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MeToo founder: Kavanaugh debate shows ‘more education is needed’

Tarana Burke says #MeToo has come a long way, but misconceptions about sex assault continue to play out on public stage.

It was described as a watershed moment when, last year, tens of millions of people from around the world shared their personal stories of sexual harassment, assault and violence.

The accounts were shared under #MeToo, which has since grown into a movement to end sexual violence in all its forms, support survivors, and educate people about the widespread issue.

As the one-year anniversary of that viral moment takes place later this month, and as sexual abuse allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh regalvanise the movement, the work of #MeToo continues, says Tarana Burke, the US-based community organiser who first used the phrase more than a decade ago.

“We have this amazing, historic opportunity to shift things in such a way that it doesn’t ever shift back,” Burke recently told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.

“We have an opportunity to talk about this differently, to think about it differently, to work toward it differently. That’s the work that happens now.”

While #MeToo has dominated the headlines like never before, in many ways, it’s not been an easy year for the movement, either.

Detractors have decried the harm sexual abuse allegations have had on men’s reputations – describing alleged abusers as “#MeToo casualties” – while with new accusations, newspapers have questioned whether #MeToo has “gone too far”. Alleged abusers have also attempted comebacks in recent weeks.

Al Jazeera spoke to Burke about what’s happened since #MeToo went viral last year, the misconceptions that persist around sexual violence, why apologies aren’t enough and what work still lies ahead.

Al Jazeera: How do you feel about what has happened since the #MeToo hashtag went viral a year ago?

Tarana Burke: I feel like we have a lot of work to do still, but I feel like we’ve made some strides in the last year.

But what has also happened is the conversation has stagnated around the perpetrators of the crime and the celebrity involved and hasn’t been expanded to the survivors of sexual violence and why [the hashtag resonated with] so many millions of people.

I think that the way the conversation [around Kavanaugh] has unfolded makes it clear that there’s still a lot of education necessary in the country around the realities of surviving sexual violence, and the realities of what it does to a person physically, mentally and emotionally.

Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement

Al Jazeera: Over the past two weeks, the #MeToo conversation in the US has centred on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault. How do you feel about how that conversation has gone?

Burke: I think that the way the conversation has unfolded makes it clear that there’s still a lot of education necessary in the country around the realities of surviving sexual violence, and the realities of what it does to a person physically, mentally and emotionally.

The kind of stereotypes around falsehoods and misconceptions that people have around sexual violence are playing out on a public stage with the president tweeting out victim-blaming tweets, or Kavanaugh talking about [how] his supposed virginity shields him from being a sexual assaulter.

Al Jazeera: What impact do these types of misconceptions – being shared so widely in relation to the Kavanaugh accusations – have on sexual assault survivors?

Burke: I think it’s clearly a negative impact.

For [Trump] to single out citizens who survive sexual violence and blame them for their own victimisation is awful and it’s certainly is not helpful for those of us who are trying to encourage survivors and tell them that healing is possible.

We are on one hand saying it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone, and there’s a community that supports you, and you did the right thing by coming forward.

And then [we] have people in leadership who are saying, ‘No, she was drunk, or she didn’t report, so she’s invalidated.’

Al Jazeera: In the past year, critics of #MeToo have said the movement is harming men’s reputations and alleged abusers have been described as “#MeToo casualties”. How do you feel about that type of framing of the issue?

Burke: It’s a very dangerous narrative.

We are already dealing with people – millions of people, in fact – that are impacted by sexual violence, and to watch people turn #MeToo into a weapon, as opposed to acknowledging it as a tool, is not just unfortunate, but it’s dangerous.

It creates this idea that the labour that survivors are putting forth to tell their stories, to try to shift the narrative about being a survivor, is only about taking down powerful men.

Al Jazeera: How would you describe what the #MeToo movement is really about?

Burke: I would describe it as a global movement of survivors and allies who are working toward ending sexual violence and also working toward healing from the trauma of sexual violence.

Burke founded the movement more than 10 years ago to support and amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence, assault and abuse [File: Courtesy of Tarana Burke]

It’s a movement to raise consciousness. It’s a movement to educate people about the realities and the breadth and depth of sexual violence. It’s a movement about supporting survivors.

It’s everything but a movement about targeting perpetrators.

Al Jazeera: What’s your response to people who have been accused of sexual violence now trying to make their way back into the community? Louis CK, who recently performed stand-up to a widely receptive audience in New York, just a few months after apologising for masturbating in front of young female comics without their consent, for example.

Burke: It’s disappointing because what it tells me is that there’s no a real ask of accountability happening.

What it is, is people who were accused … kept their heads out of the public eye, and just are peeking out to say, ‘OK, has this media cycle passed yet? Has it died down yet? Can I come back yet?’

They’re counting on our notoriously short memory, and our propensity for forgiveness, if you will, for those who entertain us.

It’s not that there’s not a road back. It’s not that there’s not a possibility of being a part of the larger community again or doing the work that they want to do.

People participate in a protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Los Angeles, California in November 2017 [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Let’s talk about Louis CK. He admitted that the behaviour was wrong, so there’s an admission of wrongdoing there, but that means that you have to follow that up with action that allows the person who you wronged to understand that you have learned from what you did and that you won’t engage in that behaviour again.

You can’t simply leave that to an apology [alone].

We haven’t seen a public expression of understanding about the gravity of some of the things that have happened. We haven’t seen the survivors of this misconduct or the abuse or the assault or whatever the thing is, talk about what they need.

Nobody’s asked them: what would you need in order to see this person come back into the spotlight, if at all?

Al Jazeera: You said earlier that #MeToo is a global movement. How important is it for people from marginalised communities to have a place within this conversation?

Burke: I think it’s critical. There is a part of sexual violence that is a unifier.

It’s a common denominator among vastly different groups, and I think seeing and hearing the fullness of the impact of sexual violence helps paint a larger picture.

While sexual violence knows no race or class or gender or what have you, the response to it does.

In the public discourse, we have not really scratched the surface of understanding the breadth of sexual violence, and in order to do that, we need to hear the stories of the most marginalized people.

While sexual violence knows no race or class or gender or what have you, the response to it does.

Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement

The Native community is affected in one way. Black and Brown folk are affected in one way. People in Southeast Asia are affected in another way. There are religious implications. There are racial and cultural implications that we haven’t grappled with.

That’s important to understand what we’re actually dealing with.

Al Jazeera: When we talked last year, you stressed the importance of shifting the focus of #MeToo to making sure survivors get the support they need. Has that been happening, and if not, how can it get there?

Burke: I wish I had an answer to that. I feel like I’ve been talking for almost 12 months straight about the same thing.

As much as #MeToo has been in the media [and] as much as we hear about it, I don’t think people realise how disconnected what we hear and see is from the reality of what is going on, on the ground.

There are not a lot of [added] resources that have moved in this last year to support the people doing the work to end sexual violence.

Protesters at a march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in California in November 2017 [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

On the ground, the people who are literally holding the hands of the survivors, who are coming in after disclosing their experience of sexual violence that they’ve held for 30 years – they’re going to rape counselling centres, and they’re going into counselling centres and they’re going to local support groups.

These are the people, these are soldiers on the ground, who need resources.

Al Jazeera: Why do you think those resources haven’t gone where they need to go?

Burke: People have to be bleeding and dying in the street in order for people to respond with the urgency it requires.

The fact that 12 million people in 48 hours responded to #MeToo on one social media platform should have set off bells and whistles. That should have been a state of emergency.

I hope [the movement] lends itself to creating solutions. I hope that it gives the people who have already experienced sexual violence a place to feel whole and fully actualised again. I hope we get the resources we need to do the work.

Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement

That should have made everybody stop and say, ‘Oh God, what have we unearthed?’

‘Who’s doing the work to stop [sexual violence]? How do we support them? And what are we putting in place to make sure that we never have this many people suffering under the same thing again?’

Al Jazeera: So what work lies ahead for #MeToo?

Burke: Our work is to continue what we’ve been doing. To help survivors who need to find the resources they need; to help them understand that healing is possible.

To help people who have been motivated in this moment to do something toward the end of sexual violence, to help them figure out what their role is.

We’re doing that through our website; we’re doing that through giving out funds.

I hope [the movement] lends itself to creating solutions. I hope that it gives the people who have already experienced sexual violence a place to feel whole and fully actualised again. I hope we get the resources we need to do the work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

War on women, war on liberty?

SOURCE: Al Jazeera News

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