The Me Too hashtag

Earlier this week the Me Too hashtag drew more than twelve million Facebook posts, comments, reactions in twenty-four hours. I was one of them. Thanks to social media, this response has gone viral around the world.

Now women worldwide are using the hashtag, #metoo, against sexual harassment. Women are breaking out of their shells and telling their stories. Even one hundred forty female legislators, lobbyists, and political staffers in my state capitol, Sacramento, signed a letter saying sexual harassment is pervasive there. They said, “Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces.”

My first job out of college was at a fashion trade magazine in downtown Los Angeles. I quit after three weeks because of the editor/owner’s constant sexual harassment and humiliation. Then I went into the aerospace industry, and though it was little subtler, men still thought they could say suggestive things to me, or touch me, or call me sweetheart or darling in the workplace. Thankfully it never went further. However, in later years my company cracked down on harassment, and actually walked a male vice president out the door for his behavior. Each year each employee (male and female) must take harassment training and are reminded that they could be fired as well if they indulge in such behavior.

I was further drawn into this movement when I read a Facebook comment from a young woman I have known since she was born. Her bravery in sharing her story made me cry.  I think it says it all.

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Committing sexual assault is an act of weakness, not strength. It’s a cowardice act that only shows you know how to disrespect someone else’s personal space and body. It’s not heroic or admirable. It’s disgusting and illegal. 

I’m stronger than my perpetrators, though. I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor. And I will continue to be, even though I know I will be sexually assaulted and harassed again because our culture celebrates masculine behavior. 

I recently read a quote from comedian Peter White that put sexual assault in an interesting perspective. He said: “I think the golden rule for men should be: If you’re a man, don’t say anything to a woman on the street that you wouldn’t want a man saying to you in prison.” While this is often joked about, the fear that you as a man would feel if you theoretically went to prison is something women experience every single day. Men sexually assault every single day. 

But sexual assault isn’t just on men, it’s on our culture. Film, television, the music industry, frankly even literature, encourage people to have sex, but simultaneously don’t educate about sex. Where are the bystander intervention trainings? Where is the sex education? Why do people not know what consent is? Why are we not learning about sex, its repercussions and how to properly have consensual relationships? 

Our culture needs to stop promoting and glamorizing sex while simultaneously denying the fact that people are having sex at incredibly young ages. While it should be common understanding to not engage with another person inappropriately – physically or not – uneducated and young individuals are ill-equipped to handle sex, and therefore sexual assault. We as a society have to properly educate about sex – the good, the bad and the illegal that comes with it.

One of the many reasons survivors don’t come forward is because they don’t know they were sexually assaulted. They feel guilt and confusion and shame. They carry the weight and pain of the trauma of being violated without having the closure to understand what really happened. Survivors need to know that it wasn’t their fault. 

To all the individuals who have been sexually assaulted and have not posted on social media, you are still just as strong, brave and beautiful as those who have. 

I understand the emotional struggle of coming forward. I reported one of my perpetrators my sophomore year at Vassar College. The reporting process was emotionally damaging and mine in particular became public and ugly. While he admitted his assault and the committee found him responsible, he was only suspended a semester. Regardless of his suspension, I still had to endure the rest of the spring semester with him. We were both student-athletes, so we shared a practice facility, lifting gym and training room. To make my world smaller, we both worked for the Athletic Department. 

He returned to Vassar the fall of my senior year. According to Vassar, he had “served his time.” It became too much for me to share an athletic space, so I quit my sport. But his team and coaches welcomed him back. One of the assistant coaches even had the audacity to say he never should’ve been suspended in the first place – his punishment was too tough, they needed their star player. 

Why is it that my perpetrator could be found responsible for sexual assault and still remain on his team? Yet according to NCAA rules and regulations, if an athlete is found with weed or alcohol, they are sanctioned. What kind of message does that send to his team, to other Vassar athletes, and student-athletes in general? By allowing a perpetrator back on his team, you tell the athletic community it’s acceptable to violate another human being. You force his team to accept him and ignore the fact that he ruined another student’s life. But my perpetrator was the star player, they needed him. 

It didn’t matter that the pain I experienced and PTSD episodes I had every week damaged me to the point that I had to leave school for my final semester. 

My perpetrator is still at Vassar, and will graduate this year. And to no surprise, he has assaulted others. Ironically, Vassar was once an all-female institution, and is still one of the top colleges in the world, yet it doesn’t know how to support its assault survivors. Many people saw what I went through and chose not to report, and I don’t blame them. When Vassar could’ve stepped up and set a precedent that sexual assault will not be tolerated, it grew scared. Vassar was equally as cowardice as my perpetrator. I tried, and will continue trying to make Vassar take accountability so other individuals don’t have to go through what I experienced. 

I lost a lot of friends when everything happened to me at school. But looking back, I can’t blame them for not knowing what to do. They didn’t know how to handle when people started posting about me on YikYak. They didn’t know what to do when my case became extremely public. How can anyone be expected to know how to handle this? People need to receive the proper training/education to completely understand the severity of sexual assault, and not just experience it themselves to relate. 

Vassar step up, the Trump administration step up, politicians step up, school systems step up, colleges and universities step up, Greek systems step up, the Academy step up, NBA step up, NFL step up, NCAA step up, the fashion industry step up, companies step up. Society step up. Men step up.

Everyone step up. Stop applauding masculine behavior and saying “boys will be boys.” Stop making sexual assault shameful and blaming/silencing the survivor. As we can all see from #metoo, it’s harder to find someone who hasn’t been sexually assaulted than to find someone who has. Let’s step up to start holding perpetrators accountable for their actions so less individuals have to go through the pain and suffering our fellow survivors have had to endure.

I’m in awe of all of individuals coming forward to call public attention to the systemic problem of sexual assault. Having to privately relive your pain every day is one thing, but opening yourself up to the public is a whole separate, triggering experience that places you in a vulnerable position unlike any other. I’m inspired by all of you and your willingness to open your personal wounds for something larger than yourself.

In solidarity with my fellow sexual assault survivors (note – this isn’t just a women problem. Sexual assault permeates the LGBTQ community and happens to men as well), I say #metoo, three, four, five….too many times to count.

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