ME TOO, A MOVEMENT GROWN TO INTERRUPT SEXUAL VIOLENCE, IS EXPERIENCING PROFOUND GLOBAL VISIBILITY. TARANA BURKE, ITS FOUNDER, SPEAKS ON THE POWER OF SILENCE-BREAKING, HOW WE CAN CHANGE THE NARRATIVE SURROUNDING SEXUAL VIOLENCE, AND THE HEALING, TRANSFORMATIVE CAPABILITY OF A COMMUNITY OF SURVIVORS.
“SEXUAL VIOLENCE IS STILL LARGELY TABOO,” SAYS BURKE. “PEOPLE DON’T WANNA TALK ABOUT IT. IT’S A VERY, VERY UNCOMFORTABLE SUBJECT. A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO BELIEVE IT. A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO BELIEVE THAT IT’S REAL AND THAT IT HAPPENS.” IT CREATES A VICIOUS CYCLE. “ALL OF THAT PLAYS INTO US SHYING AWAY FROM IT AS A TOPIC. PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT IT’S GOING ON IN THEIR FAMILIES OR THAT IT’S HAPPENING IN THEIR COMMUNITIES. IT’S LIKE A SELF FULFILLING PROPHECY: YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT IT, AND IT HAPPENS; YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT IT, AND IT HAPPENS SOME MORE. WE GO AROUND AND AROUND IN CIRCLES.”
During my conversation with Burke, as she explained the cycle of silence around sexual violence, I thought of a night last fall. The Harvey Weinstein story had just come out, and #MeToo flooded my Twitter and Instagram feeds. I was out with a group of women who I work with. We drank wine, and the stories come out fast and hard. We started off talking about the news, but then, seamlessly, we began to talk about ourselves. We had all been sexually assaulted, and now it was starting to feel like we could call it forth from the secret, shameful places in our hearts.
"FOR ME, IT WAS REALLY DIFFICULT TO DO THE WORK AND TO DEAL WITH THE AMOUNT OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE THAT THE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO WE WERE WORKING WITH WERE FACING,” TARANA SAYS. “THEY WERE CONSTANTLY COMING TO US AND TALKING TO US ABOUT IT. IF YOU HAVEN’T HEALED FROM THE THINGS THAT HAVE CAUSED YOU TRAUMA, IT IS GOING TO BE HARD TO UNDERSTAND YOUR SELF WORTH.”
Tarana is now working on a memoir called Here the Light Enters: The Founding of the ‘Me Too’ Movement, coming out early next year. In it, she will use her own story as a window into the experience of sexual violence in communities of color, and especially the absence of resources in those communities. In telling her story—her “ordinary extraordinary story”—she will tell the bigger story of the kind of trauma that so many black girls around the country experience that we don’t acknowledge.
IV. BUILD POWER
“I think of survivors as a power base,” says Tarana. They are a constituency, a community of people with common interests. As she looks toward the future, she is trying to harness that power and use it to change the culture. “After years of working with both survivors of sexual violence and young people, I’ve learned that trauma manifests in our lives in communities of color in very different ways. A lot of times it can be acts of violence,” she says. “It can come out in all these other ways that get couched under the idea that ‘These are just challenging children. They’re just unruly and undisciplined.’ As opposed to acknowledging that they come from a background of trauma.”
The next phase of the Me Too movement is to change the narrative. Tarana often talks about how survivors should be placed at the forefront of solutions for ending sexual violence. But what does that actually mean? “All of these conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace and all these conversations about perpetrators is not helpful to survivors. It’s not helpful to people who are out there asking for help and looking for resources.” The debate about what it’s doing to his career or the conversation about his faults and ethics is not the point. The point is the survivor, and her healing.