In the midst of #metoo stories, we must also ask “What’s next?”
My sexual trauma began before I even knew what sex was, and before I knew who I was.
by Josie Pickens
This essay contains discussion of sexual violence
I once dated a man who said that he had never been in a relationship with a Black girl who hadn’t suffered serious sexual trauma. He would soon learn that I was yet one more. It had happened to #metoo. A woman who began being stalked by boys and men as early as ten years old. One who, as a teen— all firm bodied and cooperatively silent—repeatedly fell victim to non-consensual sex with grown men who knew better.
#metoo is a recent phenomenon that relates to a movement started by #professionalblackgirl, activist, and sexual assault survivor Tarana Burke ten years ago. The phrase has now resurfaced as a result of many women coming forward to accuse film studio executive and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein of countless acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The #metoo conversation is important and necessary, and I believe that it needs to continue, but we also need to ask, “What’s next?”
My sexual trauma began before I even knew what sex was, and before I knew who I was. As I attempted to craft my #metoo message to post on Facebook, I suddenly remembered that I was sexually assaulted just a few weeks ago, at a bar, where a drunken stranger grabbed my hips and then my ass as I was standing next to him, chatting it up with about Hip Hop.
There was no flirtation between us, no invitation. Still he felt an entitlement to my body that far too many men believe they are guaranteed. As I swayed my hips away from him, I reminded him that he should not be putting his hands on women he doesn’t know. I said this firmly to the stranger, but not aggressively enough to set him off, I hoped—just in case he was a pugnacious drunk. After all, Janese Tallton- Jackson lost her life for telling some strange man “no” in a bar.
I hope you remember Janese, and say her name, as I certainly do.
I went on with my evening after being groped by the drunk stranger, because if I fell apart every time a man violated me in such ways, I’d rarely, if ever, be able to enjoy a night out doing what I love—listening to music and dancing my blues away.
This kind of refusal is a ritual for me. I am forty years old, and I have been dodging sexual harassment, sexual assault, and threats of violence for having the audacity to say “no” to men for thirty years. My reality is the reality of far too many women, the reality of basically every woman I know. So many cases of sexual violence experienced by Black women are documented with the stories shared using the #metoo hashtag, but many of us, like Tarana Burke, have been telling these stories for a long time.
And I am furious.
I am furious, not only because this kind of rabid sexual violence should not be so prevalent in our communities, but also because these heartbreaking testimonies are one more form of labor Black women are expected to perform that will likely add little value to their lives. Of course, as a storyteller, I understand that Black women sharing our stories via #metoo solidifies our testimonies in time. These stories are acts of resistance that will combat our erasure, our silence. They remind us that we are not alone.
Even in my rage, I have reserved a space for hope. I believe earnestly, as my friend Renina always reminds me, that love and change are always possible. I also believe that the continued #metoo movement can open up conversations with folks about how they contribute to rape culture and how they can create a safer world for women. Not only for the women they admire, or the women and girls they love, but for all women. Because feeling safe in one’s body is a human right, not an arbitrary one bestowed upon “daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives.”
So, what’s next? Responsibility, accountability, and action.
Many men have approached me since #metoo went viral, both publicly and privately, about how they have harassed and coerced girls and women into sex, with some sincerely contemplating whether they had committed sexual assault. They wanted to know how they could change the experiences of women and what they could do to make us feel safe.
We have to begin early with informing all genders, but especially girls, that they have autonomy over their bodies. They get to choose who they want touching them—including who they do and do not want to hug. We need to abandon dangerous “boys will be boys” excuses that allow and even encourage boys to behave badly and violently towards others, but especially girls.
We must investigate how we all contribute to rape culture. We have to stop implying and outright declaring that if women alter their style of dress or behavior, we can avoid sexual harassment or sexual assault. Rape culture is perpetually teaching women how to avoid sexual violence, but does not demand that men be taught not to sexually harass or sexually assault people.
It’s not just men who respond to incidents of sexual violence with respectability politics which blame victims instead of the perpetrators of said violence—women do it, too. All genders do this because rape culture is not limited to the sexual assault itself, but it is a system that shows up in all of our ideas surrounding gender.
We must be willing to intervene. Check in more. Women are harassed and assaulted because this kind of contentious behavior often goes unimpeded. Men, call out your homies when you witness them disrespecting and sexually harassing women. Ask women if they feel safe in public spaces if you believe that they are being harassed or assaulted, or even if they are not being harassed. Check in with them anyway (Feminista Jones’ #youokaysis hashtag and campaign is a great example of this kind of work).
Men have to do the work of interrogating how they are abusive and violent towards others. Black men folk, do your googles. Stop depending on Black women to teach you how not to be violent towards us. Be honest about your experiences of inflicting abuse and trauma on women with the people you know—mental, physical, emotional, and sexual abuses, as they are often intertwined. Help guide young men and boys towards appropriate sexual and social behavior. Learn what consent is, and then teach what consent is.
And, lastly: Listen to women. My God. Stop gaslighting women into believing that the traumas we suffer are untrue, are made up, are traumas that we asked for. Creating and fostering safe environments for women and girls to report sexual harassment and assault, and where they can speak, period, is essential to combating rape culture.
This is by no means the end to what has to be an exhaustive list, but I believe that this is what should come next after #metoo.
Josie Pickens is a professor, cultural critic, writer and griot. Follow her on Twitter at @jonubian.