Shock, outrage and disbelief are common reactions to the wave of stories and strength that #MeToo has unleashed. Yet for many of us, #MeToo and the deluge of survivor stories came as no surprise. Violence and harassment have been the reality of our lives and, for too long, the norm in the United States.
To understand where we are today, we must reckon with our history. The United States was built upon the genocide and rape of indigenous communities and the rape and exploitation of enslaved Africans and Black communities. Our laws condoned partner abuse, allowing husbands to “own” wives and perpetrate violence. Today, some states’ laws still define rape and violence narrowly so as to exclude rape of anyone other than cisgender women. Our culture and society have allowed violence and harassment to be a destructively common experience.
We must also own that prior iterations of the movements against sexual and intimate partner violence have made critical mistakes. The movement aligned with racism, transphobia and other forms of oppression, focusing exclusively on sexual and domestic violence and forgetting that all forms of oppression enable violence. And today, it is as clear as ever that we must end every form of harassment, violence and injustice collectively. Our liberations are interconnected. If you are moved toward justice by #MeToo, then move toward justice for all: people who have disabilities, people who are undocumented, LGBTQ+, poor, Black and/or brown, and all who have been marginalized by a system designed to exclude, discriminate and enable violence.
Our history does not have to be our future. We all deserve to live in a society in which we treat each other with respect, hold each other accountable and offer unwavering support to survivors. Preventing sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, sexual harassment and other forms of harm can feel overwhelming. Too often, it has fallen on the harmed communities to be the driving force to prevent further violence.
We can do better — as individuals, as communities and as a society. We cannot continue to accept violence as normal. We are right to be saddened and overwhelmed by the harm that we, and those we love and care for, have experienced. We need to register our outrage at the existence and extent of violence in our community. We must acknowledge when our own words and actions contribute to oppression.
Let’s not wait for someone else to experience harm and bravely share their story before we do something about it. Instead, we can center these experiences while we focus on preventing harm from happening in the first place. The time is now.
Prevention is possible, and the good news is that we have the tools to make change. There are several key strategies we can use to take action. First and foremost, we can commit to practicing consent every day, in every interaction. We can prioritize respect and consent by checking in about each other’s boundaries in every moment, not just for sex. It’s also important to be an an active bystander. When you see something, even if it’s as seemingly small as a joke or comment, intervene. Hold yourself accountable. None of us are perfect, but you have the power and responsibility to own the ways you have caused or contributed to harm by acknowledging it to yourself, to those close to you and (if appropriate) to the person or people harmed. Make your community better and safer from within.
You can be a catalyst for change. Incorporate violence prevention into whatever roles you hold. Think about how you can integrate violence prevention into what you already do to have a positive impact on those around you. Support policy changes in your areas of influence, from state and federal laws to the rules, guidelines and bylaws of your student organization, department or unit. Learn about resources. Until harm and violence have been fully eradicated, we need to support those around us who experience it. Support survivors by listening to them, believing them, connecting them to resources and encouraging them to make their own decisions.
Lastly, ask for help and seek support when needed. Eliminating harm is hard work. Support one another, and ask for support when you need it. If we can all be in this together, we can dismantle the systems and norms that have allowed violence to flourish.
Small actions truly make a difference; every one of us is key to creating an equitable and violence-free society. Let’s come together as a community to prevent violence, harassment and oppression.
Elizabeth Wilmerding, Joy Evans, Kiara Lee, Khirin Carter, Mari Knuth-Bouracee, Sarah Gamble, and Tiffany Hsiang are staff members of PATH to Care.