By McKela Kanu
On Thursday, May 2nd, Tarana Burke came to Hamilton College to give a lecture. The timing of this lecture was especially pertinent as less than a month ago the campus was rocked with two incidents of sexual assault. During her speech, Burke incited laughs from the crowd at several points jokingly calling out people who had their phones ring. However, her jovial tone was matched by a somber and poignant recount of the inception of the movement and how the phrase “me too.” was created.
She recounts the story of how every year at a camp she was a part of, each year there would always be at least one girl who would admit to being sexually assaulted. These girls were preteens, and yet they already had an extremely traumatic experience happen to them. One year, there was a girl Burke grew increasingly close to. During one night, all the girls recounted a personal story, and it got to the point where one of the girls discussed her sexual assault. Burke details how she kept her eyes on the girl and she could tell the exact moment the girl decided to not say anything about her experience.
The following day, the girl came up to Burke, and Burke describes the sick feeling she got because she knew the girl would talk about her experience. Burke, as a survivor of sexual assault herself, couldn’t adequately help/respond to the girl. She ended up cutting the conversation off telling the girl to go see a counselor. Perhaps the saddest moment in Burke’s lecture came when she described the girl’s next reaction. The girl immediately had her walls right back up and her eyes dimmed. Even though she nodded, it was evident to Burke that she wouldn’t talk to the counselor. While Burke was paralyzed by her inability to respond fully to the girl due to her own past experience, the only thought in her mind, the most prominent thing she wanted to say was: me too.
When Burke was later running a program aimed at helping young girls, almost seventy five percent of them had an experience of sexual assault. Seventy-five percent. And yet, you wouldn’t be able to tell they had experienced such a terrible ordeal just by looking at them. The scars they bear are internal and not easily visible to the naked eye. In this country alone, there are millions of people who have had some form of sexual violence. Burke stressed that the point of “me too” isn’t to “ruin” some person’s life. The movement is for survivors to find a way to cope with the trauma that they’ve experienced.
In her lecture, she talked about how people on the left defended Joe Biden’s behavior to certain women. Burke mentioned how Biden has been a very vocal and avid supporter in women’s rights and sexual assault prevention. Outside of the Anita Hill hearing, Biden has been the model of how a man should support the prevention of sexual violence. However, if a woman can’t tell the best guy in the room that his behavior was inappropriate, how can women come forth with allegations against less better men?
This is the question Burke addressed to the crowd on Thursday, and it’s an important one. People regardless of their standing in society need to be held accountable. While we have come far in bettering the environment for people to come form with their sexual assault experience, there needs to be a shift in culture. Many celebrated when people like Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly were finally held accountable for their behavior to women. However, just as people like them are taken down, some are being created in an environment that encourages sexual misconduct along with others who aren’t being caught. It’s our duty to ensure that the continuing generations grow up without the toxicity evident in people who engage in grotesque sexual misconducts. We, as a country, need to aspire to the urgency powering other movements in this country to not only stem the epidemic of sexual violence in the United States but to also better understand survivors of sexual violence.