Thursday, February 8, 2018

A “Survivor Scholar” perspective on #metoo

By Alexa D. Sardina, PhD, and Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD

We are exhausted. As “survivor scholars” - sex crimes scholars who are also public rape survivors - we have dedicated our lives and careers to understanding sexual victimization, why it happens, how to prevent it, and how to best live in the aftermath of rape.

We get it. We have lived it. And we’re exhausted.

The #metoo movement offered the promise of elevating the voices of individuals who had experienced sexual harassment and victimization. At first, we were inspired and excited that people were sharing their experiences and would be silenced no more. However, very quickly we both became disillusioned and concerned about the potential conflation of terms and the backlash the movement would face. Simultaneously, we were troubled by apparent blinders still worn by so many in the movement who continue to isolate and exclude the voices of marginalized people, including men, trans and gender non-conforming people, indigenous, and racial and ethnic minorities.  

However, our biggest cause for alarm continues to be the conflation of all forms of sexual misconduct, where no distinction is made. Some activists have argued that we should never have to differentiate between rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.
In our professional opinions, guided by years of accumulated knowledge, and our personal experiences with both rape and sexual harassment, we wholeheartedly believe that making these distinctions is necessary if we are to have critical and meaningful dialogue moving forward.

We acknowledge that the grouping of all forms of sexual misconduct is not meant to intentionally minimize the trauma of individuals who have experienced rape. However, the unintentional consequences of this grouping does exactly that.  This is not to discount the trauma of sexual assault or harassment. In fact, the distinction we are making is to honor the trauma caused by all forms of sexual misconduct, while acknowledging that they are fundamentally different. We do not see our beliefs as mutually exclusive.

Creating a cultural shift where sexual misconduct of all forms disappears requires nuance. Broad sweeping generalizations cause more harm than good.
Though the impact of the #metoo movement has yet to be revealed, we question what the overarching goal is. What do we want to achieve? Based on our own personal experiences, our professional read of the research, and our interactions with fellow survivors and activists, we believe that the ultimate goal is to eradicate sexual violence. The question becomes how do we realize this goal.

Ending sexual violence in all its forms  is only possible when there is space for individuals who have experienced it to be heard and supported and space for individuals who perpetrated these actions to take responsibility. When we shame a person for what some see as an insufficient apology, we further silence those who would consider publicly acknowledging their part in perpetrating any or all forms of sexual violence.

Trying people in the court of public opinion and calling for them to disappear will never lead to healing and will never prevent these types of offenses from occurring. Shaming is ineffective at best and at its worst can lead to an increase in the very behaviors we are trying to prevent. In The Gifts of Imperfection, shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brene Brown states that, “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

We are at a crossroads. We have the power and the capacity to make real and lasting changes. This requires that we be willing to lean into uncomfortable conversations and realities about how and why sexual victimization occurs. We cannot expect change if we do not honor the importance of voices and lived experiences both of people who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, and rape, and people who have perpetrated these offenses.

We fully recognize and expect that many people will fundamentally disagree with our stance. We acknowledge and respect those opinions and welcome the uncomfortable dialogues that will inevitably ensue. We formulated this path forward based on our lived experiences as survivors and criminal justice professors who believe that our current approach to sexual violence does not reduce harm, bring closure, or prevent future offenses.


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