It has been almost five years since the #MeToo movement ushered in a reckoning on how we look at sexual assault and sexual misconduct. At the time, it felt like both the end of the world and the beginning of something beautifully new. But looking back now, I’m not sure the movement was ever built for victims like me — messy victims, shy victims, victims who do not work in Hollywood.
Without a doubt, that particular cultural movement was both long overdue and completely justified. For so long we lived in a society that didn’t acknowledge anything other than a violent assault from a stranger as anything worth talking about. With a focus primarily on workplace sexual misconduct, #MeToo redefined how we look at sexual harm — inappropriate comments from a superior were no longer just “workplace banter,” but were recognised for the harassment they were.
However, this laudable acknowledgement came at a cost. This is not a popular opinion, and it is one that I often struggle to articulate. I have been violently raped, non-violently assaulted, and I have been harassed at work. Each of these experiences were deeply upsetting, and some have been traumatic. Importantly, they have all been wildly different from each other; wildly different events necessitate wildly different consequences. The #MeToo movement had a dual focus on firing and jailing perpetrators of sexual harm, while also expanding upon what we think of as sexual harm. Both these goals are individually well-meaning and often laudable. However, sexual harm is a nuanced issue, often one without a clear victim/perpetrator dynamic, and the collapsing of all harm into one movement with one goal (punishment) will never create fertile ground for discussing this deeply nuanced issue. While some may see punishment as important, removing the conditions which encourage and allow sexual harm to occur is vital. This cannot be done in a movement that collapses everything from violent assault to inappropriate touching into one category.
“I wrote up everything that happened to me on my iPhone’s Notes app, screenshotted it, and posted it on my Twitter, hoping for catharsis or justice.”
Certainly, the largely online situation of this movement has to do with the lack of nuance we’ve seen. But more importantly, it has created an environment in which the expected way to get justice is to write about it online. In August 2019, just after a popular Irish comedian was accused of sexual misconduct, everyone was sharing their stories — Notes app screenshots, Twitter threads, quickly disappearing Instagram stories. I did the same. I wrote up everything that happened to me on my iPhone’s Notes app, screenshotted it, and posted it on my Twitter, hoping for catharsis or justice. Lots of people liked it, some people replied, and I received some kind messages. It did feel good, at least for a moment. I felt believed, which is something victims of sexual assault in particular often struggle with. But I was also eerily conscious that just over a thousand people had access to the most horrific thing that ever happened to me. I thought about my colleagues, my friends, random girls I’d met on nights out, and how “rape victim” was now one of the most available (and certainly most salacious) frames they had to view me through.
As with punishment, this phenomenon of sharing stories online is a flimsy plaster on a deep scar. Because our paths to justice are so sparse, this public reckoning feels like the only way to validate oneself as a victim. Who could blame someone for going through this process when left as the only option? When the police don’t believe you, your abuser’s friends don’t believe you, and your workplace or college doesn’t believe you, the guaranteed validation of a feminist echo chamber feels vital. But personally, it is not something I would recommend to any victim. Sometimes, I go to parties and I see an acquaintance who liked that tweet and I wish I could just be the girl drinking white wine in the corner, stealing the AUX cord to put on Ribs by Lorde for the third time. I want to exist without preconceptions, I want the bruises I woke up with that morning to belong to me only. They don’t, now. That’s okay, and it’s partially my fault, but the fallout from the #MeToo movement has put a pernicious pressure on victims to share their stories for the internet to provide validation.
“What’s difficult is creating an environment for victims to enable their own recovery, to ask them what they need and provide for them.”
I would like to be very clear, I do not think #MeToo has gone too far — this is a misogynist talking point which usually means “I don’t like feeling accountable for my actions.” If anything, I don’t think it’s gone far enough. It’s easy to punish, it’s easy to send someone to prison or tweet at them until they delete their account and leave it at that. What’s difficult is creating an environment for victims to enable their own recovery, to ask them what they need and provide for them.
The #MeToo movement was a desperately overdue reckoning and one for which I am glad. Ultimately, all of its problems are the problems of the society from which it emerged. When we live in a world whose only two solutions to sexual violence are to punish or ignore, no movement is without its harms. This is an upsetting truth, but it’s not a rigid one. We must imagine and create a world where responses to sexual harm are nuanced, generous, and focused on healing.