When the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted “if you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘Me Too’” on Oct. 17, 2017, no one imagined a worldwide movement would be triggered. Yet more than two years after the phrase erupted across social media and into public consciousness, conversations about sexual violence are everywhere and the roles of perpetrators and survivors are being reexamined.
On Sept. 26, 2019 Tarana Burke, activist and founder of the original “Me Too” campaign, arrived on the Plains for the Extraordinary Women Lecture, a discussion focused on the plight of women who are assaulted during their college years.
Hosted by the College of Liberal Arts, the Women’s Leadership Institute, Auburn University Outreach and several other campus partners, the event was centered on discussing and alleviating the threat of violence to undergraduate women.
For Joan Harrell, Burke’s visit to Auburn University could not have come at a more opportune moment. As the inaugural diversity coordinator for the School of Communication and Journalism, Harrell prepares students to ethically cover “vulnerable populations” — groups of people lacking economic, political, social or environmental resources — in ways that do not diminish them or their experiences.
Samford Hall was illuminated in purple for October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month
“Students are encouraged to take this course, because within the context of journalism in the U.S., the demographics are changing,” said Harrell. “Journalism is central to democracy, but the rights of women are also central to democracy; the rights of people considered ‘other’ — based on your disability, your ethnicity, your gender or social-economic location — all of that has to be brought into the journalism class.”
Harrell said the goal of the Extraordinary Women Lecture she helped organize was to bring the reality of sexual misconduct into the public eye. Providing survivors room to share their narratives can be an act of healing and empowerment, she added.
“Empowerment builds confidence; it also gives you self-awareness and confidence to not only share your story, but to hear someone else’s experience,” said Harrell. “Even though it is left up to the person how they want to handle the experience and the trauma, in this lecture-dialogue, it lets women know that their narrative can be an empowerment tool to help them and to help other people.”
Auburn students light candles at a domestic violence vigil on campus
SURVIVAL THROUGH STORYTELLING
Using personal narrative as a force to enact change has been at the heart of Tarana Burke’s activist work for decades. Her exposure to sexual violence in Alabama communities as a youth organizer during the 1980s and ’90s was her own personal catalyst for enacting change.
In 2005, her organization Just Be Inc. initiated the first “Me Too” campaign to directly address sexual violence. Named for the words Burke regretted not saying to a young survivor, the campaign used “empowerment through empathy” to help young women and girls overcome sexual assault, abuse and exploitation.
“I was exposed to intimate relationships with young girls from the community through our program, which is about leadership and self-worth,” said Burke. “Many, many of those girls had experienced sexual violence, or their lives had been touched by it, so it became apparent we needed to have some level of community response to this, because these were community children.”
When #MeToo went viral, Burke was transformed overnight into both spokeswoman and spearhead for the movement, a surprise considering she never imagined speaking to an audience outside her own community. Still, she recognized quickly what commanding national visibility could do for the movement.
“There were lots of conversations about the perpetrators, [but] there really wasn’t a lot of conversation about the folks who had said ‘Me Too,’” said Burke. “What do we do about the lives of the people who had survived sexual violence?”
CONVERSATIONS ON CAMPUS
Though at times it can feel like a distant phenomenon, the aims of the “Me Too” movement are incredibly relevant to college campuses, where many young men and women are on their own for the first time.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 20%-25% of women and 15% of college men are victims of forced sex while in college. NSVRC stats also indicate that more than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
Alison Beverly, one of the finalists for the 2019 Auburn Miss Homecoming, said she is one of the one-in-five women who have been assaulted, and among the 10% who did report the event. A senior in biomedical sciences, Beverly campaigned on a platform of raising sexual-assault awareness on Auburn’s campus. One of her campaign promises was to bring a sexual assault nursing examiner to the Auburn University Medical Clinic as a student resource.
“Sexual assault should not be an in-the-dark subject and should not be something we are ashamed to speak about,” Beverly said in an interview with the Auburn Plainsman. “Sexual assault should also not be indifferently pushed under the rug under the assumption that there is nothing to do about it.”
During her campaign, Beverly partnered with Auburn University’s Office of Health Promotion and Wellness to promote the Green Dot Bystander Intervention Program, a national violence-prevention training program that relies on bystander intervention to de-escalate or stop violence altogether. Rather than a club or organization, the Green Dot program is a series of skill-building exercises for anyone to recognize and ultimately prevent dangerous or detrimental behavior.
In the program’s terminology, a “red dot” is when actions, words or behavior contribute to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and harassment, while “green dot” moments are when bystanders intervene.
Since the formal launch in 2015, every new student at Auburn University has received a basic education about the program, as well as how to recognize signs of domestic violence and rape, said
Auburn University Director of Health Promotion and Wellness Eric Smith.
“We don’t talk necessarily about perpetrators or survivors of these incidents — we talk about what we can do to keep people from even getting there,” said Smith. “Over my career, it was always ‘don’t do this, don’t be a rapist, don’t let yourself be a victim.’ We definitely don’t want to come across as victim-blaming, and Green Dot gives us permission to sidestep those issues.”
MEN AND THE MOVEMENT
For Assistant Professor of Sociology Tal Peretz, focusing on the movement’s obstacles with men is one of the most important issues. For more than a decade, Peretz has researched men and feminism — specifically, how to get men to perceive “women’s problems” as societal problems everyone should be concerned about. Among the most persistent issues he has found is the question of accountability.
“I think a lot of guys hear their first ‘Me Too’ moment and think ‘oh no, what if something I have done, or what if something I could do, could cause problems like this?’” said Peretz. “Then you start thinking about how to do things differently. Maybe they don’t have good answers or even good places to have the conversation, but they’re starting to ask questions and they’re starting to think about ‘what does this mean for me, what do I have to do differently?’ I think that’s really promising.”
Peretz coauthored the 2015 book “Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women,” which explored not only men’s relationships with women in the workplace, but also their relationships with each other. Similarly, while writing his dissertation on men overlooked in previous research — members of the LGBTQ community, religious minorities and men of color, for example — Peretz found men working in creative ways to address problems of sexual violence, misogyny and prejudice in their own communities.
While most men have come to support the “Me Too” movement and are learning to avoid negative behavior with women, there is still a vocal minority of the population that stubbornly refuses to change, said Peretz.
An unfortunate development is the correlation between perpetrators of mass shootings in America and their preference for online communities known to support or encourage violence against women. A majority of these domestic terrorists are young men who do not know how to interact with women appropriately, and gravitate toward communities and networks that reflect or encourage that behavior, Peretz said.
“We need to show them models of masculinity that are about making the world better, and really understanding yourself and supporting people in the community around you. In a lot of cases,
that means supporting equality and social justice, not misogyny and hatred,” said Peretz.
ART AS THERAPY
Change that impacts the larger world can begin right on college campuses. Just ask activist and documentary filmmaker Scheherazade Tillet, who began using art therapy to help survivors heal, but eventually helped lead the push to publicly challenge R&B singer and alleged sexual predator R. Kelly in his hometown of Chicago.
Tillet’s 1998 film “SOARS (Story Of A Rape Survivor)” began as a photography project with her sister, scholar-activist Salamishah Tillet, during Salamishah’s recovery from a sexual assault while in college. The project eventually became a multimedia art-therapy event, incorporating dance, music and visual arts for survivors to tell their own story and “take back control of their narrative.” Tillet says she was overwhelmed at the turnout, especially the number of survivors in attendance.
“I think the power of art is to heal. Not only is it able to bring awareness to massive groups of people, but I also think art is a venue for people to heal,” said Tillet. “It’s so important for survivors to take back that power that was taken from them. Sexual assault is about power and control, [but] if someone else has that power and control over your body, through the healing you can get it back.”
In 2018, Tillet helped rally the citizens of Chicago to cancel an R. Kelly concert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and later worked with director Dream Hampton on the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly.” That same year, Tillet hosted a Chicago Town Hall with Tarana Burke that bridged their two organizations, as well as demonstrated to the women and girls of Chicago the power their activism can have.
“It’s beautiful to do this kind of work with young people in this moment in time, because they’re ready and they’re pushing different things at us. I think that’s my job, as an adult ally, to continue to support them, open doors for them and push them and inspire them,” said Tillet.
In August 2019, the National Women’s Law Council published a report on 15 states that passed laws protecting employees from sexual misconduct and gendered discrimination in the wake of #MeToo, as well as a new slogan — “20 by 2020.”
Scene from a dance performance from the 2018 Chicago Town Hall, cohosted by A Long Walk Home and Tarana Burke
Yet even two years after the first “me too” tweet, it still only takes a few seconds for survivors to have their credibility and character attacked, or for public attention to shift back onto the accused while ignoring the fallout of their actions.
ROOM FOR EVERYONE
“It’s important to talk about Tarana Burke, because the movement has been co-opted in a lot of different ways, and we’re seeing people shut down the second that ‘Me Too’ is brought up,” said Melissa Sawyer, Auburn’s coordinator of Violence Prevention and Survivor Advocacy for the Office of Health and Human Wellness.
“This is a movement about empathy and creating space for people who’ve said they’ve been harmed. This is not a gender war, this is not about throwing away due process, none of that. There is room for everyone in this movement,” Sawyer said.
For Sawyer, empowering ordinary people to effect change, in addition to lifting up survivors, is at the heart of the “Me Too” movement. As the lead coordinator for the Green Dot Program, she sees the program as a vehicle to not only effect change on college campuses, but also move away from the victim-blaming of the past.
“One of the tenets of the Green Dot program is that you only have to believe two things to be a part of this movement: that violence is not OK, and that we all should do something when we can to prevent it. That aligns perfectly with our values as a community,” said Sawyer. “That’s who the Auburn Family is — we look out for each other, we have courage and we support one another.”
Auburn University’s Office of Health Promotion and Wellness
Safe Harbor, a survivor advocacy service
The Green Dot Program
RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Auburn University Medical Clinic
Auburn Employee Assistance Program
East Alabama Medical Center
Unity Wellness Center
Rape Counselors of East Alabama
Domestic Violence Intervention Center