A Year of #MeToo Exhausted Women—And Renewed Our Collective Hope
If we cannot name our oppression—if we cannot articulate the violence that has been done to us—it will be impossible to fight against it, or to prevent it from happening again.
Art by Michelle Thompson.
Last week, Bloomberg published a weird statistic. By their count, at least 425 people—nearly all of them men—had been accused of sexual misconduct since the publication of sexual assault and rape accusations against Harvey Weinstein in The New York Times a year ago. Bloomberg called the figure “conservative,” clarifying that it only accounts for accusations described in the media against “prominent” people (their analysis is based on news headlines reporting on accused people) . What’s more interesting is that the figure—accompanied in Bloomberg’s reporting by graphs showing the popularity of the “#MeToo” hashtag and the frequency of sexual assault stories in the media over the past 12 months (disregarding the movement’s previous origins, when it was begun by Tarana Burke in 2006)—reflects a pointed understanding of the events of the past year. In Bloomberg’s view, the #MeToo movement that has exposed massive numbers of sexual assault and harassment allegations can be seen as a quantifiable trend, able to be captured as a data set and documented on a scorecard of lost male power.
The focus on once-invulnerable men brought down within big-paycheck industries by public airing of their own behavior—makes for a compelling story: that of men’s dramatic falls from grace. For survivors of sexual violence, the past year has meant something very different. In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, many of those survivors, who are overwhelmingly women, felt a renewed license and urgency to discuss their own experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape in the service of positive social change.
I witnessed women’s eagerness to tell their own stories intimately last October, when I created a Google spreadsheet that I titled “Shitty Media Men” and made it available for women in my industry to anonymously document their experiences of rape, assault, and harassment. The document sparked controversy, and I was eventually forced to make my identity public in an essay for The Cut under threat of doxxing.
This is what happens when you hear a large number of sexual assault stories: Other people’s traumas become your own.
While the #MeToo movement led to a reckoning in several high-profile industries, as the Bloomberg story indicates, it also reverberated in blue-collar workforces that are not typical sites of media attention, including the Ford Motor Company plants in Chicago, where women workers raised the alarm about pervasive misconduct, and the fast food workers at McDonald’s restaurants nationwide who went on strike to demand an end to the sexual harassment they face.
This hasn’t exactly been easy for many of the people who have come forward, and those who have privately contended with the constant news cycle rooted in rape and sexual harassment and assault. The glut of assault stories and recounted trauma has placed a strain both on survivors’ resources and on advocates’ energy. “I’ve basically had a video of my rape playing on repeat in my head for the past year,” one friend told me, echoing a sentiment I’ve heard from many survivors both in my personal life and in my reporting. “That part doesn’t feel empowering. It feels oppressive.” Over the past year, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a crisis line for survivors of sexual violence, has seen a 30 percent increase in calls. The hotline had the busiest day in its 24-year history on September 28, the day after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For many who work as organizers, activists, providers of resources for victims, or public commentators, the continual public focus on testimonies of sexual assault has at times been vexing, re-traumatizing, and otherwise difficult to endure. When I spoke to a number of public feminist activists, writers, and #MeToo voices over the phone this weekend, one word they all used was “exhausted.” They were exhausted, they told me, by continued sexist disbelief of survivors, and by powerful men’s indifference to survivor’s pain. Most of all, they were exhausted by the ordeal of listening to survivors’ stories—hearing and thinking about sexual assault consistently for a year. Many of the women I spoke to were survivors who have uncomfortably recognized elements of their own rapes and assaults in the stories, often detailed, that are shared with them by friends and sources, or which they read about in the media. This is what happens when you hear a large number of sexual assault stories: Other people’s traumas become your own.
Jessica Valenti, the author and founder of the feminist media site Feministing, told me that she’s coping with the barrage of sexual assault stories by cultivating a kind of selective unfeeling. “It’s just an overwhelm of pain, and I’m at the point where my brain has enacted this sort of protective measure for me to be able to get through the day.” She said that the feeling reminded her of her emotional response when she gave birth to her daughter three months early. “We weren’t sure she was going to live. I developed this intense detachment that later turned into PTSD. That’s how I feel now.”
I can relate to Valenti’s self-defensive numbness—in part because the whole of the suffering that the #MeToo movement seeks to make consequential is just too big to comprehend. My mind stretches to collapse trying to get around the breadth of it. Take Bloomberg’s “conservative” number of 425 accused perpetrators. How many victims is that? They don’t say. How many moments of shame or fear is it? How much embarrassment and anxiety has been felt? How many flashbacks videos played in the mind? How much lost time and lost potential? You can’t get your head around it. It feels too devastating to try.
When I talked to Soraya Chemaly, the media critic and author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, she cautioned me against despair. “Exhaustion is a tool,” she told me. “They use it to deplete us, to wear us out.” She was talking about the Republican Senators who pushed the multiply accused sexual assault perpetrator Brett Kavanaugh through to the Supreme Court, but she could have been talking about the forces of misogyny and inequality that women face in general.
I think she’s right—among those who advocate for justice, exhaustion, numbness, and the desire to protect ourselves from pain can lead to the collapse of the fight, if people need to make the choice to opt out. It can help the forces of inequality prop themselves up and become stronger. But the alternative is for feminists to shoulder on through all the exhaustion, pain, and disappointment of doing this work. If we do that, we risk doing our enemies’ work for them: We could destroy ourselves. Activists have long cautioned against the personal toll that their work takes on them, emphasizing that, because their work often requires them to expose themselves to brutality, that they should guard against symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. Research backs them up: A recent study of surviving ACT UP New York members found that nearly 20 percent experience current symptoms of PTSD. “I wish feminists had a structured way—like some sort of tag team—of passing the baton periodically,” Chemaly said, “to take care of ourselves and avoid burnout or despair.” We laughed, but she was only half-joking.
Chemaly stressed that #MeToo is not unprecedented—that it in fact has what she called a “hashtag genealogy” of feminist first-person popular movements meant to help ameliorate the norms around sexual violence and sexual harassment. She mentioned 2014’s #YesAllWomen, a viral campaign that highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, and #NotOkay, the hashtag that arose in 2016 following the release of Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, in which the then-candidate could be heard bragging about sexual assault.
The fight, Chemaly reminded me, is an old one, and other feminists I spoke to also pointed out that #MeToo is part of a much longer tradition—and that this sense of exhaustion that many feminists are feeling is as old as organized feminism itself. Women have been telling stories of assault and misconduct for so long, in different forms and in different settings for decades, recounting our traumas in public over and over again: The plight of women who face violence by men was made a part of the public conversation in the suffrage movement, in the temperance movement, and in 19th-century discussions of women’s introductions into industrial employment in places like the Lowell mills.
Mariame Kaba, the educator and organizer whose nonprofit advocacy group Survived and Punished works to free incarcerated victims of sexual and domestic violence, compared #MeToo’s utilization of women’s first-person testimonies to “consciousness-raising,” an organizing tactic that originated in the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Consciousness-raising consisted of small, in-person groups of women who met in kitchens, coffee shops, and university classrooms to discuss the impact of sexism in their own lives. The aim was to detect commonalities and patterns among women’s experiences, and, as the name suggests, to “raise consciousness”—that is, ideate how to apply feminist ideas to their own daily lives. The major groups fizzled out in the mid-1970s, but the tradition of speaking out about one’s own life as a way to move forward collectively lived on—as is very visible on social media in campaigns like #MeToo.
Consciousness-raising and tactics like it have always frustrated feminists, too. “Even back in the second wave, they realized that consciousness-raising wasn’t enough,” Kaba told me. Talking about the problems that sexism posed in their lives and identifying these problems as gendered made individual women feel better by giving them strength, community, and the knowledge that they were not alone. But it did not change their lived circumstances, nor prevent the same standing prejudices and inequalities that affected them from future suffering—it was therapeutic, Kaba told me, but it wasn’t the same as political organizing. The philosopher bell hooks summed up the complaints this way: “Feminist consciousness-raising has not significantly pushed women in the direction of revolutionary politics.”
At an academic conference called “Me Too and Epistemic Injustice” that I attended at the CUNY Graduate Center this past weekend, the CUNY philosophy professor Miranda Fricker put it this way: #MeToo, she says, has changed what she calls the “credibility climate”—the movement has advanced avenues for victims of sexual violence to be believed, both by institutions responsible for investigating allegations and by the people around them. But even when allegations are taken seriously or proven in this new credibility climate, the resulting knowledge—that the accused person has committed a sexual assault, that the accusing person was a victim of it—is not seen as a reason for corrective and rehabilitative action from those in power. Basically, Fricker posits that #MeToo means that more survivors are being believed when they come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault. That doesn’t mean that the people or institutions that they come forward to are doing anything about it.
The gulf between the emotionality of women’s testimony and the failure of that testimony to affect a change in their lived circumstances has been one of the most searing things that #MeToo has forced us to confront. Women can tell our stories of assault, rape, and harassment all we want. It will not matter if those in power do not want it to. I didn’t feel this way at the beginning of the movement, when powerful men appeared to be losing their stature and their reputations under the force of women’s testimony. It did not feel good to see these men punished, exactly, but it felt good to see women’s voices mattering, their testimonies given credence, and their experiences granted consequence. But a year in, when the predictable comebacks of predators have been launched, legal consequences have been few and far between, and the self-pitying essays by predators have been published—when the knowledge that a multiply accused sexual assaulter sits in the White House and another one has been rewarded with a seat on the Supreme Court—it is hard not to feel despondent, hard not to feel that women telling our stories has failed to effect the change we hoped that it would.
If women did not talk about our problems, we would not have domestic violence shelters, women’s self-defense classes, the criminalization of marital rape, legal prohibition against sexual harassment in the workplace, nor popular understandings of date rape, victim-blaming, and slut-shaming.
The visible effect is not on the structures of patriarchy, which remain intact, and not in the distribution of political, economic, and social power, which is still disproportionately held by men. The most visible effect is that we—feminists, women, and people who have experienced sexual violence—are all very tired. Maybe it’s counterintuitive to say that the feminists I spoke to all gave me a great deal of hope for the future of #MeToo and the wider feminist movement. All of them were angry, burdened by grief over what sexual assault survivors have endured, afraid of a future in which women’s rights will be eroded further, and, yes, exhausted. They were all also determined, more alert to the challenges facing the movement, and more defiant and tenacious in the face of them.
It is useful to remember that even if consciousness-raising isn’t sufficient for social change, it is always a prerequisite. If we cannot name our oppression—if we cannot articulate the violence that has been done to us—it will be impossible to fight against it, or to prevent it from happening again. If women did not talk about our problems, we would not have domestic violence shelters, women’s self-defense classes, the criminalization of marital rape, legal prohibition against sexual harassment in the workplace, nor popular understandings of date rape, victim-blaming, and slut-shaming.
At one point in our conversation, Kaba told me that she hoped the movement would help feminists “collectivize our suffering, and collectivize our care”—to become more alert both to the ways that those around us have hurt, and more alert to how we can lift one another up. In #MeToo’s sharing of grief, and collective demand for change, this is already happening.