Speaking out about sexual assault or harassment is never easy. Just ask Schenectady City Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo, who first talked publicly about her own sexual assault four years ago, at a Take Back the Night event.
It took a lot of courage then, and it still takes a lot of courage, Perazzo said.
In recent days, the #MeToo social media awareness effort has emboldened many who have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment to speak out about it.
When Councilwoman Perazzo first noticed the movement on social media, she hesitated to join in because she wanted to make sure people were using it in a positive way. But after a day or so, she wrote a “#MeToo” post about an assault she endured and the stigma that is attached to sexual assault victims. Since sharing her story at the Take Back the Night event, Perazzo has also spoken with Daily Gazette columnist Sara Foss about her experiences.
“If it weren’t for the course of the last four years, there’s no way I would join in on the #MeToo posts. But now, I kinda’ feel like I would take any opportunity to share my story,” Perazzo said.
The “Me Too” hashtag is being shared widely on social media, raising awareness about the problem in the wake of recent reports about Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein’s alleged history of sexual assault and harassment.
Actresses Marion Cotillard, Emma Thompson, Ashley Judd and others have spoken recently about Weinstein and their experiences with him. Alyssa Milano, another Hollywood actress, is credited for most recently calling attention to the #MeToo movement on Sunday when she tweeted: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Capital Region residents like Robin Granger, who haven’t previously been socially active on the issue, are speaking out.
“I’ve never considered myself someone who is outspoken on this topic,” Granger said.
As she began to see her Facebook feed fill up with #MeToo posts from friends, she at first thought she didn’t have anything to share.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s never really happened to me,’” Granger said.
But as she began to read the experiences of others, she began to see things differently.
“There are so many different ways you can be abused or assaulted,” Granger said.
She decided to post after she remembered an incident at a previous job, when a superior suggested she change her hair color and stop wearing dark lipstick. It was a slight she tried to brush off at the time, but it was out of line and stuck with her over the years.
Talia Cass, the director of marketing and communications at the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau, also decided to speak out on social media, commenting not only on her own experience with harassment but about where people could go to get help. Cass shared a brief video talking about Wellspring, an organization dedicated to assisting people who are facing domestic violence or other relationship abuse.
Even with all the support from others posting #MeToo, Cass said sharing her message was difficult.
“I contemplated for hours how much I would share and how I would say it. Even typing ‘me too’ was difficult and triggered flashbacks and horrible memories,” Cass said.
But Cass said the campaign has given men and women the opportunity to speak out without including details that they might not feel comfortable sharing.
Just posting “Me Too” can create a virtual community of support.
“Our society still has a lot of work to do, but I think building a social support network is an important step,” Cass said.
Another step is talking about the stigma of being a victim of sexual assault or harassment, according to Perazzo. She hopes the #MeToo movement can help reduce that stigma and embolden others to share their stories if they can.
“As a victim of a violent crime, you already possess guilt as to what you could have done differently and how it was your fault,” Perazzo said.
Though much has changed since her assault, movements like #MeToo are clearly still necessary for getting the word out, Perazzo said.
It’s also important to remember that not everyone who has experienced sexual assault or violence should feel like they have to speak out, said Maggie Fronk, the director of Wellspring.
“Every survivor should have the option to just go on with their lives,” she said.
Still, the sheer number of people sharing their #MeToo experiences speaks to how prevalent the issues are.
“I think it’s a call to all of us to create social change,” Fronk said.
#MeToo is far from the first social media movement geared toward raising awareness about sexual harassment. In 2014, there was a #YesAllWomencampaign, which began after a man cited his hatred for women as a reason for killing people in California. There was also the #EverydaySexism campaign in 2012, which attempted to document widespread sexual harassment and assault.
“In the past four or five years, we’re reaching a tipping point,” Fronk said.
Although the future of the #MeToo movement isn’t clear, many are hoping it will maintain its momentum and be used as a way to spotlight widespread sexual harassment.
“There’s a part of me that’s afraid it will end up on late-night TV as a joke. … I hope it’s taken seriously,” Granger said.
For anyone facing domestic violence or relationship abuse or for anyone who may have experienced it in the past and needs someone to speak with, Wellspring can be reached through its hotline at 518-584-8188.
The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is another option: 1-800-656-4673.