Why I Posted ‘Me Too’ as My Status, and Why It Still Matters.
Half my lifetime ago, while I was a reporter for the student newspaper at the College of Charleston, I received an email from a student who had been sexually assaulted near campus. She wanted to tell her story.
As we sat together one autumn evening, hands wrapped around paper Starbucks cups, she told me about how, one night as she walked down King Street toward her apartment, a man she didn’t know — but who apparently knew her, or at least knew where she lived and that her roommates weren’t there — wordlessly pressed what felt like the muzzle of a gun into her side. He escorted her to her home and raped her in her own bed.
Her voice quavered and cracked as she shared the details of her horror. Tears fell. Not just hers. I had never met a stronger, braver, more beautiful woman in my life.
The weight of the responsibility I had accepted in lending my pen to her story felt tremendous. I wanted to tell her story with dignity and strength, and with enough detail so that people could, in the depths of their bellies and the backs of their mouths, experience a small sense of the wretchedness she had endured, but not so much that it crossed the line into sensationalism.
She wanted us to print her name.
“I did nothing wrong,” she said, “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
And yet, our faculty advisor encouraged us to abide by the newspaper’s (most newspapers’) policy to withhold the names of victims of sexual assault, and we elected to follow his advice.
Looking back, I believe we made the wrong decision. In the act of protecting her, did we actually silence a part of that voice she wanted to share? Did we give her the impression that she did have something to be ashamed of? Or, at least, that we did?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
Two Sundays ago, as I scrolled through my News Feed, I saw one friend, and then another, post the status, “Me too,” followed by “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.”
After sitting in awe and honor of the women who had bravely shared, I wondered if I ought to follow their lead. I hesitated. I have never been sexually assaulted, and I didn’t think my experiences with sexual harassment qualified as bad enough.
Then, I thought of a time in my early 20s when I went to a party with my (then) boyfriend. When we arrived, he met up with some friends outside, and I wandered into the house. I somehow got into a conversation with a man I had never met. He was going to get a drink and offered to bring me one. I accepted; it was my first (and only) drink of the night. I vaguely recall telling the man I needed to find my boyfriend, partly because I sensed he was interested in more than casual conversation, and partly because I was starting to feel weirdly dizzy. I have flashes of stumbling across the lawn toward my boyfriend’s car, of falling in the grass, of being carried up the flight of steps to my apartment because my own legs wouldn’t support me.
Me too. Almost.
I thought of a time during my college years when a guy I worked with consistently had disgusting and suggestive things to say about my clothes and my body, even after I told him I didn’t appreciate it. I confided in a few other co-workers, who insisted that he was cool, that he meant no harm, and that I was overreacting. And I remember struggling to define sexual harassment for myself, and deciding that even though his words were unwelcome and gross, I was, indeed, probably overreacting. Coming to that decision made me value my instincts a little bit less.
I thought of countless times I’ve been ogled at, cat-called, and groped in ways that left me feeling small, ugly, icky, angry, uncool, too sensitive. I could go into uncomfortable detail, but I think it’s enough to say,
Almost immediately after posting my #MeToo status, I started to question my decision. Was I insinuating that my experiences were in line with those of people who had been raped? That I could understand their pain? Was I tossing men who have said disgusting things to me into the same trashcan as men who have physically assaulted someone?
No. Maybe? I don’t know.
As I sat with this doubt, I recalled an episode of On Being that’s been floating around in my mind since I first listened to it while walking across campus one icy morning last January. In “Let’s Talk About Whiteness,” Krista Tippett interviews writer Eula Biss about the volatility and vulnerability of being black and being white and being human. If we’re ever going to improve race relations, Biss insists, we need to be able to talk about it. A lot. And with a lot of different people. But most of us don’t talk about it — not really — because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Biss argues that, “we need to be able to stumble through imperfect language and imperfect sentences,” in order to foster an understanding of where and how racism exists, including within ourselves.
“We need to be able to stumble through imperfect conversations — language and imperfect sentences.”
My job is to teach people how to write perfect sentences. I own a well-worn T-shirt that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” And I do. Sometimes not silently. Ask my husband.
And yet, when I heard Eula Biss say this, it washed over me as the simplest, most honest thing we humans can do to try to understand one another.
What if we knew we could talk — without criticism or retribution — about race and gender and culture and fear and violence and sex and all the things we keep down inside that swim in the darkness of our bellies? What if we knew that the people listening to us would, in the clumsiness of our words, hear our intent, our concern, our love?
If we can find the courage to engage in imperfect conversations, baring our vulnerability and awkwardness, maybe we can cultivate the empathy and self-reflection we need to engender healing.
Working with Jennifer Pancek of Penn State’s Gender Equity Center, I recently helped facilitate such a conversation in my Rhetoric and Composition classes. I observed as Jennifer worked with two of my classes, and then took the helm for the third. We began by discussing the word stereotype, and then worked together to fill in man and lady boxes on the board. We filled the insides of the boxes with words that represent what it means to be a man or be a lady, and we filled the outsides of the boxes with language people use when someone doesn’t fit inside the box they are supposed to.
At first, the students clearly felt uncomfortable. But as they worked through the exercise, they began to find their voices. By the time we were wrapping up, the classroom hummed with the energy of empowerment.
These discussions were, well, imperfect. Not as many students participated as I’d have, but I can’t help but liked. I was unsure of how to direct or stimulate the conversation. There were more than a few awkward silences. But, I’m going to keep at it because I think that when you take taboo words and phrases, and you discuss them, dissect them, and dull their edges under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, you weaken the power they can have in the dim glow of a frat party.
Since the Fall 2017 semester began, 12 sexual assaults have been reported at Penn State University’s Park Campus. If statistics are right, that’s only 10 percent of the assaults that have actually happened.
Following the first reported sexual assault of the semester, Penn State’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, ran a front-page op-ed written by a woman who, two years after being drugged and raped in a PSU frat house, felt it was time to share her story. As I sat in the silence of my office, reading words painfully similar to those I had written on behalf of my peer at the College of Charleston nearly two decades earlier, I sobbed.
But for random circumstances, either woman’s story could have been mine.
I have never been raped. I cannot fathom what that kind of violation would do to me, or what it has done to so many, many others. But by offering up my own experiences for analysis, I am engaging in dialogue that forces all of us to bring the scars of sexual harassment and assault out of the darkness and into the light.
This isn’t about sympathy or victimization. This is about looking into the eyes of a human being and saying, “I see you. Right now, I don’t see a woman or a man or a victim or a survivor or any other label. I see you. If you want to speak or shout or scream or sing, I will listen. I will not judge you. I will not pity you. I will not accuse you of exaggerating or overreacting or lying or trying to get attention or not being cool. I will follow your lead, and if you need to stumble and splutter and inadvertently offend someone or piss someone off while trying to find the right language to represent your truth, that’s okay. Take your time. Stumble. Fumble. That’s part of it. And if you’d rather not speak out loud, I will listen to the truth of your silence.”
I will keep sharing my story too. I might stumble and fumble and piss people off while searching for my words, my truth, my freedom, my role in trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do with all my fears and desires and stories and biases and prejudices and questions, but you know what? That’s okay.
Isn’t that part of being human? Of being stardust?
You know what else? You’re beautiful. You, reading this right now, with your fears, your desires, your stories, your biases, your prejudices, and your questions. You are beautiful.
Kristen Osborne Carroll is a wanderer, wonderer, jewelry artist and writing instructor. When she’s not working with metals, stones, hammers, pliers and torches, Kristen might be found with a book or a fountain pen in her hands. She lives near State College with her husband and daughter, two furry, four-legged overlords, and an unruly stockpile of loose-leaf tea.