Punished, Shamed, Sued, or Healed

On #MeToo Editorials and the Demand for Survivors to Heal

A national newspaper published an editorial this month. The editorial was by a male lawyer, a wealthy white cis man with eminent qualifications and a thriving practice. He argued that women who make sexual assault allegations against men should be punished, shamed, and sued. Women with “malicious intentions” are the stated target of the editorial, but it’s easy to believe that the author thinks any woman who speaks out against intimate violence or assault should be “punished”. In his view of the world, a man’s reputation and career are more important than a woman’s safety or her pain.

It triggered me to see the headline for the editorial as I scrolled through the newspaper’s website. It triggered me to read it and a couple of minutes later, it triggered me to tweet out my reaction to the editorial. I stood outside my office building underneath a cluster of pine trees, listening to blues and chain smoking while my body shook and a feeling like drowning swelled up inside me. It passed eventually. I went back inside and did my job.

This is what trauma after intimate violence looks like for me. Every time I have to talk or read about assault or sexual violence, it fucks me up. There’s a growing culture war happening in Canadian media about sexual assault, #metoo, and feminism, forming part of a rising wave of alt-right thought and activism. Intersectional feminism, particularly feminist thought by trans & BIPOC feminists, is under coordinated attack by a primarily white media elite. Every week, another attack materializes, trapping us in a constant cycle of resistance, analysis, and rebuttal.

 

The frequent editorials in national media outlets about the “dangers” of the #metoo movement often follow a consistent model. They start by claiming that sexual assault is a very serious crime and give token acknowledgement to the statistics which show that women very rarely make false allegations. This is not a genuine acknowledgement, but a rhetorical device to defend themselves against claims that they do not take sexual violence seriously. The rest of the editorial is often filled with narratives of victimized men who suffer emotionally and economically because of sexual assault allegations, positioning #metoo women as vindictive and cruel social justice warriors who create Twitter mobs in the thirst for male blood.

What is missing from these editorials, aside from a grounded understanding of the pervasiveness of intimate violence in society, is any meaningful consideration of what survivors live with. Our lives are invisible in the editorials on #metoo because our suffering must be invisible in order to redeem the men who’ve harmed us. If they have suffered because of our actions, it is reasonable to consider how we’ve also suffered because of their actions. But in these editorials, a woman’s suffering remains immaterial and tangential to a man’s pain even when he is the one who has caused both sufferings.

Everyone already knows these realities. It has been written about and fiercely debated in every social space since #metoo began. I don’t see much room for transformation in these conversations as it has become a battleground of ideals, the perfect victim meeting the perfect villain. Most men are not the perfect predator, completely devoid of remorse, empathy, or redeeming qualities. Most women are not ideal victims, comprised of our own humanity, needs, and vulnerabilities. Neither of these truths erases the ongoing reality that masculinity and by extension, most men’s intimate relationships with women, are dangerously unbalanced.

Women bear the greatest harms of intimate violence in our society. Whatever happens to men as a result of #metoo is a distant secondary echo of the overwhelming violence that a majority of women, trans and cis, inhabit every day in the world. I don’t want to debate that fact because it is self-evident to any man or woman who sincerely reflects on their lived experiences. It is not “anti-man” to be pro-woman. I would argue that it is the only viable position for a woman to take, given the risks and dangers that we have been navigating since adolescence.

 

The conversation about #metoo which remains most important to me has been largely neglected by mainstream media. As a survivor, the question I return to about intimate violence is not about punishment nor shame, but healing. I want to heal and despite my best efforts towards that goal, I find my healing after intimate violence to be difficult and slow. I wonder how many other survivors feel similar things. In my darker moments, I also question how perpetrators of intimate violence heal. Do the editorials about their supposed victimization by the #metoo movement help them unlearn the patterns of behavior that got them called out in the first place? Is there some emotional vindication that heals them when they witness the women who’ve called them out be punished?

Or is everyone, regardless of their positions in the #metoo moment, still hurting, unable to find a space for healing inside justice, retaliation, and discourse?


After I called out my ex partner, people in my life began to “check in” on me. They said things like “I hope you feel better now that you said something” or “it must be better now that you and him don’t speak”. I think people assume that emotional healing is similar to physical healing, believing that draining a wound allows the tissue to regrow. I am not sure it does. The wound remains, just under the surface, empty and painful.

I am not certain that healing is always guaranteed. People assume that you can heal from intimate violence, but perhaps you can’t. You can continue to live and find new experiences, but there are moments in life which can damage us beyond repairing. A body, once altered by accident or violent force, may not return to its original state. We may have new lives after intimate violence, new lives which are not as good as the lives before or not as easy. Part of why women disclose is to prevent other women from being harmed, a motivation rooted in our intimate knowledge that healing may not be successful.

Some forms of violence are permanent and once inflicted, cannot be undone. We recognize this reality when considering murder, but not always when we think of intimate violence. If physical death is an acknowledged truth, why is emotional death not considered possible? I think the reluctance to speak honestly about the lasting harm of intimate violence is rooted in the pathological need to see victims as heroic. Requiring victims to not only survive but heal allows society to excuse its complicity in the intimate violence committed by men.

 

Many of the people who checked in on me were folks who knew both him and me. Their concern wasn’t for my welfare, but to comfort themselves for their own inaction and accountability for his actions. If I was healing, they didn’t need to call him out or stop being friends with him. My healing made their silence alright, because no real harm was done. This was something they could just ignore until it got better. I would move on with my life and he would go on with his life. No harm, no foul.

Since my ex identifies as queer and feminist, many of his friends and partners are well versed in conversations about sexual assault and intimate violence. Their public academic and artistic work focuses on messages like “believe women” and examines of intimate violence as an institutional and social level. Several of them participated in the #metoo hashtag when it first broke across social media. When I disclosed my abuse by their friend, several of them simply told me that they didn’t believe me and remained his friend. Others demanded proof from me while still associating with him. A very few listened to me, letting my ex know that they didn’t support his actions and encouraging him to be accountable.

Even among people who publicly participated in #metoo and identify as sex positive consent focused feminists, the experience of survivors is secondary to the performance of justice. It seems we only believe women when we don’t know the man involved. Refracted through social media and distance, supporting or denigrating survivors is often used for social capital by bystanders. My disclosure and their politics were swallowed by their discomfort about confronting him and an unwillingness to believe me.

Their failure to support me or ask him for accountability may have been because trans women are often seen as liars and sexual aggressors by cis society. It may have been because many people, even those who are in feminist social justice and academic spaces, don’t know how to navigate #metoo in their immediate social circles. One of his friends told me directly that they believed me and the other women, but didn’t know how to talk to him about what had happened. Through the responses of his friends and mine, I learned that my only job was to heal.

Asking for accountability, seeking repair, or even speaking publicly about what happened was wrong. I had to “move forward” and “remember that people see you as more than just what happened with him.” My healing had become my redemption, the ritual I had to pass through to re-enter community. My healing was also his redemption, a sacrifice of my pain to christen his rebirth as a healed man.

 

I haven’t healed yet. I wonder if I ever will. I have no idea what his experience is, but I imagine that it’s easier for him. After all, he was comfortable with inflicting harm on me for years, so why would a public acknowledgement of that harm make any difference to his wellbeing? I see social workers and therapists. I exercise. I practice self care while building stronger relationships with people who love me. I find new intimacies and have good sex with people I trust. I rebuild my life.

I still think about what happened every day. I relive it in nightmares and sudden flashbacks. Even when I’m happy, I’m hurting. I find grace in accepting this truth, but what frustrates me is the need to talk about life after #metoo. The reality is that most situations like mine, not involving famous people or institutional processes, will continue with both parties occupying similar social spaces and living with the consequences of a call out. Instead of narratives which try to redeem the men or heal the women, we need narratives that give space to the messy and painful reality of intimate violence.

 

For me, the important questions remain unanswered. How do we heal individually and collectively around these events? How do we transform intimate relations to prevent and repair ruptures when intimate violence occurs? How do men learn to be accountable without the social pressure created by #metoo moments? Most importantly, how do men (and society broadly) learn to listen to and respect a woman’s pain?

 

At the heart of most #metoo stories is a fundamental truth: a man did something to hurt a woman. Often, he did this thing repeatedly over a long period of time. Usually, she tried to confront him about his actions and he tried to punish, shame, or silence her. Finally, she speaks out and tells others around them about what he did. Some people support her, perhaps by punishing and shaming him in return. At the same time, other people around the man try to punish, shame, and silence the woman. Throughout all of it, she tries to heals, partly because she wants to but also because other people demand she does. There is considerable focus from everyone involved that he also heal, educating himself on how to be better.

What if neither party heals? What if he, as in the case of my ex, doesn’t understand that he caused harm and refuses to take responsibility for it? He doesn’t unlearn anything but finds new intimacies and continues the cycle. For my part, I learn that disclosing intimate violence ruptures friendships, social spaces, and creates a dissonance so powerful that no one knows how to respond or hold it. I don’t heal but I go on with my living.

 

Sometimes I imagine what our lives would be like if I hadn’t said anything, only to realize that my life wouldn’t be any different. I’d still be hurt and scarred by what he did. He would be fine, insulated from guilt as he always has been, so my speaking out has created one lasting difference. He has faced a consequence for his actions. The consequence is an opportunity for healing, one which he may take now or at a future point in time. It won’t be healing with me, but it might be healing with himself or future partners. That’s a #metoo gift rarely discussed.

Every man who has been called out has a choice other than punish, shame, and sue. They could uplift, apologize, and demonstrate care for their victims. Surely these actions are more redeeming to their public reputations and personal well being than a lawsuit would be. Of course, we would have to stop believing in perfect villains and victims in order to allow for this. We would have to, as writer Kai Cheng Thom argues, choose love. This choice feels impossible to me most days, but it is an ideal I want to center.


A month ago, I had my third suicide attempt in my life. I emailed my ex partner an email that said, among other things, I can’t live with what he did anymore and I don’t know he can. It wasn’t something a perfect victim would do, but I thought I was going to die and I wanted to ask him “why?” one more time. Not why did he do what he did, but why did he never say sorry for it. Why didn’t he listen when it was just him and me talking?

 

He emailed back once he read it. He told me that he cared about me and asked me to call helplines. He contacted my friends and his friends who were in Toronto. His friends didn’t check on me, but mine did. I was ok even if I wasn’t healing. I emailed him back to say thank you and ended my email with these lines.

“I wish you had said you were sorry or done the work of understanding why. That’s all any of us wanted, W. You to listen, understand, and say sorry without blaming us or making excuses for what happened”.

He never replied. But some day, in a future life I can’t imagine, maybe he will. It won’t heal or redeem us. I don’t know what his apology would mean to me. I’m sure there are things that he wants me to apologize for and I don’t know if I could. I wish things were different. I replay the moments of us where we could have made different choices, imagining our altered lives if I hadn’t invited him over that Saturday evening in April.

 

What’s done is done. Our #metoo moment happened. I don’t want either one of us to be punished or shamed. I want to heal at my own pace, not for him or for others. He and I will probably never speak again, but I still believe in what I did. Some days, in between work meetings and writing essays, I refresh my inbox, waiting for his reply.

 

Hope is just another word for love.