As 2017 draws to a close, in most end-of-year reflections #MeToo gets a mention. Often, it is talked about as an event, a highlight, a discussion, a debate, a reckoning, … Often, it is written about from an outside perspective, analysed, praised, and criticised. Following this discussion in the media reminds me of the first ever meeting I organised for starting what is now the Survivors’ Collective. I remember starting from this vague idea that, as childhood sexual abuse is so prevalent, it is odd that each of us survivors seems to be feeling like the only one in the world, and that to change this we need to come together and become visible.
Sitting in an east London cafe with a small group of fellow survivors on a Saturday morning in November 2014, I introduced my idea of starting an activist group, and simply asked ‘What is bothering you most as a survivor living in this world? What do we need to change?’. The answer was loud and clear, and the same for all of us: ‘That we are constantly being talked about! As if we couldn’t speak for ourselves… It’s like we don’t even exist.’. Since then, our core task in the collective has been to create spaces for survivors to come together and to find as many ways of speaking out as possible, so that every survivor can choose to speak in the way they are comfortable with - privately, publicly, or anonymously; individually or as the collective; through poetry, art, or theatre; or sometimes simply by listening to someone else’s story and saying ‘me too’.
So, when I think about Me Too, yes I do remember this strange Monday where suddenly for a day it became normal to come out as survivors of sexual violence, where the parameters of taboo and stigma seemed to have shifted overnight - it was like a door opening unexpectedly and us survivors not being quite sure how long we had until it might be slammed shut again, or if we could dare to hope that we can keep it open from now on. But most importantly, I remember the spirit of Me Too which has been present in the many big and small moments of belonging to a survivor activist community which has become my home over the last three years, this year more than ever. Because for me, Me Too is not an event, it is an experience. An experience that I am living, together with fellow survivors, every single day. An experience that at its core is not about becoming visible to the world, but about becoming visible to each other. An experience that is ours and only for us.
Although our activism in the collective includes public campaigning and outward directed efforts to educate the public and improve structures in society for preventing abuse and better supporting survivors, I believe that creating a community for us and having conversations among us is the one most important thing we do. And even if this was all we did it would be more than enough.
So in reflection of survivor activism in 2017, I thought I’d share what Me Too feels like as a lived experience:
It is sitting on the tube to a survivor meeting feeling like the only one in the world, and the moment of entering a room full of survivor activist when you realise you are part of this amazing ‘framily’. It is sharing an experience that for 20 years you thought meant you are crazy and that no one else could ever understand, only to be met by 10 people nodding enthusiastically without them even noticing they are nodding. It is catching yourself nodding along for 10 minutes non-stop while others talk about their experience of sexual abuse and the aftermath. It is the many moments of hilarious laughter and running jokes about everything from dysfunctional family scenes (which we use as inspiration for our plan to one day write ‘Sex Abuse - The Musical’) to the implications of having ‘self-harm event’ as a working title for our next meeting. It is the casual conversations we have about the many awkward silences we create in our lives just by existing. It is the community of survivor activists who are always there for each other, to help make that video, to proofread that text, to get each other out of a flashback quicker than any therapist could dream of, to moderate each other’s comment sections, to share each other’s content, to hold the punching mitts and kick shields for each other so you can process the backlash after #MeToo in a productive way. It is the people who create a space where you can be fully yourself, the unique and very new experience that it is indeed possible to be a professional, an activist, and a survivor all at the same time. It is seeing yourself in others, it is the moments when others find words for something you have always felt but never thought you could express. It is so many moments of telepathy that it can become a little creepy sometimes. It is having a team of cheerleaders / an army of rebels / a circle of friends in your pocket to support you through challenging moments, from taking the train to work in the morning to disclosing to your family or going to court against your abuser. It is starting a friendship over the failed attempt to bake a vegan chocolate cake for a fellow survivor activist. It is 130 messages in a whatsapp chat when I finish work on a day where a "sex scandal" broke. It is putting all our anger together to collectively launch into action. It is having friends who will throw a party with you for your survivor coming out. It is a space made by and out of survivors, the strongest people I know, where for once you can just be without having to explain anything. It is being seen, heard, and understood in a way that you never thought was possible. And it is the opportunity to experience this without even having to say 'me too', to know - just by watching so many survivors saying it in so many different ways - that you are not alone and that there is a community who will welcome and support you, and that you can speak whenever you are ready.
All of this is what comes to mind when I reflect on 2017 and it is a glimpse of what Me Too is for me: An ongoing experience that has changed my life and that will no doubt continue to change my life. It is an experience created by survivors for survivors, started by Tarana Burke and thousands of other survivors who over generations have found their own ways of saying ‘me too’ in their communities, families, and friendships. The real beauty of the hashtag and the conversation going viral for me is that it allows me to discover that there are all these amazing survivor activists everywhere in the world. It is a similar feeling that I have when I go to conferences or festivals about sexual violence: The knowledge of so many of us doing this work, each in their own way, in their own communities, each using their unique strengths, skills, and talents, creating a diversity of approaches to survivor activism and a richness of expertise to learn from. All of which starts with us becoming visible to each other and, as Tarana Burke expresses it so perfectly, with an ‘empowerment through empathy’.
So, for the end of this crazy exciting and moving year, I want to thank each and every survivor who contributes to creating this community and conversation, no matter how small your contribution is, it is important and celebrated. To all survivors who feel excluded from this conversation or can’t join in (yet), I want you to know that there is a place for you in this community and we will work on making it possible for you to claim it, whenever you are ready.