When friends and former colleagues started sharing #MeToo stories, or, in those first furtive days of virality simply dropped the hashtag and left the details opaque, it was palpable: Something was shifting right before our eyes and the power of women speaking, typing, screaming what had for generations mostly been whispered or not said at all, was weighty in the air.
The way we grappled with, identified and discussed sexual assault would never be the same, it seemed.
MeToo—the hashtag that took off after Alyssa Milano, using activist Tarana Burke’s decade-old campaign, put a pound sign in front of the rallying cry—prompted a tsunami of stories and a national intervention on sexual harassment and assault.
It was an eye-opener. Many women I know, myself included, began digging through moments that we’d waved off—the unwanted hands, the inappropriate boss, the ass-slap at work, the boys who’d been boys—and wondered how we’d become conditioned to accept it. Many men voiced surprise and shock at such pervasive harassment and assault. Women described groping , a constant flow of harassment, molestation and even rape. Powerful names started to emerge with accusations attached: Larry Nassar, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons, Al Franken, Woody Allen (again), Mario Batali. “The Silence Breakers” were Time Magazine’s People of the Year. The language had changed. Posting #MeToo stories was a part of a national movement to decondition our society. Doing so was both brave and necessary.
But this necessity, unsurprisingly, came with a cost. Survivors gave a piece of themselves, their stories, in exchange for a movement that was supposed to create a wave of change. The burden, it seemed, was on women to free our culture of abuse and assault. Unfortunately, the burden was also on them to endure the very specific and unique abuse that survivors face when they come forward—the insidious shaming that puts the onus on victims instead of their attackers and aggressors.
A year later, in the same month as #MeToo’s internet anniversary, we find ourselves in more of the same. Now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed and sworn-in to serve on the highest court in the land despite the sexual assault allegations brought forth by three women, including Christine Blasey Ford, and a belligerent show of defense during his Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Ford, who says the judge attacked her more than 30 years ago when they were in high school, has been mocked by the president for coming forward. She is unable to return home due to death threats. Women—and some men—reported mentally reliving their own attacks after Ford’s testimony, and took deeply personal umbrage at the suggestion that Ford’s delay in reporting somehow indicated she’d fabricated her story. And the vitriol against Ford is not unlike the kind those who shared their stories using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, experienced. It might be easy to wonder, is hashtag reporting to eradicate and illuminate our society’s ills all worth it?
Given the historical response to survivors of sexual assault, especially in the age of Twitter, I asked Karestan Chase Koenen, PhD, licensed psychologist and professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, what can prompt survivors to voice an incident they held inside, for years or decades. Often, there are spikes in reports “anytime there’s a really high-profile sexual assault case,” says Koenen. This was true during the Clarence Thomas hearings. It was true with Kavanaugh.
“Assault takes a person’s control and power away, and it should be in someone’s own power and control to tell their story.”
Moral obligation also has an incredible power to draw out the truth: Survivors tend to report after their attacker faces other allegations. Koenen herself went public with her own experience: “It was this public thing where I had a purpose for speaking out,” explains Koenen. “For some people, speaking out now has a purpose.”
Then there’s control: “Assault takes a person’s control and power away, and it should be in someone’s own power and control to tell their story, and I don’t think they’re under any obligation,” says Koenen. Your story, once on the internet, is always there, she warns. She’s known women whose new dates Googled them and knew about their assaults before their first dinner. Sharing the story, no matter how important, cedes some control over it and how it will later be revealed to others.
I certainly do not fault anyone for sharing their #MeToo or #WhyIDidntReport stories; it shows staggering courage. For some, it is empowering to finally say it. That shouldn’t get lost. But I worry about so many people who carried a gnawing hurt and fear around for years, who never wanted to speak the words. Early on, I didn’t pause to see how making a disclosure in such a public way also leaves one open to trolling and further harassment, or in Ford’s case, ongoing death treats. Such is the cost of the truth. I’m at once awed by the survivors’ courage, and mourn that this moment again required it of them—and repaid them with so much cruelty. There’s a burden in being a bearer of truth; there’s punishment meted out for telling it.
I wonder how Ford feels now. How ought outspoken survivors all feel, having aired indignities and pain publicly and across generations, to receive lip service from politicians, but ultimately see justice evaporate again?
There’s an unbearable lightness in telling a difficult truth, a freefall sense, a burden cast-off—perhaps traded eventually for new burdens—but in the moment of truth-telling, there’s power in choosing the words. We saw that astonishing power in Ford. She may not have been taken as seriously as she should have been by those seeking other forms of power for themselves, but she changed lives.
There are millions of stories still held in silence.
When truths are told for a higher good, one hopes the teller will be rewarded with seeing some justice. In a good, fair world, that’s how things would work. We don’t yet live in that good, fair world. But we do live in a country where now, the fight is more deeply shared. Losing a battle but ending up with more soldiers isn’t exactly a loss.
For a year, we’ve heard the tallies of the millions of dollars powerful men lose when their “scandals” surface. But I continue dwelling on what’s been sacrificed by so many women who exposed their hardest memories at the cost of waking up the rest of society, the cost of reliving and opening up stories—because the cost could be exponential a moment that never ends.
Unless, because of their courage, eventually, it does end.
Sarah Stankorb is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Vogue, Marie Claire, Longreads, Catapult, and Slate, among others. @sarahstankorb