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The invisible #MeToo: how anonymous testimony can help survivors of sexual abuse

A college campus project showed me how anonymity can give survivors critical freedom to tell their truth, free from judgement or interruption.

#MeToo protest in Paris. #MeToo protest against gender-based and sexual violence in Paris, October 2017. Photo: Somer/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.If you spent any time on social media recently, it would have been almost impossible to miss #MeToo. First created by black activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the hashtag resurfaced in the wake of sexual harassment and rape allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein.

#MeToo originally aimed to empower low-income women of colour who had experienced sexual violence. The hashtag identifies survivors of abuse who share their stories, and fosters solidarity by clearly letting others know: you are not alone.

It is a growing movement – and a global phenomenon. #MeToo and related hashtags have been tweeted 1.7 million times in more than 85 countries. In France, there’s #BalanceTonPorc. In Italy: #QuellaVoltaChe. In Latin America: #YoTambien.

#MeToo and related hashtags have been tweeted 1.7 million times in more than 85 countries.

Online media has enabled us to share stories that reach around the globe, and connect with others in creative and sometimes challenging ways. In the process, it is transforming solidarity movements for those who had previously been repeatedly and systematically silenced.

In the US, for three years I was an activist against sexual assault on college campuses. I spoke about bystander intervention strategies, reporting options for survivors, and Title IX (a federal law to protect students from gender discrimination, including harassment).

My alma mater, Santa Clara University, is one of 355 American universities currently under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for Title IX violations. The more I learned about sexual violence on campus, the more frustrated I felt over how survivors were deprived of justice.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college in the US. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, 30% of rape survivors report suffering academically; 22% consider leaving school; 44% experience problems with friends and peers.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college in the US.

Too many women, women of colour, and LGBTQ+ students are not protected or supported after experiencing trauma. Institutions that promise to provide students with quality education have failed to uphold this core promise.

In January 2017, I created The Amplify Project: an anonymous platform for student survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories of trauma, recovery, and more. My goal was to empower them by amplifying their voices, while also keeping them safe.

Anonymous storytelling can be a powerful way to encourage solidarity amongst survivors (whether or not they share their own experiences), while also engaging readers in personal stories about sexual violence.

The Amplify Project. The Amplify Project. Photo: Charmaine Yuen/Youtube. Over five months, 11 stories were contributed to the platform and most were re-published in our school newspaper. Most were about trauma experienced, but included details that paint rich pictures of what it means to survive.

"There is not a ‘right’ way to be a survivor and you deserve to be treated with respect and you deserve to treat yourself with respect. We all heal differently and we are all entitled to heal in whatever ways we can," said one contribution.

"Standing in court in my white dress as the judge confronted my rapist reminded me that I am still here, I am in control of my future and I am more than what he took away from me that night," said another.

A third, entitled An Open Letter to the Survivor I Didn't Support, said: "He would later ask me to testify against you and mention all the Saturday night boys. I did and I’ve been sick ever since."

“I am still here, I am in control of my future and I am more than what he took away from me that night."

Survivors can feel pressure to lay bare their personal stories in hopes that a public audience will ‘get it,’ and empathise with their pain. Perhaps they hope to reach other survivors. But we can’t place a heavier onus on those who have already experienced trauma.

It’s important for stories to be told, but the Amplify Project was about how the story is told. It didn’t force a survivor to relive their trauma, sacrificing their self-worth and dignity for web surfers who, with the click of a button, can “react” and apathetically scroll to the next story.

Anonymous writing makes a story simultaneously personal and universal. It doesn’t matter whether the author chooses to officially report their experience, or disclose it to friends, family, or peers. What matters is that they have the right to tell their truth, free from judgement or interruption.

What matters is that they have the right to tell their truth, free from judgement or interruption.

The Amplify Project also forced our campus to publicly recognise that survivors exist among us, not just in faraway news clips or sound bites.

The stories showed how sexual violence operates within a larger system. Individual events are perpetrated by specific people. A larger culture allows abuse to thrive, in silence, turning a blind eye to those affected.

Unfortunately, the Amplify Project ended after I graduated from Santa Clara earlier this year. While our Women’s and Gender Studies department was extremely supportive of the project, the university administration was not.

What’s stuck with me is this: protecting privacy does not require silence, which can stigmatise survivors and engender shame and loneliness. ‘Invisible’ sexual violence is normalised. It ‘erases’ the individuals affected, who must carry and work through their pain alone.

‘protecting privacy does not require silence, which can stigmatise survivors and engender shame and loneliness’

I think about the stories that aren’t told. The survivors who ask whether their experience “counted” as sexual assault. Those who may have believed in our campus project, and wanted to participate, but sat in front of a blank page on their computer screen, unable to write a word.

The survivors who don’t know where or how to start telling their stories. And those who don’t call themselves survivors, who struggle daily to focus on classes, maintain friendships, andsleep at night. Their experiences, which may never be disclosed, are the silent part of #MeToo.

Anonymous writing isn’t about hiding behind a curtain, but empowering those who have experienced trauma by passing the mic. It can enable survivors to tell their stories, safe from denial, doubt, and attack.

As the conversation around power-based violence continues to dominate the news cycle and our social media feeds, survivors should know that justice may mean something different for different people. There’s more than one way to say #MeToo.

About the author

Emma Hyndman created "The Amplify Project" and was a college activist against rape culture. She completed her bachelor's degree cum laude at Santa Clara University. Currently, she is a master’s student at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in the Basque Country. Find her on twitter: @emmahyndman_.


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