassment may be able to seek remedies from internal policies at a company or organization if the harassment is occurring at the organization. Victims of sexual harassment may also have claims for gender discrimination under civil rights laws. Additionally, victims may be able to seek remedies through civil law suits, where a victim can receive monetary compensation for the harassment. Student victims in K-12 and college/university settings may also be able to seek remedies through the Title IX/Clery process at the institution. Options for sexual harassment victims varies based on the jurisdiction and where the harassment occurred.
Sexual assault is typically defined as some sort of violation of a person’s physical body of a sexual nature without a person’s consent. Victims of sexual assault can obtain medical forensic exams through local hospitals during the immediate days after an assault. Every state, territory, and District of Columbia also have advocates that can be available for victims while the exam is occurring. Victims of sexual assault can seek justice through the criminal justice system, where the victim reports to the policy and an investigation determines if a case can be prosecuted. Victims of sexual assault, in most jurisdictions, can also seek a protection order from the court ordering the assailant to stay away and have no contact with the victim. Moreover, victims can seek civil remedies by filing a lawsuit again the assailant for financial compensation. K-12 and college/university victims of sexual assault may also be able to seek remedies in the Title IX process at the university. Victims of sexual assault have different options and each victim should seek the legal option that best suits their needs and goals in healing.
"Victims of sexual assault have different options
and each victim should seek the legal option that
best suits their needs and goals in healing."
-Maggie Schmidt, NVRDC Staff Attorney
How NVRDC can help you!
NVRDC can help victims of sexual assault in the District of Columbia through its case management and legal services programs. The case management team serves as the city’s advocates when a medical forensic exam is completed at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Case Managers then work with the victim to address needs after the assault including Crime Victims Compensation, safety concerns, access to mental health support and so much more. NVRDC’s case management team also works with victims who do not report to the hospital. Because everyone’s path to healing is different, the case managers work with the client to address their needs at that time and work to empower the client in a meaningful way.
In addition to empowerment through case management, NVRDC had a legal team that provides representation in Civil Protection Orders (CPOs), Title IX/Clery processes, and representation for victims in the criminal prosecution of the assailant. The attorneys and victim work to determine what is needed in the CPO to help the client achieve safety the way that is necessary for the client. In the Title IX process, NVRDC attorneys serve as advisors for victims and help them to navigate this complaint process college/university. The attorneys help prepare for hearings/sanctions, collect evidence, and help the student obtain necessary accommodations. For victims that pursue a criminal investigation, NVRDC attorneys help clients assert their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act during the prosecution. The attorneys help the client set up meetings with the prosecutor, prepare victim impact statements, and assist in protecting the privacy and dignity of victims. NVRDC’s legal team works closely with the case management team to provide holistic services to empower victims and help them heal in the ways meaningful to them.
NVRDC is here to support all survivors, regardless of whether they choose to participate in #metoo. If you want information, want to take action, or just want some support, we are here for you. Individuals providing support to the survivors in their life should also feel welcome to refer them to our services, or any of the resources listed below.
For more information or to conduct an intake: 202-742-1727
RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
If you have been sexually assaulted and want to talk to a confidential community-advocate about information and resources, please call: 202-333-7273
If you would like to have a forensic nurse exam, please call the DC Victim Hotline. Advocates are available to assist you through the process: 844-4HELPDC (844-443-5732)