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Victim advocates and the #MeToo movement help change perceptions

November 16, 2018

The #MeToo movement took off last October as a social media phenomenon when dozens of women accused American film producer Harvey Weinstein of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse that occurred over a period of at least 30 years.

More than 80 women in the film industry have since accused Weinstein of such acts. Weinstein denied “any nonconsensual sex.” He faces criminal charges of rape and other sexual abuse offenses in New York.

The #MeToo movement started with a goal of educating the public about sexual abuse while supporting survivors of abuse by giving them a platform to tell their stories and to campaign for change.

“It is definitely, at the very least, a conversation starter and makes people more aware,” said Victim Services Executive Director Michael Oliver.

Victim Services and its supporters are watching the movement and trying to gauge what it means to them.

“Societal perception of sexual assault is not what it needs to be,” said Tracey Cook, senior counselor at Victim Services. “It is not about what you wore or where you went. It is about power and control. When somebody rapes someone, it is to humiliate them, to degrade them, to hurt them.”

In fact, the #MeToo movement’s goals are something that Victim Services does on a daily basis, she said.

“We are the ones that are helping those people (survivors of sexual abuse),” she said. “When they are coming forward, we are supporting them and advocating for them, which is important to have that advocacy and to let them know what their rights are.”

The organization’s members let survivors of sexual abuse and violent crimes know they have options.

“By doing that you are empowering them and that is important,” Cook said.

The social media movement was enhanced about a year ago when Alyssa Milano tweeted using the hashtag MeToo. Milano is an actor, activist and American artist ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The origins of the movement actually began a decade earlier with Tarana Burke, a civil rights advocate devoted to fighting sexual harassment and violence. She started the movement on Myspace as a way to empower abused women of color.

In a podcast on the ACLU website Burke and Milano discussed the movement.

Abused individuals do not have to have those acts define their lives, Burke said. The day-to-day existence of survivors often includes times of uncontrollable crying, not wanting to get out of bed and flashbacks.

“Healing is raw . . . there’s an ugly underbelly to that,” Burke said.

But there is hope.

“What I’m telling you is that, despite that, joy is possible, despite that, feeling whole is possible,” she said.

Milano believes the movement can educate hurt individuals and reinforce healing.

“You know, we walk through the rain but we’re not the rain, right?” she said.

A little controversy

The #MeToo movement “is a good thing, but how it is perceived can be bad,” Cook said.

As more people come forward about sexual assault, some are questioning their motives, believing they may be seeking financial gain, she said.

Cook has worked with Victim Services for 25 years and has met with thousands of survivors in that time. That perception is not reality, she said.

“I think that society as a whole does not understand sexual assault, and so they don’t get why a victim may not remember what happened and why they are coming forward 20 years later,” she said.

Just because a survivor of sexual assault does not understand the dynamics, it does not mean the act did not happen, she said.

“When something bad like that happens, especially when you don’t come forward, you spend your whole life stuffing it somewhere and not talking about it,” the counselor said.

So whenever #MeToo came up, people felt safer. And there is safety in numbers, she said. More people came forward believing this is the time to tell their story.

“You come forward and tell your story, and you can’t remember facts and details, and you know you are not believed,” Cook said.

She especially dislikes seeing women not believing female survivors of sexual abuse.

“It boils my blood,” Cook said.

Risks on many levels

“I can’t think it would be anything but beneficial to raise the consciousness of the public,” said Lucy Whittle, the founder of Victim Services.

“I can understand when you are a child, you are just intimidated by the adults around you or the power flowing around you,” she said.

That child then pushes those emotions and memories of abuse deep inside to survive. The child grows into adulthood and some trigger causes those memories to come to the surface, she said. People come forward with their experiences as part of the healing process.

“These women are very brave when they come forward,” Whittle said. “They put their careers on the line and they testify. They are very brave. I don’t think I could be that brave. I just don’t know. They are very courageous.”

When a woman comes forward, her credibility is questioned on so many levels, she said.

Whittle cautiously supports the #MeToo movement.

“The fact that so many people now are coming forward, it is a very healthy thing,” she said. “We need to keep doing that. We need to keep purging the ranks (of abusers). At the same time, they have to be honest, too.”

Things have improved a lot for women, Whittle said.

“But there is just a lot of built-in room for disagreement and confusion. I’m afraid there is a lot of that we will have to continue to deal with,” she said.

Striving for reform

In late October, a group of Pennsylvania residents rallied in front of the state Capitol in Harrisburg sporting signs and chanting in support of abolishing statutory time limits for when a victim of sexual abuse can report the crime.

A new bill, which passed the House and is now in the Senate as Senate Bill 261, addresses the time limits victims of sexual abuse have to go to prosecutors to bring forth criminal charges or to file a civil lawsuit against their abusers.

Currently, the state civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse is capped at 12 years after the offense was committed. The childhood sexual abuse statute is capped at the age of 50.

The proposed law would allow an additional two years for everybody who didn’t meet the original statute of limitations to file suit against their abuser.

The proposed law is a good beginning, but it is not enough, according to state Office of Victim Advocate director Jennifer Storm.

“To reach the pinnacle of reform, we must abolish all time limitations on victims,” she said in a report.

The watchers

“The world is looking at Pennsylvania and the state is looking at victim services organizations,” Cook said. “We are the ones to set the standard for moving forward.”

Victim Services has always fought for victims’ rights at the state and national level.

“You want to be always ahead of the game of things that are going to happen,” Cook said. “You want to be that advocate that is out there in the front of this.”

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