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Dublin: 20 °C Friday 23 August, 2019

As a survivor of violent rape, I believe #MeToo is a powerful force for victims

Winnie M Li, who was violently raped in a Belfast park, has found the social media movement a source of connection and validation.

Winnie M Li

FOR THE PAST month, it’s been impossible to ignore the flood of #MeToo testimonials online — with women (and men) around the globe sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment.

Nine years ago in 2008, when I was violently raped in a Belfast park by a teenage stranger, I never could have imagined such a public outpouring of stories through social media.

True, I decided to tell my close friends about my assault — through text messages, phone conversations, even a carefully selected group email — but I disappeared off Facebook for months following my rape. Social media seemed too superficial, too ridiculous in the wake of a crime this life-changing. And it didn’t seem like a forum for something so private.

Now in 2017, so much has changed. My novel Dark Chapter inspired by my own assault, has been published — so my public profile is now indelibly tied to being a rape survivor. But just as I’ve been ready to come to terms publicly with the issue of sexual assault, it looks like the rest of the world has, too.

The impact can be stunning

Social media has become the place where individuals openly air some of their most private experiences — and the impact can be stunning. In just the first 24 hours after #MeToo was created, 12 million people used the hashtag on Facebook to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, and in their everyday lives.  The mainstream media feeds ravenously on these social media posts, especially when those accused are in the public eye.

For individual survivors like me, this barrage of endless media coverage can be exhausting, even infuriating — and at the same time, validating.

Finally, through social media, we have strength in numbers, confirming that each of us is not alone in our experience of sexual intimidation.  Some of us may even have the same perpetrator — as seen with the cases of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.

What if the abuser is not a celebrity?

But what if that perpetrator is not a celebrity?  The accusations against that person are less likely to be covered in the media, those victims less likely to connect the dots, justice less likely to be achieved.  For every celebrity case which is brought to light in the news, dozens of other stories go unheard in the mainstream media.  News outlets only report the tip of the iceberg.

Still, both mainstream and social media form a connective tissue through which individual survivors can hear other stories and acknowledge their own experiences. In September, I appeared in ‘Unbreakable: True Lives,’ a two-part TV3 documentary featuring four Irish stories of rape and sexual assault.

Myself and the three other survivors spoke directly to camera, giving our own account of our assaults and the many irreversible ways in which those crimes have impacted our lives since.

Reaching out to a stranger in Limerick

When the episode featuring me aired, I was in Durban, South Africa at a literary festival, where I’d been invited to speak about Dark Chapter. But on Twitter, I followed #unbreakable — and realised how many people had been touched by that documentary, many of them referencing their own experiences of rape.

A few weeks later on Facebook, I was approached by a lady living in Limerick, who had been a victim of a stranger rape twenty years ago. She had watched the documentary and very much wanted to meet another stranger rape survivor in person. So she drove to Dublin when I was there recently. We met in St Stephen’s Green on a grey October afternoon, and I listened as she shared the story of her assault, her aftermath, the past two decades of her recovery.

These kinds of conversations, this kind of listening and affirming is vital for survivors. Often times we don’t get this kind of validation in person, when our loved ones or colleagues react to the story of our rape with disbelief or victim-blaming comments (‘Are you sure that really happened?’ ‘How could you let something like that happen to you?’)  Those kinds of comments can be soul-destroying to a victim who’s recently been through sexual trauma.

Vital role of #MeToo

Which is why social media plays such a vital role both in connecting survivors with each other and in publicly demonstrating how prevalent these experiences are. Some people have commented that #MeToo diminishes serious sexual assaults like rape, by grouping them alongside stories of sexual bullying and harassment.

But it’s important to understand that sexual misconduct falls along a continuum of predatory behaviour, which women experience on a regular basis. A predator, left unchecked, might progress from sexual harassment to groping and eventually rape.

And for a woman on the receiving end of that kind of behaviour, the harassment, the looks, the comments — all of these accumulate to chip away at our sense of self-worth. And these behaviours are intimidating because they feed off a fear that most women have: a fear of being raped.

So calling out this kind of behaviour— whether that’s in a Tweet, a blog, a Facebook post — becomes an important act for an individual.

And both survivors and non-survivors are starting to see that importance.

As for me, this topic is something I’ve now changed my career to address. My previous career as a film producer effectively ended with the rape. Now, in addition to the novel and other writing, I work as a PhD researcher on the uses of social media by rape survivors and I run the Clear Lines Festival which addresses sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion.

The second edition of the festival will take place on 1 to 3 December in London, and we are in talks to bring the festival to Ireland, the United States, who knows where else.

The lady from Limerick is flying to London to attend Clear Lines, and that means a great deal to me. Because whether it’s through television, Facebook, or other media that we find each other, each individual story matters — and each offers an opportunity for greater connection, understanding, and healing.

Winnie M Li is an author and activist.  Her debut novel, DARK CHAPTER, is winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2017. She is also Co-Founder of the Clear Lines Festival and a PhD researcher at the London School of Economics on the uses of social media by rape survivors.

Dark Chapter (Legend Press, €10) is available in paperback now through most major booksellers. 

Source: Dr Nina Burrowes/YouTube

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