Medical Examiner

How to Find Shelter in the Storm of #MeToo

The current public litigation around sexual misconduct has been exhausting and grueling, especially for survivors. But there’s a way forward.

A survivor of sexual assault.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.

Ever since the tidal wave of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual perpetrations against dozens of women finally crested this fall, we have been at the center of a sociocultural storm of epic proportions. Indeed, it still rages; since October, it’s felt as if an average of three to four men have been called to reckon for abuses of power through acts of sexual misconduct each week. As this storm unfolds, we struggle from the middle of it to make sense of these momentous shifts. A tipping point has been crossed, and yet, with the takedown of each powerful man, perspective is lost in a flood of traumatic details, dizzying questions, and broken assumptions about him and the institutions that supported his behavior. Given the pervasiveness of sexual violence in influential men and the decades (or rather, centuries) of silence—now broken—in women, children, and all who have been harmed by their unchecked abuses, such winds will likely continue to howl.

It is hard to know when this sociocultural hurricane will end—likely not for a while. And to sit in such an unknown is difficult. Indeed, leaders and workers in all realms, from politics to business, from entertainment to law, from journalism to academia and beyond are suddenly being forced to gain a full understanding of the depth, breadth, and scope of this massive problem. Yet such mental space is not afforded in the current swirl of our relentless 24-hour news cycle. For survivors of sexual violence, it can be particularly excruciating. As a trauma therapist in New York City, every day I sit with individuals who grapple with the shame, silencing, and isolation that comes from having suffered the subjugation of sexual assault or rape. Neurobiologically sensitive to any kind of sensory or emotional stimuli, for these individuals the daily churning headlines can be triggering to the point of panic inducing.

Together, my patients and I have a great stake in finding some kind of shelter in this sexual-violence storm. To perhaps find some solace in knowing where this is all going. Not only have they found these disclosures extremely upsetting, they dread that this storm will again come to little enduring change. They fear that these heart-rending exposures of their own shame and subjugation will bring about the same lack of reflection about male power and celebrity that has occurred in the past. They find it hard to see how the entrenched systems supporting male prima donnas will stop paving the way for sexual abuse against their objects of desire, the majority of whom are women and children.

Of the myriad concerns currently up in the air, one in particular impacts my patients and highlights a cornerstone of trauma treatment with survivors of sexual violence. This is the question of truth and how we decide who we believe. It is the question of whether statements to an accuser of “I believe you,” uttered long before investigations are launched against his or her alleged attacker, compromise the very foundations of law and due process our democracy is founded upon.

In the treatment of trauma, particularly traumas resulting from acts of sexual violence, validating the truth and reality of a survivor’s experience is essential to his or her healing process. This is because there are so many internal and external barriers to acknowledging such a destructive event. A key reason for this is because a perpetration of sexual violence often falls under the category of person-to-person trauma, or an act of aggression between two people who know each other. It is to be distinguished from an external trauma, such as a car accident or a natural disaster. While both involve physically and psychologically overwhelming events, in the latter case, the source of the trauma is clear and universally recognized. No one denies a survivor of a car accident or hurricane the truth of their experience. With such clarity, the harm suffered is openly acknowledged, and need for aid is indisputable and swiftly delivered.

With person-to-person traumas, especially those involving sexual violence, the opposite is true. Because such acts typically happen between just two people, objective verification is impossible. There is no universal truth. And when such a perpetration happens within the context of a human relationship, clarity is automatically blurred, if not lost. Along with feeling the shame of such subjugation, a survivor experiences shock that such a violation could be trafficked along the channels of a personal or professional connection. This is so overwhelming, it can lead an individual to deny or even block out the event. He or she often chooses to not speak about the harm they suffer from, much less ask for help. Thus, support and aid for survivors of person-to-person traumas are often delayed, or worse, never delivered, because such survivors frequently hide their own suffering.

There are societal, cultural, and even evolutionary reasons for such self-silencing. As social beings, our brains are evolutionarily wired to prioritize human connections; without them, we are in literal danger. So when a survivor of sexual violence knows his or her perpetrator, as is the case with many such crimes, then layered on top of the humiliation suffered is a profound confusion and a great dilemma: remain quiet, and a survivor deprives themselves of support and treatment and sacrifices reclaiming their subjectivity. But speak out, and they run the risk of rupturing whole systems of interwoven connections they depend on for social and/or material survival. Injunctions against speaking out are high; disclosing an experience of sexual violence is often a double-edged sword. Although a survivor suffers a betrayal of the most dehumanizing sort, many choose silence over the fear of creating further social destruction.

Considering sexual violence as a form of person-to-person trauma explains why it is imperative for trauma therapists to believe a survivor the moment he or she discloses an experience of sexual violation. As clinicians, we understand the high barriers to telling such a truth and we recognize the internal and external risks our patients take by acknowledging such difficult experiences. We know that such truths survive in the form of chronic physical ailments such as frequent nightmares, insomnia, chest pains, and panic attacks, in spite of so many efforts on the survivors’ parts to ignore or forget them.

Because of our awareness of these dynamics, in trauma treatment, we understand it can take a survivor years to speak out, and we understand why. Time is a key component to healing from trauma. It takes time for an individual, so overwhelmed by their violation, to emerge from a crisis state to find the calm to even face what happened, much less speak about it privately or publicly. Within the frameworks of mainstream American journalism and our criminal justice system, however, truth depends on time in a very different way. Experts in these fields rely on disclosures that follow closely after the criminal event. The fear, and it’s a legitimate one, is that proof is difficult to capture when memories fade and evidence becomes stale. The assumption is, if criminal misconduct is not immediately reported, the veracity of such accusations falls into doubt.

Yet the opposite occurs with truth in the context of trauma treatment. In fact, the reality of how deeply a traumatic experience impacts a patient is frequently revealed across time. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of diagnostic criteria for all mental health disorders, a “delayed specification” is included that acknowledges that “Full diagnostic criteria are not met until at least six months after the trauma(s), although onset of symptoms may occur immediately.” In my practice, I have seen individuals experience their most severe trauma symptoms at least six months or more following their assault or rape. The reason for this is neurobiological; it takes time for the shock of an overwhelmingly traumatic event to abate, allowing the brain to regain the ability to think. Even so, triggers surrounding a perpetration can frequently send the brain into a fight, flight, or freeze panic, disenabling a survivor to think clearly, never mind communicate coherently about their experience. Additionally, trauma can affect the speech centers of the brain, literally robbing a survivor of the words to articulate his or her experience.

My role as a trauma therapist is to help the traumatized find the stability, safety, and space to recover words to speak about horrors too difficult to look at and too painful to ignore. In order for this to happen, I make it clear that I know my patients suffer severely because something very serious happened to them and that their experience was true. Without such grounding, a survivor of sexual violence can ricochet endlessly, like an arcade-game pinball, among the poles of opinion, blame, sociocultural loyalties, and shame. Without an anchor for their own truth, a sexually traumatized person can make little progress toward reclaiming the sanctity of their bodies and minds. Without a recognition of his or her experience as truth, a trauma survivor cannot heal.

Of course, the mandate of a trauma therapist to believe a survivor’s truth is different from that of a journalist, a law enforcement officer, a prosecutor, or a judge. All mandates are different still from that of an executive in charge of overseeing the protection of a media product or corporate brand. Each of these professionals has a different objective in interpreting the veracity of accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men. This is not moral relativism; this is the uneasy reality of person-to-person sexual trauma.

Therefore, it is crucial to note that an accusation of sexual violation has different burdens of proof depending on the role of the listener. For example, for a corporate executive or executives responsible for protecting the reputation of their institution or brand, a star or powerful colleague who inspires ongoing negative press is a financial liability. Many question the tried-in-the-press nature of the recent firings of so many influential men, but it is crucial to remember that this calculation has been made, if not justly, at least carefully. Given the profitability of a star in any realm, we can rest assured that a studied calculus was made about his removal; the financial risk to reward was clearly not worth sheltering him. Moreover, we must also remember influential men have access to expert lawyers and advisers helping them make their own cost calculations. That such men have relinquished high-profile seven- and eight-figure positions and lucrative licensing deals without much contest means that the inevitable legal battles were also likely not deemed winnable. So for the capitalistic objectives governing all profit-dependent entities, the veracity of accusations of sexual violence against high-profile men has, with their swift removals, clearly proven to be well within such bounds for truth.

The realpolitik nature of profit-making principles most likely driving the dethroning of powerful men in business, media, and cultural institutions has exposed a wounded narcissism of patriarchal entitlement behind the counteraccusations equating the #MeToo movement to a witch hunt reminiscent of McCarthyism. At best, such claims enact a misappropriation of historical symbols of gross abuses of social and political power. At worst, they are a travesty of historical truth. To equate the silence-breaking actions of survivors of sexual violence—typically women—with both the unjust and misogynistic trials of 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, and the paranoid anti-Communist blacklists of the powerful Sen. Joseph McCarthy is not only absurdly inaccurate, but dangerous.

In an era where fake news and alternative facts are phrases commonly used by Donald Trump, an individual intent on rejecting facts that incriminate him and on bending reality and history to suit his narcissistic needs, those of us who value the principles of democracy must be vigilant about any such manipulations of truth. If we let historical inaccuracies advancing critiques of survivors exercising their right to free speech stand, we exert a might-makes-right attitude toward the truth. With this, we endorse a mindset that neglects the less powerful and supports totalitarianism and despotism, a dangerous place to be for any democracy, but particularly ours, which has as its president a man who openly admires the world’s most ruthless despots.

This is by no means, however, an endorsement of calls to excuse any accidental ruinations of men falsely accused of sexual violence as reparations for centuries of survivors subjugated and silenced; nor is it to advocate for essentialist claims to “believe a woman no matter what.” Both reflect sociopolitical misuses of the silence-breaking wave #MeToo has released. Such blind support of survivors is dangerous; it casts a shadow of political motivation or societal vengeance on disclosures of sexual violence—which can cause the truth of such revelations of criminal wrongdoing to be seen as feminist propaganda.

When the facts of a sexual crime are seen as propaganda, it unmoors the truth, exposing the event to politically expedient interpretations of what happened. Person-to-person traumas involving powerful politicians are especially vulnerable to such manipulation. Across recent decades, survivors’ experiences of subjugation by politicians, no matter how well-corroborated, have been minimized or dismissed by a political tribalism that rises up to protect a powerful leader and his party’s grip on power. This is a bipartisan practice; neither liberals nor conservatives are absolved of such clannishness, though that can be hard to remember as the #MeToo movement can feel like a reaction against Trump’s presidency.

Many of my patients were retraumatized by Donald Trump’s election. Post-election, they experienced a renewed sense of dismissal that a self-professed pussy-grabbing man with multiple allegations of sexual assault stacked against him could still be elevated to the most powerful leadership position in the world. The tacit message was, as a crime, sexual assault did not matter, and as individuals, survivors’ lives did not matter. This point had been underscored time and again by Bill Cosby’s mistrial, Casey Affleck’s Oscar win. and Bill O’Reilly’s reinstatement. Then, within the space of a year, #MeToo launched a global reckoning about the importance in speaking up about all forms of sexual violence. Silence-breaking women were named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017.

This shift has been momentous—and emotionally grueling. As galvanizing as #MeToo has been, it has also been extremely overwhelming. This is the double-edged sword of exposing trauma. As long-held sufferings pour forth, relief and horror both arise. For my most vulnerable patients, this has been destabilizing and confusing. When their social media feeds flooded with detailed trauma histories, some questioned their decisions not to disclose theirs, while others wondered whether their assaults were “as bad” or “worse.” Each set of revelations about a famous man caused many to feel a vicarious betrayal and anger. As one of my patients remarked, “I am so angry about my own stuff, I don’t know where to put all this extra rage. Where is it all supposed to go?” Triggered by similar experiences and flooded daily with overwhelming feelings, a number of my patients have, since October, experienced heightened anxiety and more frequent panic attacks, a sign that their brains are overloaded with stress and fear.

What has helped them find some shelter in this sexual-violence storm is a staunch focus on their own experiences and feelings. Regardless of whether others publicly disclose their traumas, I ask my patients to consider what feels most safe for them. Regardless of whether allegations of sexual assault are taken seriously by an accused politician, famous actor, or daily-news anchor, I ask patients to use their reactions to any story to consider what about it stirs them. This is so that they can better understand their own triggers and make correlations and distinctions between external situations and their own lives. Thus, clarity is key. We clarify that each experience of sexual violence is taken in differently, depending on the background and history of the survivor. We clarify that while journalists, public officials, academics, and leaders of all fields are weighing in on #MeToo—as well they should to help find a path forward that addresses the causes of such abuses—they are also strangers who cannot define any one survivor’s experience. We clarify that while reading disclosures and commentary about sexual misconduct can be healing, such pieces were not always written with healing others in mind.

Clarification, particularly about painful and shameful feelings, again takes time, and so trauma treatment is slow and meticulous. Only gradually can a survivor sort out the confusion, shame, and pain of their own sexual traumas. This process relies on a constant clarification and protection of a survivor’s inner truths from the chaotic onslaught of external opinion. This is particularly challenging now, when we live in an era where a 24-hour news cycle constantly spins, churning out disclosures and debates about sexual violence at an inhuman pace. With the unfolding of #MeToo movement, we are in the middle of a perfect storm, one of an ongoing stream of sexual-violence disclosures meeting an internet age that privileges upsetting details because we are hard-wired to fixate on such information. Of course, it is the maturity of mobile digital technology and the now-global use of social media that provided #MeToo with the platform to morph from the awareness-raising tool it was in 2006 to the viral sensation and historic social movement it has blossomed into today. As a citizen and an activist, I see this as a positive outcome; #MeToo is another instance of how technology allows long-silenced voices to break out of isolation and gather collective strength to topple citadels of institutional power. As a trauma therapist, however, I also see the psychological wear and tear this unending stream of traumatic material wreaks not only on my patients but all of us who bear witness to such sufferings. This, combined with the overwhelming impact of Trump’s almost daily outrages, has the potential to create a superstorm of hyperanxiety in not only my patients but in the rest of us as well. It may, at some point, prove too much for many of us to bear.

And so, as the opinion pendulum on sexual violence continues to swing, bringing forth both support in the form of the film industry’s Time’s Up initiative and critique in concerns that #MeToo advocates a return to “Victorian” and “puritanical” attitudes about women and sex, I continue to recommend that my patients seek solace not in online debates but in their own support systems. I recommend that they determine who, what, and where the comforting and trustworthy spaces and people are in their immediate lives. I encourage patients to seek respite in such analog realities and to take breaks from online and social media. We discuss the fact that all we have jurisdiction over are our own minds and the truths that reside there. At the same time, no one can know or dictate a survivor’s experience—not pundits, not politicians, nor even other survivors, for no two experiences of sexual violence are exactly the same. Thus, the shelter in this sexual-violence storm is within ourselves, with those who deliver us a true sense of safety, whom we trust to bear witness to our vulnerabilities, triggers, and traumas. While simple, this kind of self-efficacy is not easy to build. It takes constant practice. But the reward is knowing the experience of one’s own life takes priority over the blinding swirl of sociocultural opinion, which is ever-churning and ever changing.

It is only from such a grounded place that it even becomes possible to more clearly consider and recognize the institutionalized agendas and limitations that created this massive societal problem of sexual violence in the first place. That different sections of society—particularly law, media, business, politics—would have profoundly different standards for evidence is inevitable. That it would be hard for those who have experienced sexual trauma to assess these various burdens of evidence critically is also understandable. But it is only after such assessments that we can start to understand what legal, institutional, and behavioral reforms are necessary. With a heightened awareness and an ongoing examination of such differing perspectives, it may be possible for institutions and society itself to break from this habituated pattern of neglect and dismissal of the seriousness of person-to-person sexual trauma. Perhaps then this painful moment and movement of #MeToo reckoning can fulfill its promise of elevating defense of the sanctity of human subjectivity over compliance with the power of societal institutions.

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Betty Teng is a trauma therapist in New York City. A co-author of the recent best-selling book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, Teng treats survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and childhood sexual molestation.