The Mason Nation community participates in the Fear 2 Freedom program assembling after-care "fear 2 Freedom Kits" for those affected by rape, child abuse, domestic violence, and sex-trafficking. Following the program and discussion, Rosemary Trible, president and founder of Fear 2 Freedom, led students in a moment of silence. #MasonNation  Photo by:  Ron Aira/Creative Services/George Mason University

OPINION: #MeToo: Yes, even at George Mason

#MeToo: Yes, even at George Mason

By: Lauren Agnello, Roosevelt @ Mason

Sexual Assault/Interpersonal Violence Trigger Warning: for immediate support, Mason students can call the GMU 24-hour hotline at 703-380-1434. Non-Mason students can call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in their area.

Across the country, social media was buzzing with a common phrase that morphed into a rallying cry: “Me too.” This call-to-arms appealed to people who experienced sexual assault and harassment. Though it was started ten years ago by activist Tarana Burke, a youth camp director for young women of color, her effort gained momentum thanks to actress Alyssa Milano, who tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

The #MeToo movement caught fire, spread from Twitter to Facebook, and has been posted more than a million times. The purpose of Burke’s campaign was to remove the stigma of sexual assault and harassment by encouraging women to shed the shield of secrecy – a shield which some argue has actually perpetuated the sense of shame that many victims feel.

People who have experienced assault or harassment often feel alone and don’t talk about the issue, fearing stigmatization or further isolation. From my perspective, #MeToo started a conversation that was long overdue. When our houses are broken into, we tell the police. We alert our friends and neighbors. When our wallets are snatched, we spread the word. But when we are sexually assaulted or harassed, many of us are – and have historically been – quiet about it. And that silence suggests that we are ashamed.

Of what do we have to be ashamed? We did not ask to be harassed or assaulted, just as we would never ask to have our wallets stolen. When we, as a society, realize that being a victim of harassment or assault carries no shame, we can begin to have conversations about how to stop these things from happening again. Giving voice to an idea can lead to change. The change we seek is the empowerment of so-called victims – so they will not see themselves or be seen by others any longer as victims, but rather as survivors.

 Another critical benefit of this growing campaign is increased awareness of the prevalence and scope of sexual abuse. But, awareness of the issue will not be enough to bring about the end to assault and harassment. Sexual crimes still occur, even here at Mason, where many would argue that most people have some level of awareness of sexual abuse. There are statistics that could verify that sexual abuse is still very much alive on college campuses, but as this campaign demonstrates, the statistics don’t begin to portray the issue accurately.

To support the students who do experience sexual abuse or interpersonal violence, George Mason has multiple resources to available. The Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC) offers one-on-one support to survivors and can connect students to other campus resources, such as the Title IX Coordinator, Counseling and Psychological Services, and all reporting options available to Mason students. For immediate support, the SSAC has a 24-hour hotline (703-380-1434) that is covered by SSAC Peer Advocates who are trained to help survivors in a crisis. Otherwise, the SSAC can be contacted by emailing ssac@gmu.edu, or in person in SUB I, Suite 3200. Additionally, the Mason Title IX Coordinator can be reached by emailing jhammat@gmu.edu, or in person in Aquia Building, Room 373. These resources are highly underutilized, considering the number of assaults that are statistically likely to be occurring. As an SSAC Peer Advocate, I encourage you to spread the word about the SSAC and the other services that are awaiting anyone who needs them.

Even as you spread the word about the resources here to help, remember that we each can play a part in spreading change. We must understand that no means no and the absence of no does not mean yes. We have to listen to people who say they are victims and open up about their experiences. Only two to ten percent of sexual assault accusations are false, which is far below the average for other crimes. We need to remember that survivors of a significant trauma are more than just survivors of that trauma. They are not defined by that one experience.

Every social media movement has an end, but this conversation must continue, and action must be a part of that conversation. It’s the little things that matter most. If someone tells a joke about rape, tell them that it’s not funny. Speak up if you see someone who looks uncomfortable with someone else at a party. Don’t condone “locker room talk,” by anyone. If you’re a Mason student or staff member, get involved with the SSAC or another supportive office on campus and lend a hand to help survivors. For non-Mason readers, volunteer with or donate to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), or find an organization with similar values. If everyone actively takes these steps, there won’t have to be another #MeToo.