About a month ago, the #MeToo hashtag first made its way around social media, as survivors of sexual assault and harassment came forward to share their experiences. The moment created what, for many, felt like a safe space to get brutally honest, with little context necessary: the simple hashtag an empowering and cathartic way to speak up.
This isn't the first time this has happened. Last October, after the Trump Access Hollywood tapes were released, there was a similar movement rallying women to share their stories using #NotOkay. Among the hundreds of thousands of tweets was one from Jillian Corsie, a filmmaker in Los Angeles. "Raped fresh yr of college. Police said 'don't mix beauty and booze' this is the first time I've publicly said that.
#notokay," she wrote. "For the first time, I felt the validation, and got the courage to tweet my own story, which I had never said anything about publicly," Corsie says. But unfortunately, because the internet is rarely a true safe space, some Twitter users saw the hashtags as a ploy for attention.
When Corsie woke up, the tweet had gone viral, and she remembers an influx of replies from people, some applauding her bravery and encouraging her to name this police officer, and some attacking her, claiming it was a "made up story by a filmmaker." Sound familiar? #MeToo caused similar reactions. One writer argued that "the movement reveals feminism’s obsession with victimhood." A bold YouTuber said women were using #MeToo to "show off to their girlfriends" that men have tried to seduce them. At the time, Corsie barely had any Twitter followers, but once outlets from Buzzfeed to People began reaching out to her for comment, "it was like all the sudden the secret couldn’t be a secret anymore, because it's out there," she says.
Corsie says she had "a lot of anxiety," but decided to reach out to the police officer who responded to her report 12 years ago (and blamed her sexual assault on "beauty and booze"), to confront him about the inappropriate way her case was handled. Not only did she arrange to meet him, she co-directed a film with documentarian Amy Rosner about the experience, called Second Assault. The name refers to the added trauma that can come when survivors report their experiences to an inhospitable or unsupportive audience.
"There's been critique about #MeToo, because everyone's like, Oh it's just social media, but the truth is it's starting conversations outside of that, and I think that's a really powerful thing," Rosner says.
"[Not reporting] is a normal response in trying to regain control over your life, because to report it to someone else requires that you trust they’ll be responsible with that information."
Kristen Houser, MPA, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, says often people don't come forward, or wait to, because they don't know how others will respond. "There's a fear of being disbelieved, blamed, enduring further harassment from people that don’t believe them — or further abuse from the perpetrator — and having their privacy violated," Houser says.
It's also common for survivors feel hyper-vigilant about their stories being passed around, because it can feel like they no longer have control over their narrative, Houser says, noting that a loss of control is central to the experience of assault, which is what can make this process so fraught for survivors. "[Not reporting] is a normal response in trying to regain control over your life, because to report it to someone else requires that you trust they’ll be responsible with that information," she says.
The night that Corsie was sexually assaulted, she asked her college suitemate if she thought she should tell the RA, and they said, "No, just go to sleep." It wasn't until her roommate came home that she recognized that she needed to go to the police. But had she gone to a Title IX coordinator, or even an RA, there's still no guarantee that she'd get the due process that she deserves, because many Title IX coordinators and schools aren't following the laws appropriately. "I think the system is broken at every level," Rosner says.
"We can't get justice in the legal system, so what we really want is just some kind of validation from the people in our lives."
In Corsie's case, she says she felt like her friends, roommates, and boyfriend at the time weren't supportive enough, and doubted her experience, so going to law enforcement was her only hope at some kind of remediation. "I had to navigate this all by myself," she says. "There's such a lack of understanding about what a cost it is to tell people in your life about this, professionally and personally," she says; she and Rosner hope their film will raise awareness of how it feels to chime in with a #MeToo, or to file an official report. "We just want to be believed, and that's it," she says.
The hashtags and social media movements are helping many survivors feel seen, such that Houser, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, compares this moment to group therapy. "When you start to hear that other people have experienced the same thing that you did, it lowers your sense of isolation," she says. It can also show that the way you're dealing with it is normal. Rosner recalls sitting with a group of film-industry colleagues when the news about Harvey Weinstein broke, and collectively reckoning with what could be done to support the survivors coming forward.
"We can't get justice in the legal system, so what we really want is just some kind of validation from the people in our lives," she says. Houser agrees — even in the face of trolls who use social media to discredit, shame, or disbelieve survivors — this moment is "breaking down some of the stigma that kept survivors silenced for so long."
Watch the trailer for Second Assault, below, and click here to make a pledge to help fund the documentary within the next two days.