It is the “too” that speaks to me. Millions of women—if not all women—have experienced assault or harassment of some form. Millions of men have, too. Hundreds of them, I know personally. We all know hundreds of them personally.
Until yesterday, I knew that. Intellectually, I know the statistics. As a social worker providing therapy at a sexual violence resource center, I can recite the numbers off the top of my head. For contact sexual violence: 1 in 3 women; 1 in 6 men. 1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape. So that means, if I take everyone I know and jiggle the numbers around a little bit, I know x-amount of people who have experienced sexual assault. Throw in sexual harassment, and that number jumps higher.
But yesterday, I knew their names.
I scrolled through Facebook, and my newsfeed read like an endless ticker of courageous survivors, name after name heading declaration after declaration, each one ringing out the truth: Me Too. #metoo. The numbers became personal. They became my friends, my own family. I stood among them, posted my own Me Too status, proud to know that I stood in the company of such brave men and women.
I am normally not interested in Facebook campaigns, in viral shares, but as I scrolled through my feed Monday morning — in between seeing clients, male and female survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones — I could feel my heart bursting with awe, with admiration, with pain, and yes, with excitement. Excitement that something I know about and think about and talk about on a daily basis as a therapist of survivors of sexual violence — was getting some small amount of the attention it deserves. This was people I know and love speaking out their truths. This was one person standing up in a crowd, then another, and another, until hundreds were standing and reclaiming their stories, joining in the terror of discovery, the shame of the secret, and the shaky exultation of speaking out. It was empowering, seeing the masses standing on the edge of a precipice, and on the other side, progress was finally visible.
For once, sexual violence was something we were all talking about. Without political motive, without preaching and blaming and sides drawn, people were simply making their truths known. Finally, the world would see the pain that comes with surviving a sexual assault, any sexual assault, no matter where on the spectrum it falls. Finally, the world could join in the terror of being discovered, the shame of the secret, and the shaky exultation of speaking out.
But then I saw a Facebook post that punched me. Someone—a survivor, it turned out—dismissed the campaign. I began to see some voices calling out the #MeToo campaign for grouping together sexual assault and sexual harassment. They are not the same, some argued. Catcalling should not be in the same category as rape, they said.
One male friend told me that he had a hard time believing that all the posts he saw were written about sexual assault. In his mind, the sheer number of them must have meant that the bulk of his friends had experienced sexual harassment—just catcalling, nothing more severe.
Immediately, I was torn. I knew, instinctively, that sexual harassment, catcalling—these are not “justs.” No one should have to experience that, and the fact that it’s so commonplace as to be undeserving of disclosure only makes it worse. Another part of me wanted to prove my friend wrong. I knew the statistics; I know how hard it is to come forward, even to post something like a viral hashtag. If these men and women were posting #metoo, they have experienced sexual violence that has harmed them and haunts them.
For the first point, I found this beautifully pointed post by a fellow Jewish woman on Facebook. For the latter, I set out to make my point to my friend.
And so I messaged 37 of my friends who posted and I asked them their stories. 30 responded. Every single story made me hurt and made me angry. Every single one reminded me exactly what the point of this whole campaign was. And 28 of those 30 people shared experiences that meet the legal definition of sexual assault:
A man slipped his hand inside my shirt when I was 14. Two separate men have kissed me without my consent. I was forced to give a blow job. A taxi driver assaulted me. My ex raped me. I’ve been touched inappropriately too many times to count. My father abused me. I was raped as a teen. Someone forced himself on me after I said no. A friend who I trusted took advantage of me. I was on the subway and a man exposed himself to me. My butt was grabbed. My breast was squeezed. I have literally been grabbed by the pussy. I was 15 and shomer negiah [refrained from touching men]; I closed my eyes and cried and pretended I was somewhere else as the boy I had trusted took my hand and gave himself a hand job. Over and over again I said “NO!” I had to physically maneuver my body away from his penis and narrowly escaped being raped.
Every one of these stories was shared by Jewish men and women.
Our religion does not protect us from the statistics. Gender, sexuality, age, body type — none of these protect us. We are all vulnerable. And perhaps that is what stops so many people from seeing this campaign the way that I do. Because how terrifying is a world in which I have no special feature that can guarantee my protection from this pain? How horrible of a world is it to live in where so many of our friends, the people we love, have been hurt in this way?
So do me a favor. When you scroll through Facebook, take one moment to notice the ‘Me Too’ posts.
And when something inside you pushes against them, question yourself: Why the resistance? When you note the seemingly endless repetition of these two words, when you tire of the iterations of the status, remember that these are each a story of pain, of hurt and fear and terror. These are stories that likely haunt these individuals, and this one small campaign was a simple and powerful way for them to reclaim some of that power that was taken from them.
The sad truth is that is the world we live in. And we need this campaign because we need everyone to recognize this, especially those who don’t want to.
No one wants to be part of these statistics. No one was waiting for the day we could wave our flags of survival, bare the mark these experiences left.
But the day came yesterday, and we stood up to show the world that yes, the numbers are there. We stood up to show each other that no one is alone. We posted because the sexual abuse we experience—whether the daily slog through innumerable unwelcome stares and whistles, or the rarer heart-stopping, punch-in-the-gut incidents—is too much. It’s simply too much, and we are past the point of protecting everyone else from our pain.
I heard friend after friend tell me they struggled with the decision to post “Me, Too” —worried that theirs wasn’t bad enough, hesitant to minimize others’ experiences, or afraid to be asked for details. For some, this was the first time they had shared their story with anyone. Many started with, “It was a long time ago, but…” Some participated because they wanted to spread awareness, while others felt this campaign was a crucial way of achieving solidarity with other survivors. I hope they have managed to do both.
We live in a world where millions of children and adults are touched and forced to touch, where the people you know and love have been touched and forced to touch, where your very own Facebook friends have been sexually assaulted — yes, assaulted — and may never have told you. And even if they didn’t post ‘Me Too’ today? That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened to them.
Perhaps they’re just not ready for your disbelief.
Simi Lichtman is a licensed social worker, currently working at a sexual violence resource center in New Jersey, and an occasional contributor to The Forward.
Simi Lichtman is a contributor to the Forward.