Katharine Viles lives in Washington.
Every few months sexual assault shows up in the headlines, and for a while, everyone is very angry. Celebrities tweet their support for survivors, commentators offer hot takes, and hashtags are coined as an honest expression of individual experience, then circulate until they wind up as listicles somewhere in the online bargain bin of sad/inspirational stories. Movements can be made and unmade in the time it takes to share a think piece on social media.
During my senior year of college, one of my friends assaulted me. “Our” friends then became “his” friends — the male ones, at least. Boys are funny that way: Tell them a stranger is being creepy at a party, and they’ll stand by you all night. Tell them they’re living with a rapist, and you’ll find yourself alone. I spent almost every weekend of my final semester in my room. I passed his house on the way to class in the morning and tried to avoid looking at his window. I didn’t attend most of our pre-graduation events, and in the end I walked across the graduation stage like a zombie, dreading the moment I would have to watch him do the same. He congratulated me when I ran into him on the way to retrieve my diploma. That was the day I realized there would be no such thing as life without him.
The listicles don’t capture the way trauma can make you feel as though you’re living in a parallel universe, in a space with a tantalizing similarity to the time before you became something else. I was never comfortable taking on the political identity of survivor. Requiring a lower “preponderance of evidence” standard — the heart of the fight over how to apply federal Title IX law to campus sexual assault — wouldn’t have helped me because I had no evidence, and I was never going to report him anyway. Even if he faced consequences for what he did, we would both graduate before they took effect; more important, I could barely admit what happened to myself. Forget defending my story before a disciplinary committee or shouting it in the public square.
I live with an awful truth. It’s not just that someone I loved and trusted violated me intimately, and it’s not just that many of the people in my life never quite believed me. For me, the hardest part, by far, has been the wishing that it never happened. The longing for the time before. Feeling as though the only thing preventing me from getting back there is my own memory. The hashtags are intended to continue the conversation; for me, the conversation never stops.
None of this is to say that I am not immeasurably grateful and proud of the people who have the courage to turn their trauma into service. People who report, who go public, who fight for our rights as survivors are good and great and necessary. And those people would also be the first to point out that survival is not a given and that not every survivor has to be an activist.
This time, the hashtag is #MeToo. Two of my siblings, several of my friends and a long list of aunts, cousins, acquaintances and co-workers have used it. Some of them are survivors, some are not. Most of them have no idea that, for me, #MeToo evokes a deeply personal fracturing. And because of that, I can’t join them. I can’t reduce the past two years of my life to a hashtag that someone else might use to describe street harassment. This push to disclose sexual harassment and assault on social media — though admirable in spirit — feels more like an ultimatum than a choice. Saying something feels impossible and saying nothing feels untenable. I don’t know whom #MeToo is for, but it sure as hell isn’t me.
I don’t want to be an activist. I don’t want to dedicate my life to fighting for the rights of survivors. I want to get better. I want someone else out there to know that it’s possible to be more than the nightmare, more than the recovery, more than the way you feel when you see sexual assault in the news, again. I wish there had been someone to tell me that it’s okay if the only thing you can handle is trying to be okay. Plenty of people talk about how brave it is to speak out, and they’re right. It is brave to speak out, but that doesn’t make you a coward if you don’t. Silent or not, activist or not, we are worthy, and we will be just as worthy when #MeToo stops trending. I don’t owe anyone my story, and neither do you.