By: Liv Sterns
On October 15th, 2017 actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”. This tweet helped to popularize the “Me Too” hashtag and spark the #MeToo Movement as we know it today. Within minutes, people from across the globe were tagging their tweets with the #MeToo hashtag to disclose an instance or instances of sexual violence, share support for others, spread resources, and much more. From here, the movement exploded and helped to show the prevalence of sexual violence.
How prevalent is sexual violence, and how does stigma relate to violence?
According to a recent survey commissioned by “Stop Street Harassment”, 81% of women and 43% of men report experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime, including verbal sexual harassment, unwelcome sexual touching, online sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of unwanted sexual offenses. Additionally, the survey also found that nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape in their lifetime.
Despite the high prevalence of sexual violence for both men and women, the rate of disclosure of sexual violence remains relatively low. The gap between sexual violence occurrence and reporting is often because many people feel ashamed, or embarrassed. Many people are afraid to tell someone due to fear of not being believed or being able to receive help, or threats of further harm. In fact, previous research shows that roughly 40% of people who experience sexual violence will never disclose their experience to anyone. Of the 60% who had disclosed to someone, only 24% disclosed their experience with a formal support provider, like a mental health counselor.
Much of this lack of disclosure has to do with stigma. Stigma can be defined as inflicting shame or discomfort on another person or group of people for a reason out of their control, such as for experiencing sexual assault or mental illness. Often, the stigma associated with sexual violence deters survivors from seeking help from medical professionals, which may lead to long-lasting mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. However, despite these statistics, the recent #MeToo Movement has helped to bring this issue to light in the hopes of lessening the stigma surrounding sexual violence and the burden associated with it.
How was the MeToo Movement involved in stigma reduction surrounding sexual violence?
Social media is often used as a way to broadcast ideas widely and Twitter specifically has been the origin of various social movements. These social media movements are often described as “hashtag activism” and have gained popularity in the past eight years starting with the Occupy Wall Street Protests. Movements that have gained traction in recent years have included #BringBackOurGirls, #BlackLivesMatter, and #YesAllWomen - all of which generated large numbers of tweets and gained media traction.
As an undergraduate at Northeastern University, I had the opportunity to work with a team of researchers who were studying the #MeToo Movement. The team was specifically interested in the impact #MeToo had on Twitter - including its role in reducing stigma. Our team analyzed over 1 million #MeToo tweets shared during the first two weeks following Alyssa Milano’s tweet to better understand the impact of the movement.
One of the main findings from this research was that 40% of these initial 1 million tweets disclosed an instance of sexual violence. Furthermore, we found that as a Twitter user is exposed to more disclosures, especially disclosures that contain details regarding personal experience, there is a higher chance of said user disclosing their own experience – suggesting a possible lessening of stigmas surrounding sexual violence on Twitter; (to learn more about this specific project, check out the paper here.) Other recent social media movements have also shown that the online discussion that hashtags can generate have the power to open-up the conversation on topics that are often viewed as taboo.
For #MeToo specifically, as of September 2018 alone, the #MeToo hashtag has been used more than 19 million times on Twitter alone, with further posts on other social media sites such as Facebook and Reddit.
What does the lessening of stigmatization mean for mental health?
The lessons learned via the #MeToo movement have parallels to efforts to combat stigma around mental health related conditions. Just like people who experience sexual violence, people who experience mental illness can be exposed to stigma throughout their life. Similar movements to spark stigma reduction, foster community support, and share resources may help to improve health conditions and provide social support to those in need. For example, hashtag activism has been used in mental illness stigmatization through the #mentalpatient movement in the UK. This movement aimed to destigmatize mental illness by having users share a selfie tagged #mentalpatient in order to combat stereotyping and show that many people suffer from mental illness. This was done in response to a Halloween costume that stigmatized those with mental illness. Additionally, the #BellLetsTalk campaign, which happens yearly on January 30th, aims to bring awareness to mental illness world-wide and end the stigma associated with having these conditions. In 2018, it was the most retweeted Twitter hashtag by Canadians and became the most-used Canadian hashtag of all time.
Fear of stigmatization that many survivors of sexual violence and people with mental illnesses have often prevents them from disclosing to a trained professional. This lack of disclosure often leads to higher levels of mental illnesses such as PTSD and depression.
However, disclosure of these experiences has been linked to improved mental and physical well-being for survivors, as disclosure provides social support for the survivor and reminds those who are struggling that they are not alone. By having these open conversations about hard topics on Twitter, other social media platforms, and in real-life, survivors are being connected with the crucial social support that is associated with better outcomes.
We still have long strides to make in reducing stigma for both mental illness and sexual violence. However, we can learn a lot from successful movements like #MeToo including:
One voice is never too small to spark change, but many voices together can start a movement.
Social media has the power to amplify many voices and create lasting social change, such as forcing perpetrators of violence out of power.
Open conversations about topics often thought of as “taboo” helps to raise awareness and allow resources and personal stories to be shared widely.
To learn more about sexual violence prevention or to find resources or support please visit: