Months after the #MeToo hashtag first began to trend on Twitter and raise awareness for sexual violence, its movement is only continuing to pick up steam. And now that the hashtag has become something of a shorthand for naming experiences of sexual violence, there's little doubt of its impact on survivors.
Sara McGovern, a spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) says that the #MeToo movement has certainly inspired more people to reach out to the hotline about their experiences.
"In the wake of the #MeToo movement, survivors of sexual violence have been reaching out to RAINN in record numbers," McGovern tells Refinery29, adding that in 2017, the network's victim services programs helped 209,480 survivors, up from 200,690 in 2016. In the last quarter of 2017, which coincided with the rise of #MeToo, the network helped an average of 656 survivors each day, up 43% from the first quarter.
Therapists, too, have seen a change in the way their patients open up about assault since the movement took hold — but it isn't so much that more people are going to therapy because of #MeToo. Rather, the therapists we spoke to said that, for the most part, existing patients are more openly discussing experiences in ways that they perhaps hadn't before the hashtag came along.
"I haven't seen more people coming in with sexual assault stories, but I have seen a lot of people that said, 'Well, that happened to me, too,' and then tell me about it," says Marcia Norman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who maintains a private practice in Winter Park, FL.
Dr. Norman says she's also noticed a pronounced change in how empowered survivors are when they're speaking out in therapy.
"What I am seeing shift now is that people are starting to put the blame where it belongs: on the abuser," she says. "More people are openly admitting to having been sexually abused or sexually harassed."
Erika Shershun, MA, MFT, who counsels patients at Grateful Heart Holistic Therapy Center in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that her patients seem to be experiencing "less shame-based emotions" in telling their stories.
"Women carry a lot of shame, guilt, and confusion about their experience and need to know that there is nothing they did to cause the sexual violence," says Susanne Babbel, PhD, MFT, a trauma therapist working in San Francisco. Dr. Babbel says that while she has had a few patients come into therapy citing #MeToo as a catalyst, her clients have been discussing their experiences with sexual violence — and parsing out the accompanying trauma — since well before the movement began.
"I think that women do not come to therapy because of an experience, but because they have symptoms that they do not know how to take care of," she says. "Many of [my patients] did not know that they experience trauma symptoms and PTSD due to their experience and are shocked that their anxiety and depression might be linked to that. So many of my clients say that they had no idea that they suffered from trauma. They thought only war veterans suffer from PTSD."
Jamie Justus, LCSW, who counsels patients in Austin, Texas, says that she hasn't had any new patients citing #MeToo as a catalyst in starting therapy, but some of her ongoing clients have actually been triggered by seeing the hashtag on their social media feeds.
"Initially, some folks reported feeling overwhelmed and triggered by the large amounts of #MeToo appearing on their social media feeds, as this brought up experiences of feeling the chaos or intrusiveness around their own assaults or harassment," she says, adding that on the flip side of this worldwide wake-up call, many survivors have also struggled with whether or not to open up about their stories.
"A few clients discussed the struggle of not posting #MeToo, because they did not feel ready to share about their abuse so publicly and felt a pressure to do so in order to be part of this movement," she says. "There can be a myth that telling one’s story is fully cathartic and healing, and that is not necessarily the case."
To actually help them heal, Justus says, "I want to support survivors in taking care of their needs and deciding to whom they tell what and when."
That being said, there's no doubt that #MeToo has had an impact on the way we discuss and handle sexual assault.
"I find that the majority of my female clients have been sexually harassed in some way, but never felt they could talk about it," Dr. Norman says. "It's as if we all had common knowledge that this was a fact of life and it was best to be silent. A power differential still exists, but now the conversation is being had."
As the difficult, often polarizing conversations continue, it's important to remember that movements like #MeToo can take a toll on everyone involved — whether or not they choose to broadcast their experiences. Yes, it's essential for us all to unpack such a treacherous societal problem, but as the movement enters a new year, it's also important to allow survivors the space and tools they need to heal.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).