Harassment. Abuse. Violence. Rape. The many ways that men’s behavior has harmed women is the focus of the powerful new social-media movement. It began as a response to allegations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein engaged in decades-long sexual harassment and abuse of young women. Within hours after the call-out by the actress Alyssa Milano, the hashtag trended on social media as thousands of women posted their own stories and thousands more updated their status with a simple #MeToo.
For many women, however, the sight of all those #MeToos, while inspiring, can trigger very painful memories—even bring new ones to light that you may have suppressed. To learn how to deal with these, we spoke with Wendy Maltz, LCSW, DST, a psychotherapist, lecturer and sex therapist who has written six books on sexuality, including The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. (Note: These recommendations apply to anyone—including men—who has been a victim of sexual abuse.)
The truth is, there are many paths to healing. Here is how to find the ones that are a good fit for you:
Honor your experience
Don’t minimize your experiences or compare them with someone else’s experiences that seem even worse. Each event of sexual harassment, abuse or violence—from catcalls to crude remarks to groping and beyond—is an invasion of your privacy and an attempt to diminish your dignity that can make you feel vulnerable, violated and humiliated. The appropriate response to yourself to each experience is compassion and understanding.
Don’t overshare on social media
Adding your #MeToo makes a valuable public statement without getting into details of what happened. Sharing specifics or naming names is riskier because what goes online stays there forever and you can’t control how others might respond to your story or use it against you in the future. If your goal is to push the problem of sex abuse out into the sunshine, and you’re cool with encountering potential consequences, then sharing your #MeToo is an option you can be proud of. But I think it’s counterproductive to expect that you’ll find healing on social media.
Use your memories to heal
It’s upsetting to remember the painful past, but the resurfacing of old memories provides an opportunity for deeper healing. It’s a chance to recognize how strong you are. Even if you feel you haven’t fully resolved what happened, focus on the extent to which you withstood the incident and moved forward in spite of it.
Talk to someone you know who is sympathetic
Not everyone wants to share her story—it’s ok to stay silent forever or until you feel ready to talk—but if you do, decide how much you want to disclose and to whom. Disclosure can help dispel feelings of isolation and shame. It can feel freeing to finally receive the validation and comfort you deserve. Choose someone carefully—whether a spouse, friend, relative, clergy member, or family doctor—whom you know understands the prevalence and significance of sexual violence. They are more likely to provide helpful support.
One way to gauge whether someone is a good person to talk to: Begin by bringing up sexual abuse in general or via a news story. Pay attention to how the person responds: Does she/ he express sympathy with abuse victims or, instead, challenge or doubt their stories? Then you might talk in general about your own experience without going into specifics (“This kind of thing happened to me, too”) and feel out the response before saying more. Remember that once you share details, you can’t take them back. That’s why it’s wiser to reveal small amounts of general information at first and then more only if, or, as, it feels important and right to do. Keep in mind that friends, family members, and others are not therapists and may have difficulty hearing specifics and explicit information. You don’t need to share a lot to receive some understanding and caring from people you know.
Find strength in numbers
If confiding in one person isn’t for you or if you feel you could benefit from joining with others in an active healing process, there are a number of support groups for survivors of sexual abuse or violence. Find local groups and resources on RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) by typing in your zip code. (See our Links page at HealthySex for more resources)
Read helpful books or listen to podcasts
Reading about or listening to other survivors’ stories can show you there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. If you find the details too upsetting, you can skim over those parts to get to the recommendations. Some books to try, include The Courage to Heal and my book The Sexual Healing Journey. Sometimes just listening to others’ stories is therapeutic: Safe Space Radio features conversations on sex abuse and related topics.
I’m not a fan of digging up the past for no reason. But if the abuse you suffered in the past is affecting your mental and physical health or harming your ability to be intimate —or if you simply want to understand better how it’s influenced your life—find a therapist. Sex abuse recovery therapists can help you undo negative thinking patterns and develop critical skills for self-care, self-compassion, and speaking up for yourself. Ask your doctor or a rape crisis center for the names of therapists who’ve worked with sex abuse survivors. It’s also okay to make trial appointments with two or three and see which one is the best fit.
Should I confront the abuser?
Counseling can be particularly helpful if the person who abused or harassed you has resurfaced or is somehow still a part of your life. A therapist can help you work out whether you want to call out this person’s behavior. Just remember, there’s no single right answer—unless you believe that someone else, especially a child, is in danger. Then it’s your responsibility to do whatever is necessary, including calling the police, to avert future abuse.
Choosing to confront an abuser depends on your emotional strength, what you want to accomplish, who is involved (including how cooperative and safe they are) and what you expect to gain. The best scenario is to confront the person with the guidance, and presence of a trained professional. When therapists facilitate such conversations, they can help you prepare well and move the discussion along to a resolution. But if that’s not possible, it may be appropriate to enlist a supportive friend to be there. Remember, confrontations are not always necessary or advised. As an alternative, you may decide to confront your abuser through a letter or a phone call or an email. These, too, are best accomplished with a therapist’s guidance. Focus on the power of asserting your truth, rather than on making the success of the interaction whether or not you receive a specific response.
Figure out beforehand how you’ll handle your abuser’s reaction. Many offenders will deny the extent of the abuse, minimize it or blame the survivor in some way. And all of that can be really upsetting, so you want to be emotionally prepared and supported.
Healing our culture
Finally, it’s important to realize that sexual violence is a cultural problem. I challenge anyone to turn on the TV and not find a program on some channel where a woman has been or is about to be sexually intimidated in some form. Sex aggression against women is a common feature in popular pornography, as well. It’s become entertainment, and we’ve become desensitized to it.
We can’t keep role modeling negative behaviors and expect change or expect the victims to mop up the mess. Instead, we must change our behavior in terms of what we tolerate in media and as bystanders. When something that is meant “as a joke” is demeaning, say so. When you see abuse, call it out—if necessary, to the authorities.
It’s heart-warming to see that the hashtag movement is already having an encouraging impact. In response to #MeToo, some men are tweeting #HowIWillChange.
This article is based on an interview with Wendy Maltz LCSW, DST. It was first published by BottomLine Inc. on October 26, 2017 and is available online at: https://bottomlineinc.com/health/mental-health/me-too-painful-sexual-memories-abuse-help