In late 2017, the #MeToo movement catalyzed a change in our national conversation about sexual assault and harassment. The movement began when actress Alyssa Milano shared accusations of sexual assault and harassment against producer Harvey Weinstein. As other Hollywood mega-stars began to come forward with similar stories, #MeToo went viral. Twitter confirmed to CBS News that over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag "#MeToo," with 85 countries that had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets. Long before it became a hashtag, we are also aware that Tarana Burke began the #MeToo campaign in 1997, and we applaud her for her activism, her voice, encouraging others, especially women of color, to use their voices. This movement is shining a necessary light on an issue that has always been present for centuries.
Historically, some people who have come forward regarding the violence perpetrated against them have had their voices elevated higher than others, particularly wealthy white celebrities. And inevitably, some voices were left behind altogether, including the homeless, women of color, disabled, unemployed, queer, sex workers, men, undocumented workers, trans women, incarcerated women, and domestic violence victims, for instance.
The #MeToo movement has given most everyone a chance to be heard and has made some progress in changing the way people think and talk about sexual violence; however, despite overlaps in the topic, survivors who shared stories of domestic abuse via the hashtag experienced less positive impact. While the focus of #MeToo has been on sexual violence, specifically sexual harassment, domestic violence is more common than sexual violence but is discussed less now than even four years ago.
Since the beginning of time, domestic violence has been minimized and considered a private family issue that is not to be discussed or even acknowledged. It’s not uncommon for victims to not be taken seriously when they do come forward with domestic abuse accusations, which leads to abusers avoiding consequences. For example, in 2016 Amber Heard accused Johnny Depp of physically and verbally abusing her. Depp denied the allegations, and trolls on the Internet accused her of seeking a financial payoff, even after Heard donated her $7 million divorce settlement to charities.
Meanwhile, Depp went on to promote Fantastic Beasts. When the sequel to Fantastic Beasts was in production, domestic violence survivors implored J.K. Rowling and the film’s director, David Yates, to re-cast Depp. These pleas were rejected by both Rowling and Yates.
#MeToo has brought awareness to the fact that women don’t customarily disclose or discuss the violence they’ve endured. Women know that they will probably not be believed and it is a reality, whether in the home or workplace.
While we applaud the #MeToo movement and those women (and men) stepping forward to expose the actions of powerful men, we would argue against conflating the issue of domestic violence with sexual harassment.
Even in cases where domestic violence is present, there is more of a focus on the sexual elements of the abuse. An example of this occurred earlier this year, when Westworld actress Evan Rachel Wood testified before lawmakers about her experiences with domestic violence as part of an initiative to bring rights to sexual assault survivors. She described "toxic mental, physical and sexual abuse which started slow but escalated over time, including threats against my life, severe gaslighting and brainwashing, waking up to the man that claimed to love me, raping what he believed to be my unconscious body." Most media headlines covering Wood’s experience focused on the sexual abuse. Only a few even mentioned “domestic abuse” in their headline. It’s not surprising that marital rape is the most underreported form of sexual assault, but it needs to be talked about.
It’s not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to stay silent about abuse for several reasons:
As a result, victims are often blamed for staying. Many people might say – “why didn’t she just leave?”
Let’s put leaving a domestic abuse situation in the context of being a prisoner of war. The practicality is that sometimes you can’t leave. Victims are afraid their abusers are going to harm or even kill them if they walk out the door, or they’re afraid their abusers are going to take their kids, close all the bank accounts, or find them later and shoot them, or that they love their abusers and just want the abuse to stop. There is a lack of understanding and a lack of empathy for victims of domestic violence and it needs to be addressed.
Even in cases of femicide, victim blaming abounds. Laura Niemi, a a postdoctoral fellow in moral cognition at Duke University, has this to say:
"There's sort of this implicit belief in the case of domestic violence and killings in the home that maybe someone was triggered by something the victim did. This leads straightforwardly to this ‘victim blaming’ perspective where we think about domestic violence as something that happened because the victim deserved it. That they gave the perpetrator a good reason to harm them.”
In media stories, domestic violence oftentimes goes unmentioned in connection with the case (e.g. murder-suicide, woman dies after assault, in relation to mass shootings, etc.). Because domestic violence is so insidious and based on a pattern of power and control, unless there is an understanding the dynamics domestic violence, the media and others do not always have the knowledge or experience needed to identify these incidents as acts of domestic violence.
A Me Too-style movement more focused on domestic abuse could help debunk common myths about domestic violence, as well as pressure the criminal and legal systems to make things easier for victims and survivors. In an effort to destigmatize domestic violence, and as a reflection of our mission to amplify the voices of domestic violence survivors, we have implemented the #SurvivorSpeaks hashtag.
#MeToo shows us that cultural and social change is obtainable when the conversation is made accessible to all who are affected by sexual violence. Our hope is that #SurvivorSpeaks will empower survivors to come forward with strength and share stories that need to be told bringing awareness to this issues that impacts millions of women. “People would be stunned at the teenage woman that came forward, and the gay man that came forward, and the housewife who's been away from it for 20 years and said, ‘I didn’t have help then, nobody understood, I got out. Me too.’”
Because when a #SurvivorSpeaks, it’s powerful.