(Editor’s Note: At the request of the author and the support of this director, there is a trigger warning regarding sexual sexual assault for this article.)
Tarana Burke stands grounded and poised, her words and stance open to her captive audience; an audience that has spread to the originally closed off balcony and into a space behind the ballroom that was separated by now folded up accordion walls. She is the founder of the #MeToo Movement, which has given survivors of sexual assault a platform to be heard and has exploded online in the past year.
Burke first opens with a history about herself and her movement. She talks about living in the Bronx with a family who valued the importance of educating Burke on her history and culture as a black woman in America. She recollects multiple political and personal instances in her life that gave her a chance to use the history she learned to discover her interest in activism. She talks about a pivotal moment, the “genesis of the me too movement”, when a 13-year-old girl she calls Heaven came to her when she was a camp counselor in her 20s to share her experience with sexual abuse. Burke says that she “watched her become me”, relating with the silences and story she told. She talks about how she was unsure about what to say, her own pain and trauma standing in the way of telling Heaven “me too”. Burke talks about all the things she wished she could say to Heaven that she needed to hear when she experienced her assault. She talks about turning Heaven away, and not seeing her again after that.
Burke’s efforts to create a better system to offer support to survivors has grown rapidly as she’s watched her small community evolve into a national, and even international, topic and hashtag with millions of people sharing their story on and offline. However, there was hard work and pain in the process to get there. Burke is transparent about the fact that she has not and will not publicly share her sexual assault story and emphasizes the fact that while trauma can be expressed in a healthy way, the importance of the movement comes after you say “me too”. The pain needs to be understood rather than explained and the pain needs to be healed, not ignored. Survivors should be told that they are seen, heard, and believed rather than made to feel ashamed and dirty for something that was never their fault to begin with. Burke talks about how survivors of sexual assault do not need to have their identities wrapped up completely in their trauma, that our joy and feeling whole and safe are what define us more than anything else. Burke emphasizes throughout the talk that the conversation we are having should be based around the survivor. Who better understands their needs than the people who require them to be met? When the perpetrators are put in the spotlight, their motives questions, their punishments considered, their redemptions mediated, they serve as a distraction from the people who said #metoo in the first place. If we want to live in a world less vulnerable to sexual violence we need to listen and support the survivors.
Sexual assault is not something that is clear cut or black and white. Not every man is an abuser and not every woman is a victim. Sexual assault, as Burke puts it, does not discriminate. It is something that affects people no matter their race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, or gender. But it is something that affects people. Survivors supporting survivors is critical, but no matter your trauma there is still change that can and should be done to the current rape culture and political climate surrounding that. Saying “me too”, as Tarana Burke and millions of other people have, takes toil enough. Saying “I believe you” does not take much.