Opinion letter to the editor

Pleasure@MIT responds to the #MeToo campaign

Me too. Me too. Me too. Story after story has appeared on our social media accounts, reminding us of the unacceptable prevalence of sexual violence in the lives of people around us. Three years ago, the Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault (CASA) survey found that 35% of female undergraduate respondents had experienced sexual harassment, assault and/or rape while at MIT. From the CASA results, we knew that sexual violence was happening here. Now, prompted by Tarana Burke’s 2007 idea and the most recent viral social media campaign, we are hearing some survivors’ stories.

How can we, as MIT students and community members, respond to the #MeToo campaign that has brought our peers’ stories of surviving sexual violence to light? This letter reflects the views of students in PLEASURE@MIT in regard to that question.

The positive outcomes of #MeToo

PLEASURE@MIT is a student group dedicated to eliminating all forms of sexual violence through peer education on consent, relationship empowerment, and sexual health. We are trained and supported by MIT’s Violence Prevention and Response (VPR). In reading through the #MeToo posts on our own news feeds, we are inspired by the courage and strength of our classmates and friends who are speaking out against sexual violence and sharing stories of how harassment, assault, and other forms of sexual violence have affected them. Reading each one of these stories is a privilege. We hope that reading about their peers’ experiences with sexual violence reassures other survivors that they are not alone and that it is not their fault.

We celebrate the way #MeToo enables many survivors to feel empowered and listened to. Indeed, many who write #MeToo say that by doing so, they feel freed from the burden of an experience they previously could not label and express with confidence. In turn, their leadership has brought attention and transparency to a systematic and widespread problem in need of a systematic and widespread response. #MeToo stories allow us to see, with clarity, the range and diversity of negative impacts of this issue. Sexual violence is a powerful form of disempowerment, and the #MeToo campaign has created an opportunity for survivors to feel empowered to expose this injustice and share their story.

However, we also have significant reasons for concern about the impact of the #MeToo campaign on our community.

Pleasure educators’ concerns about #MeToo

Our most pressing concern is for the health and wellness of survivors in our communities. With the large numbers of personal, detailed and traumatic stories being shared, survivors of sexual violence may feel overwhelmed by unwelcome reminders of traumatic experiences by simply reading through their newsfeed on Facebook.

For MIT community members who feel triggered by conversations cropping up around #MeToo, we recommend contacting VPR, a confidential MIT resource that is highly regarded by virtually all MIT students who work with them. VPR consists of trained professionals who specialize in helping survivors of sexual violence and their communities throughout the process of healing in the wake of trauma. They staff a 24/7 confidential hotline, which can be reached at 617-253-2300. The hotline is available for all members of the MIT community and no issue is too small to call with. They are available as thought partners and support to anyone dealing with the impacts of sexual violence — this might include survivors, friends, classmates, staff or faculty. They also offer in-person appointments which you can schedule by calling the hotline, or by emailing VPRadvocate@mit.edu.

We also worry that some survivors may feel pressured to share their private stories in a semi-public space where most of their friends and family could read it. No survivor of sexual violence is at all responsible for what happened to them. Accordingly, no survivor is responsible for correcting the injustices that took place against them. In other words, we encourage any survivor who feels empowered by disclosing to say, “Me too,” and also we want to encourage survivors to make the right choice for themselves. No one should feel obligated to say, “Me too.” Similarly, nothing can be assumed about someone who does not say, “Me too.”  

Another concern we have is that a widely shared message encouraging others to write “#MeToo” on social media does not recognize the experiences and backgrounds of many survivors of sexual violence. Specifically, the message we often see is as follows: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ [on social media], we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

This message does not explicitly include survivors who do not identify as women. Nor does it recognize survivors of sexual violence who do not label their experiences as “violence”, “harassment” or “assault.” Notably, even someone who has been raped may not feel represented by these labels.

In stating this concern, we also recognize that sexual harassment and assault are horrible problems that affect far too many women, far too frequently. If the writer of a #MeToo message considered our point about inclusion and still chose to write “all women” and “sexual harassment or assault,” we would respect their decision. We simply wish to point out that sexual violence is not limited to sexual harassment or assault — sexual coercion, stalking, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, are similarly awful and deserve attention — and we hope that survivors of all genders and identities may feel empowered to also share their stories through the #MeToo campaign.

For those who agree that greater inclusion would strengthen the #MeToo campaign, we recommend the following phrasing: “If all people who are survivors of sexual violence wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

What we can do

If reading your friends’ #MeToo stories, or sharing your own, has made you interested in anti-violence work: join the resistance. If you enjoy in-person discussions on relationship empowerment, join PLEASURE@MIT — the group is currently looking for the next cohort of educators to go through training with VPR. Stop Our Silence, who puts on the Vagina Monologues every year, and the Student Sex Positive club are two other great options for students wishing to get involved in dismantling rape culture and while creating a culture that promotes respect, health, and curiosity.

The stated goal of the #MeToo campaign is to “gain a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” We believe in this mission, and we also believe that a great way to achieve it in our community will be for MIT to administer an anonymous and comprehensive survey on the prevalence of all forms of sexual violence at MIT, and for every student to fill it out. We need to update the data collected in 2014 through the first iteration of CASA, and to answer questions which that version of CASA left out. For example, how prevalent is sexual assault not involving “use of force, physical threat, or incapacitation”? MIT uses an effective consent policy when it reviews disciplinary cases of sexual misconduct, which makes no such qualifications about what constitutes a violation. We urge the administration to apply the same appropriately high standard when writing reports on survey data.  We look forward to seeing an updated and expanded survey very soon so we can update and expand our efforts to eliminate sexual violence at MIT.

If we can include the experiences of more survivors of sexual violence, maintain high standards of physical and emotional safety for all of them, and follow up with institutional effort to transparently assess the causes, scope, and potential solutions to sexual violence in our community, then #MeToo will be a step forward in the fight against one of the most pressing problems of our time.

Thank you to everyone who has written and read #MeToo stories. If you are someone who notices sexual harassment, speak up. It’s up to each of us to create a culture that disallows this type of systematic abuse of power. Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu offers this guidance for us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

MIT community members take action:

Charlie Andrews-Jubelt ’18
Madiha Shafquat ’19

Pleasure@MIT members