Speaking out about sexual abuse ‘not enough’

Elizabeth Smart, third from left, participates as a panelist in “Smart Talks: I’ve Never Told Anyone …” on Oct. 20, 2017 as part of BYU’s Voices for Courage campaign. (Ty Mullen)

The words #MeToo flooded Turner Bitton’s feed as he scrolled through social media. He estimated roughly two-thirds of women and a fair number of men he knew used the viral hashtag meant to identify sexual assault victims.

As executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or UCASA, Bitton is no stranger to the fact that sexual abuse plagues American society, but even he was surprised at the number of people who spoke out using the hashtag.

“One of the things that this campaign in particular has done is really shown the scope of the issue. … it gives people an idea of how big the scope of the problem is,” Bitton said.

Origins of #MeToo

The hashtag originated almost 10 years ago by sexual assault advocate Tarana Burke, but has gained recent traction in a tweet written by singer and actress Alyssa Milano. She asked followers to reply to her tweet with “me too” if they’ve ever experienced sexual violence.

Actress Alyssa Milano asked women to use #MeToo to share stories of sexual abuse on Twitter. The hashtag #MeToo has since gone viral.

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” she wrote.

Her tweet was in response to the highly publicized sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and was meant to show the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the U.S.

Consequently, the phrase “me too” is now a viral hashtag across social media, and thousands are sharing their own stories of sexual harassment and assault online.

But will speaking out lead to real change? And is it helpful or harmful for victims to be so open about their past, especially on a platform as volatile as social media?

Speaking out

The Utah Department of Health reports one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence during their lives.

BYU hosted a forum discussion titled, “Smart Talks: I’ve Never Told Anyone…” to end the BYU Women’s Services and Resources’ weeklong event, Voices of Courage, on Oct. 20.

Elizabeth Smart was one of the four panelists featured at the event and commended victims for speaking out about sexual abuse.

“I feel so strongly about tonight’s event because we’re here talking about big, dark, scary issues, issues that people don’t want to talk about. It’s even harder to talk about, and even harder to admit that something’s happened to you, but being here tonight … can change that,” Smart said.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Joy O’Banion is the director of strategy at Orem’s Family Support and Treatment Center. She said speaking out with the #MeToo hashtag can potentially be both helpful and harmful to a victim, depending on their emotional strength.

“I think because we have traditionally kept those things secret, people who are sharing (#MeToo) feel a sense of community, and it kind of removes some of the stigma that goes along with sexual assault and sexual abuse,” O’Banion said. “(But) any time you’re posting something on social media that puts you in a vulnerable position.”

Rachelle Hardman, the prevention coordinator at the treatment center, said the #MeToo campaign is powerful because victims don’t necessarily have to disclose the details of their story, and can be empowered just by saying, “#MeToo.”

“Obviously, this ‘me too’ hits a lot of really broad spectrums. We’re looking at sexual harassment in the workplace, we’re looking at child abuse, we’re looking at rape, we’re looking at dating violence. It can definitely cross all kinds of things,” Hardman said.

Elizabeth Harbison studied at UVU and is currently a stay-at-home mom in Texas who decided to use #MeToo on social media. She said deciding to use the hashtag “wasn’t too hard” because all she had to do was “put a hashtag to raise awareness and that’s all.”

Daniella Murri-Villar Wilson went to UVU and The Aveda Institute. She said she didn’t want to speak out initially, but said she felt spiritually prompted to do so after remembering so many personal experiences of sexual abuse against her and other women in her life.

“Once I started writing it was almost therapeutic to tell my truths. I wasn’t even very specific but it was nice to know that I could be honest,” Wilson said.

Getting real help

O’Banion said statistics indicate one in three females and one in five to one in seven males will experience some kind of sexual assault by the age of 18; and campaigns like #MeToo should be a catalyst for survivors to seek help and/or report their abuse.

“Social media is a great venue for all kinds of things, but you’re not going to get the help you need on social media. If you haven’t sought help, if you haven’t talked about this with professionals, then you probably want to do that (because) this could open up a lot of emotional wounds for people if they haven’t dealt with whatever it is that they are ‘hashtag me too-ing,’” Hardman said.

Certified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapist Tami Luke Thayne said while it depends on the extent of the abuse, it’s been her experience that just talking about sexual assault “is not very helpful” for actual victims of sexual trauma.

“To say ‘me too’ and acknowledge it … should be a start of something more. It’s not enough,” Thayne said. “I think it needs to be followed up with, ‘get help.’ Do something with that acknowledgment.”

Bitton said UCASA has a list of Utah resources available for sexual abuse victims on its website, including a 24-hour hotline. Other on-campus resources are available to BYU students through BYU’s Women’s Services and Resources. The Utah Department of Health also has a list of resources available.

Is change possible?

Valerie Hudson is the director for Texas A&M’s program on women, peace and security, a former BYU professor, and an author who studies violence against women. She said the #MeToo campaign is “very needed” and can lead to change.

“When women (and men) break down the walls of silence, perpetrators recalculate the likelihood of harm to their interests. Sexual abuse has been a ‘cheap’ crime because women don’t speak and police/prosecutors don’t take action. But when many, many women come forward with the same stories about the same men, even our inadequate legal system takes notice,” Hudson said in an email.

Elizabeth Smart said campaigns like #MeToo are important opportunities to educate and inspire change in the legal system.

“(With) what’s going on in the media with Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign, this is the time where it is making more noise,” Smart said. “We’re going to continue to expand this campaign, to expand these events where we talk about these issues because the more people … we educate, the more noise we can make, which will eventually change the system.”

Bitton said he hopes the #MeToo campaign will inspire Utahns to be more politically involved with promoting resources and awareness about sexual assault.

“What I hope is that as we go into the next legislative session, that there’s increased interest in sexual violence and harassment prevention,” Bitton said. “I hope that everyone who’s participated in the me too campaign gets involved.”

UCASA will be hosting their annual “Day on the Hill” event on Feb. 13 and invites anyone interested to seek more information on its website.

Hudson said new conversations between women and between men and women like the #MeToo campaign give her hope for the future.

“Things can change, and these women can find comfort that their truth-telling was the reason for that change,” Hudson said.

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