In her article, “Literally, Why Can’t I Say #MeToo?” Veronica Rukh insists, “It doesn’t have to be ‘bad enough’ for it to count.” Though this is undeniably true, the article further uncovers some unfortunate associations with being a survivor of sexual violence. Rukh says she is unsure whether this Facebook/Twitter campaign is reflective of her experiences, and that she doesn’t “feel like a victim.”
Rukh’s choice of words is telling, as she admits she was unquestionably a victim of an abusive relationship and of rape. These violent events occurred, regardless of how Rukh or anyone else chooses to describe them; linguistically and literally, she is a victim of these men’s actions.
Rukh’s awkward positioning of herself as ‘survivor not victim’ reflects language I hear constantly, whether in the classroom or on feminist blogs. We are collectively determined not to be victims; we are collectively determined to be Strong Women. We are all trapped within a narrative spun by Joss Whedon and Marvel’s string of primarily white male writers, in which (mostly white, mostly wealthy) women who are born strong become stronger via lives committed to physically conquering brutality. We are all caught in Bryan Singer’s X-men-verse in which every woman is nubile, eternally youthful, long-haired, sensual and sensually available. These women fight for their lives daily and, like Buffy, they “save the world. A lot.” Problem is, this narrative leaves out women who have been victimized in ways we cannot hide, ways that leave traumatic impacts on our bodies and damage our ability to function in permanent ways. PTSD is a legally recognized disability and not a thing that is possible to fight, or to leave behind or to conquer.
So we can be heroines or we can be victims, tragically wounded and now pathetic reminders of how necessary the masculinization of ourselves as women really is. Being a victim, (white/power) feminism has taught us, means to be lonely, isolated, insecure, scared. It means to be diminished.
Who wants that?
Yet trauma generates some of these results in an inevitable fashion. Speaking strictly for myself, I have had to take entire years of my life to cope. I have had to be a “victim,” to let myself feel that victimization and give it room to encompass my whole life. I have not had the option of resilience because there are some things the human body and mind and life are not capable of bouncing back from.
Therein lies the problem for me. The events that might offer me access to the #MeToo campaign primarily occurred during my childhood and adolescence. I do not remember them all, not as individual moments in time. I can hardly remember whole years of my life, thanks to “trauma fog.” Yet these events so defined my life that at 19, when I was raped by a near-stranger, it did not even faze me.
It didn’t faze me even when I reported the rape, when UC Santa Cruz police rewrote my story of what happened, when the UC Santa Cruz chief of police claimed that a rape crisis nurse can and would claim absolutely that evidence of sex but not bruising/tearing is “proof” that no rape occurred (it is not). Even when the UC Santa Cruz administration buried my story because it exposed the dangerous reality of twenty-something white men living illegally in the UCSC owned woods just beyond their campus doors. Even when most of my UCSC friends disowned me because they did not believe me.
I lived through it. What could I do? I survived.
If rape is written into the fabric of your existence for nearly two decades, you better believe you don’t have any extra energy to spend considering whether that one time some guy grabbed your ass at a party was sexual assault. When a man exposed himself to me in a café in Washington, D.C., I did not even blink. This was my life. This is just what being me meant.
That’s sad and all, but don’t feel sad for me. Feel angry. Because even though I value #MeToo for the closure and sense of community it brings to victims/survivors of sexual harassment and rape, I feel no closure. I feel no sense of community. I feel only shamed and silenced for having a story that is apparently so beyond the pale that no one bothered to recognize my existence.
The simple fact is, surviving years of daily sexual assault is not nearly the same, not equivalent, not even in the same world as surviving one or two instances of sexual assault. Claiming that the experience of every and any behavior categorized under the broadly defined term ‘sexual assault’ is equivalent or generative of unity between women denies our differences and renders them invisible. Meanwhile, a chorus of ultra-rich white women have co-opted the #MeToo campaign that Tarana Burke initiated 10 years ago specifically to aid women targeted by the intersection of race, class and gendered oppression. Watching highly privileged women increasingly claim the spotlight of this issue for themselves has left me speechless with bitterness.
In their research summation Let Girls Be Girls, sociologists Bogle et al. convincingly explain the high prevalence of sexual assault and sexualization of young women in impoverished neighborhoods. Here, sexual assault is written into the fabric of these women’s daily existence. While I can relate to this, I also must recognize that I am an anomaly whose whiteness and relative wealth even now provide me access to countless resources and opportunities necessary to survive my abuse. Many are not so lucky. It is for them that #MeToo was created. I have no right to appropriate it. No amount of need would justify such a hostile act.
Do women need a campaign of our own, one dedicated to preventing sexual assault? Of course. Do I feel a resonant shame and rage with the victims of Harvey Weinstein’s assaults? You bet. Does any of this add up to feel entitled to claim #MeToo as my own? No way.
I spent years learning I have the right to say no. I am saying it now.