#MeToo and Changing the Culture of Power

As a survivor of incest and sexual abuse, I have spent a lifetime moving through the trauma and rediscovering my voice in the process. In acknowledging my experiences with the utmost compassion and honesty, I took baby steps toward regaining my power. I didn’t do this by denying my past but by boldly claiming my messy life so that the pain of what happened no longer had a hold over me.

In speaking up about my experiences over the years, I’ve seen firsthand how my transparency has given other women the same capacity to own their stories and let go of the shame that had been holding them captive in their lives. This is why I believe that the recent #MeToo campaign, a social media hashtag that women, and some men, have used to relate personal accounts of sexual harassment and assault, is so transformative—because it drags secrets and shame out of the closet and leads to healing.

In the last few weeks, the campaign has raised awareness around the topic of sexual violence and just how widespread it is. We know the sobering statistic that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime. We know how prevalent sexual abuse and harassment are…and we’ve turned a blind eye to it for too long. We’ve allowed shame, “niceness,” and the social taboo around speaking about such experiences to silence us. But #MeToo is a wonderful opportunity to join our voices together and to know that we are not alone.

Everywhere, we are seeing people speaking up. Women (as well as some men) are joining forces en masse to share their stories, many of which had never been told before. At the same time, men are also being forced to recognize their own blind spots with respect to sexual harassment and assault.

Lots of people have different opinions and insights, but the main thing is: We are all talking about something that has been around forever, but that has been in the dark for too long!

Women have been passively protesting sexual harassment and assault for years; now it’s time to activate our voices and to be open and honest about our experiences. Unfortunately, we have been lulled into apathy, false politeness, and the imperative to just shut up and be pretty and compliant. This is no longer an option. As the onslaught of accusations continues, and the sheer number of crimes against women is brought to light, it’s clear that we’ve turned a corner and it’s time for our voices to be heard.

Contrary to what naysayers have asserted, the #MeToo campaign is neither divisive nor negative; it’s about shining a light on the culture of power and how it breeds abuse that often goes unseen or neglected. We are changing the terms of the conversation around abuse and harassment, which will ultimately benefit both men and women. In fact, women’s courage in speaking out is also giving men who have been victims of sexual trauma the permission to share their stories, free of stigma and shame. Predictably, this process isn’t easy, but there is power in numbers!

Whether we agree or not, the truth is out, and there’s no turning back now. We are being forced to look at all the ways in which women, and men, are impacted by these issues. We are being asked to interrogate ourselves more deeply about consent, the objectification of women, and how sexual violence has so often been overlooked in our society in order to protect perpetrators and people who wield power over others.

In order for us to have honest conversations, we must confront the social tendency to victim-shame. While I am a huge proponent of stepping out of self-imposed victimhood and taking control of our lives, “victim” is too often a dirty word that is thrown at women in order to silence them and deny their experiences of having been harmed.

Victim-shaming is hardly unique, and we even see women doing it to one another. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also understandable. As women, we’ve learned that the way to buy our “freedom” is through compliance. We have been taught that we should want the power that men have, and the only way to acquire it is to shut up and do it their way. We are told not to overreact, and are sometimes threatened with the implications of what might happen if we “ruin” the reputation of someone in power. Speaking out can be a great threat to our careers, our credibility, and our sense of personal safety. It requires immense sacrifices, because the culture of power is such that people don’t take too well to it being questioned.

But not questioning it is precisely what perpetuates silence and secret keeping. If we want true accountability, we must hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of race, gender, faith, ethnicity, or political ideology.

Understandably, I think a lot of people worry about pointing fingers and villainizing men, but we need to get very real about the fact that we live in a culture where our ideas about what is and what isn’t sexual assault or harassment are really screwed up! False or incomplete information about gender roles and how men and women should behave perpetuates misunderstanding and miscommunication. It keeps us from the intimacy that most of us long for. This is why #MeToo is an opportune moment for men and women to move beyond our personal stories of shame and blame, and to truly understand one another and come together.

Many victims of sexual assault or harassment will never feel safe enough to share their stories with another human soul. They will never have their day in court. They will never feel vindicated because they are terrified to break their silence and unburden themselves of the secret they are holding on to.

Despite what we have been through, our true power is in claiming our voices as women. Many of us who step forward and say “no more” are giving the ones who are holding their painful secrets the strength to also say “me too.”

In a world where our realities have been denied, where women’s daily experiences must be corroborated by male validation in order to be seen as real, our stories are our saving grace. Our capacity to connect with one another through empathy and connection is what leads to long-lasting change. Even if our stories have only been shared in hushed tones, or only written in the pages of a journal, they are markers of our experiences that allow us to assert with confidence, “This happened. It was real. It made its mark on my life.”

Many of us will never be in traditional positions of power, but the new power—I would argue, the true power—is in being brave enough to step forward and share what has remained hidden for too long. It is say, “I am here. I matter. This is my story. And it has the capacity to transform the world.”

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About the Author | Kelly McNelis

Kelly McNelis is the founder of global community, Women for One, a speaker, coach, facilitator, and bestselling author of Your Messy Brilliance: 7 Tools for the Perfectly Imperfect Woman. With more than 25 years of experience as a nonprofit and small-business consultant, Kelly empowers generations of women around the world to build the relationships, community, and confidence they need to achieve their wildest dreams. She finds daily inspiration in spending time with her husband and children in her home outside of Seattle.

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