The Me Too domino effect in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and beyond

Like Black Lives Matter, Me Too has transcended hashtagged Twitter testimonies. — illustration by Jordan Sellergren

The Me Too movement has taken down politicians and Hollywood A-Listers, but it also pops up in Facebook feeds and conversations with friends and community members. Sexual harassment and assault, and broader issues of gender inequality, are both systemic and immensely personal issues, and the Me Too movement has both created a sense of unity and purpose and underscored existing social divisions.

Now, months after the wave of #MeToo posts and a decade after the initial Me Too movement began, the focus has turned to ensuring that the movement provides lasting change.

“This fight is for all of us. It is not a fight for just survivors,” said Katryn Duarte, assistant director for sexual assault services at the Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP). “If we really want to eliminate sexual violence, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on what that means and how to stop it.”

Duarte described sexual violence as a system of oppression, a way of using sex as a violent tool to take away someone’s humanity, but said that it is just one part of a larger social justice movement.

“It’s just one branch. We need to eradicate the tree from the roots so it doesn’t sprout back up. We need to work on all the -isms — racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, all the tools used to oppress other individuals,” Duarte said.

“Not to overly simplify, but it comes down to recognizing someone else’s humanity and being able to respect that individual.”

Duarte said a larger, long-term movement will require being present and holding each other accountable, and making sure that everyone has the opportunity to be present and to be heard.

“If we’re not doing anything to do that, we are also part of the problem,” Duarte said.

From Hollywood to Here at Home

Emmy Palmersheim, a theater enthusiast, cat lover and University of Iowa student studying creative writing and secondary education, said the Me Too movement is raising awareness of sexual assault, but it is nothing new.

“Something I’m very adamant about is that you have to look at something and you have to accept that it is happening,” Palmersheim said. “And right now, a lot of people, a lot of women, are sexually assaulted and harassed. So, we have to accept it, and then say, ‘Okay, how does it change?’”

Palmersheim shared her own Me Too post last year. It was the first time she had publicly spoken out about a violent rape that happened that year, although she had spoken to family and friends about it, but it wasn’t the first time she had talked about her experience with an older man who groomed, harassed and assaulted her when she was in her teens.

For her, being open about those experiences has helped her cope.

“I think that reclaiming something that happened to you, and making it your story, and deciding how you want to tell it is an incredibly empowering thing,” she said, adding that although the movement can feel pressuring, no one needs to share their story if they are not ready.

“If you aren’t comfortable sharing, you don’t owe it to anyone. All we owe each other is to be there and to listen if someone is talking,” Palmersheim said.

For Mary Sullivan, an actor, writer and director living in Cedar Rapids, the Me Too movement brought back memories of her teenage years, when she was involved in community theater and was pulled into a relationship with an older man. It inspired her to post a message to a local theater-focused Facebook group warning parents and adults to keep a watchful eye on kids. She titled the post “Don’t go into the prop room alone with the director.”

“Looking back at it, I see the dynamics of that relationship and how the older man exploited my youth and my enthusiasm for theater, and just how easy it was for him to manipulate me because I was a teenager and he was a guy in his 30s,” she told Little Village, adding that the revelations about that relationship weren’t new, but rather something she’d been thinking about all her life.

She said most of the responses to her post were supportive and positive, but there were some responses in the vein of “not all guys.”

“Which prompted some pretty forceful responses from women talking about why the response is a problem because of the way it tries to derail the conversation, shifting it away from the person who is telling their story and bringing it back to men,” Sullivan said.

Some of the headline-producing stories out of Hollywood also struck close to home for Sullivan. After the Los Angeles Times published an October story about sexual harassment and assault by filmmaker James Toback with corroborated stories from 38 women, the publication received an onslaught of emails and phone calls. By January, reporter Glenn Whipp had communicated with nearly 400 women with similar stories, all involving Toback (who has denied the allegations — as of January, the Los Angeles County district attorney was looking into at least five cases against the director).

“I’m one of those 400 that had a James Toback experience,” Sullivan said. “He didn’t rape me, but he used coercion, he exploited me, he manipulated me.”

Her own experience dated to her time in Manhattan in the ’80s, but stories of his abuses span four decades. Sullivan said seeing the number of women impacted by Toback’s actions was horrifying, but also created a sense of unity.

“To hear that there are that many other women, that immediately lets you know that there’s that many other women you can talk to about this who get it. I have met some amazing, talented, smart, incredible women because of this,” she said.

Hearing Every Voice

Raven Maragh Lloyd, a UI Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Studies, said that social media was practically made for social movements like Me Too.

“It was made for normal people expressing their experiences collectively,” Maragh Lloyd said. “The risk is making invisible certain people in a movement, specifically women of color, black women, like Tarana Burke, who a lot of people don’t know started the whole thing.”

Burke, the founder of Just Be Inc., started her Me Too campaign a decade ago. After an Oct. 15 tweet by Alyssa Milano used the phrase, the hashtag #MeToo went viral. Milano later acknowledged Burke’s earlier movement and Burke responded on Twitter saying that “it made my heart swell to see women using this idea.”

“The point of the work we’ve done over the last decade with the ‘me too movement’ is to let women, particularly young women of color, know that they are not alone — it’s a movement. It’s beyond a hashtag. It’s the start of a larger conversation and a movement for radical community healing,” Burke said over a series of tweets.

Maragh Lloyd, who is a digital media and critical race scholar, said that the issue isn’t just about race and gender, but also class. The Me Too movement has been frequently criticized for its focus on celebrity.

“It’s important that we’re talking about working class women, who maybe can’t afford to speak up to their boss because they’ll lose their job and that’s all they have,” she said. “Although the experiences of sexual assault clearly resonate across hundreds of millions of women, the implications are different regarding different women and different classes, different intersections of oppression.”

Maragh Lloyd’s research has included speaking to a focus group of 20 black women in St. Louis about how they define and enact resistance online, and she said public social media spaces are not always viewed as useful or welcoming.

“For the women I spoke to, a lot of them found public use of social media unhelpful because their words would be taken against them, for example, or they would be hugely trolled online in ways that they didn’t necessarily see for other groups,” she said.

Maragh Lloyd said that the silence on social media when women of color are attacked is a huge issue, citing Lupita Nyong’o, whose accusations against Harvey Weinstein were nearly the only ones he directly rebutted; the harassment faced by Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones; and the suspension of ESPN’s Jemele Hill over social media comments.

But people can take action.

“Let women of color speak for themselves,” she said. “We don’t ever need to say, ‘This is their experience. This is how they feel.’ What we can do is amplify those voices. It’s about finding those spaces, following Ava DuVernay, following Patrisse Cullors, of Black Lives Matter. Find out what they’re linking to and retweeting. Speaking up if you see a demographic that’s not represented on, for example, a panel, and educating yourself on the issues.”

Moving Forward

Maragh Lloyd said the success of a social media movement relies on having clear goals, like with the initial wave of Me Too: share your experience and add the hashtag. She pointed to other successful movements like Black Lives Matter, which moved from a hashtag to a website that points people to ways to get involved, merchandise to buy and stories about the movement.

One prominent effort to channel the Me Too movement into measurable change is the Time’s Up movement, formed by over 300 prominent women in movies, television and theater. The undertaking includes a legal defense fund and initiatives to promote legislation. It also spearheaded the successful, if symbolic, effort to have celebrities wear black to the Golden Globes.

The Me Too movement has also inspired actions on a local level. Just days after the initial volley of #MeToo posts, a Google spreadsheet ranking girls with letter grades started making the rounds at Iowa City West High School.

“There were a lot of people posting on social media about how upset they were, and how angry, and they couldn’t believe this happened,” said Lucy Polyak, a West High junior. “But something I noticed was there wasn’t a lot of anything being done to counteract the negativity that was going on, to try to bring any sort of light to the situation.”

So she posted to her Instagram and Twitter account with a hashtag: #EveryonesAnA. It took off, with people from around the community adopting the hashtag. Polyak said she was influenced in part by the Me Too movement.

“It definitely inspired me to see that talking about things on either a small or a large scale on social media can have a positive change,” Polyak said. “It’s a good place to start getting people involved, and then once people have begun getting involved in places like social media, it’s a lot easier to convince people to do things in real life as well to counteract whatever may be negatively going on in the world.”

Duarte, of RVAP, said the conversations sparked by Me Too have coincided with several groups and organizations reaching out to provide support or participate in the conversation about sexual violence or to seek training for things like intervention and improving reporting mechanisms for sexual assault and harassment.

The Me Too movement is also forcing communities to have discussions about sex culture, Palmersheim said. It urges people to examine at their own past actions and is encouraging people to hold friends and family more accountable by speaking up when their actions are unacceptable.

“People need to behave themselves better,” she said. “If you’re making people uncomfortable, you can’t blame someone else for something you did to them, or for reacting in a certain way.”

Palmersheim said it will take patience and a willingness to reach out and talk to people with different views, but change is possible — and necessary.

“I think people think about rape and sexual assault as an isolated act, but it affects you for the rest of your life. It will tear apart your sense of self. To do that to another person, consciously or unconsciously, is not okay,” she said.

“We all need to hold each other more accountable. To act as though your actions don’t affect the other people in your life is a very entitled way to behave and I’m not here for it.”

Lauren Shotwell is a writer and journalist living in Cedar Rapids. Much of her time is spent chasing after one rambunctious little girl. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.

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