On the “On Being Heard and Being Seen” episode of Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, Brené hosts Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too Movement. They discuss how understanding and empathy can help survivors of sexual abuse through the healing process. Tarana says that when we remove the shame of sexual abuse, understand the context of each survivor, and cultivate empathy towards survivors, we can set the stage for survivors, so they can speak safely about their stories.
Read this if...
- You’re a sexual abuse survivor
- You know someone who survived sexual abuse
- You want to know more about the Me Too Movement
Tarana Burke is the American activist who started the Me Too movement. She also founded the non-profit organization,“Just Be”, an all-girls program for Black girls aged 12 to 18. Time Magazine named her, along with female activists, as Person of the Year in 2017.
the distilld lessons (extended)
In 2017, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinsten’s crimes of sexual assault were brought to light. This controversial case also put a spotlight on the "Me Too" movement. First founded by American activist Tarana Burke in 2006, it sought to draw attention to women of color who suffered sexual abuse. Through the Me Too Movement and JustBe—Tarana’s program for girls who experienced sexual abuse—she has focused on molding young women to be enables for positive change.
With her own lived experience as a sexual assault survivor, Tarana was able to empathize with the plight of similar young women. She understood that these women may be feeling shame over being victims, and how this shame is standing in the way of their healing. Through empathy and support, Tarana and her movement help empower women to overcome their abuse.
On this episode of Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, Burke walks us through how empathy can empower and heal those who have survived sexual abuse.
Here are the distilld lessons inspired by Episode 2 of Unlocking Us with Brené Brown:
1. Survivors have to work against self-blame.
Survivors become trapped in a state of self-blame, making them think that the abuse was their fault. They ask themselves questions like, “Why didn’t you say anything?”, “You should’ve fought back more.”, or “You should’ve said ‘no’ earlier.” These statements add to how survivors take part—or even full—ownership of their abuse.
To cope with the self-blame and shame, Tarana hid her emotions by projecting an image of false strength and perfection. She covered her shame by acquiring outward achievements like getting good grades. Instead of working through the deep effects of abuse, it is shrugged off as just another mistake.
To heal, survivors need to tear down this wall of shame. Acknowledging what happened as sexual abuse is one step towards healing from it. It can be a painful process, but this allows the survivor to see that what has been done to them is a crime, and that they didn’t do anything to deserve it.
2. Shame is a major reason women don’t come forward.
The shame that survivors feel over what happened to them may come from within, but it can also come from their surroundings.
Culture plays a big part on how women are shamed when they experience sexual abuse. For example, Asian families are concerned about preserving their reputations. Before Asian women can come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, they worry about how it will affect their families. Social media also takes some responsibility, with strangers sharing their own comments when a woman comes forward.
Survivors are forced to stay silent to protect themselves from the shame of being sexual abuse victims. These can keep women from seeking the help they need, and also affects the global impact of movements like #MeToo that fight against sexual violence.
3. It’s important to respect a survivor’s story.
When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward in 2018 about the sexual misconduct done to her by then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, people picked her story apart. Despite the high level of detail she gave 36 years after the incident, some people wished that she could give more information. Some even argued that what was done to her shouldn’t be considered abuse.
Trauma is not the same for everyone. For Tarana, how it impacted the survivor is more important than what was done to her. Judging a survivor’s story can invalidate her trauma and suffering. When we judge the story of survivors, we weaken their voice. We are defining for them what should be considered sexual abuse or not. It forces survivors to justify their trauma so we can decide that their stories are worth our sympathy and justice.
Instead, we should believe women survivors. We should allow them to tell their story in their own time, at their own pace, and in the way that doesn’t harm their process of healing.
4. Sexual violence affects communities differently.
Race is a factor in how communities deal with sexual violence. According to Tarana, despite decades of abuse done by rapper R. Kelly, his victims who were mostly young black women, only saw some justice as recently as 2019 when he was finally arrested. It is hard for Black women to hold Black men accountable for their actions. This is despite the fact that the number of Black women victimized by sexual abuse is only second to indigenous women. Black women generally don’t want to add to the large number of Black men who are falsely accused of rape.
Even within Black communities, when a Black woman accuses a Black man of rape, the response is often suspicion. While it is difficult for any woman of any race to come forward with stories of sexual abuse, it is doubly hard for black women and women of color.
5. Ending rape culture goes a long way in ending sexual violence.
Ending sexual violence requires ending the culture that perpetrates it. We should be on the look out for instances that perpetrate rape culture and work against them. For Tarana, it is not helpful to the movement when people wish for rapists to experience the same thing they did to other women.
What does help is how we ally ourselves and support sexual assault survivors and the women who were brave enough to come forward. We can also look within ourselves and recognize our own pain to empathize better with the struggles of other people. When we empathize and build a culture of empathy within our communities, we tell survivors that they are seen and heard. They will then feel safe and supported enough to finally heal.
For a shorter conversation, the distilld lessons summary are here.