Content warning: mentions of sexual violence and rape culture.
When it happens, sometimes you think it’ll never happen again. When it happens, you might experience the vileness, the intrusion, as a verb, or you could experience it as a lacuna, a semicolon. Sexual violence has no standard format, no universal shape. We soften the words we use to describe our trauma, tone-regulate depending on our audience. We say certain words in some company, but sometimes we cannot force our mouths to push out other words—even to ourselves. Our cultural linguistics of sexual violence is not merely the product of the pervasiveness of violence but is actually an active perpetuator of that abuse. I can say “rape” when I am feeling emboldened, when I feel momentarily uncontrolled by my trauma in a room full of supportive women, but I say “something bad” when I am forced to reiterate my hurt to a group full of cis men. I say “this incident” when I speak to my parents, or to myself, locked in the throes of panic and flashbacks. On bad days I cannot even say the word, cannot even acknowledge the “incident” as an incident, as anything but a brittle ingrowth of memory. I cannot find a way to expunge the violence without a tremor of unease in my voice. I cannot find a word to truly communicate the inarticulability of the trauma.
When I tweeted a #MeToo in the infancy of the movement, what I appreciated most about Tarana Burke’s hashtag was its ambiguity. Its stretch. Its room for the wobbly, ungraspable mindfuckery that is trauma. I could own the experience, could finally say something, anything, and make this rancid thing visible to myself. I could say Me Too and I didn’t have to be specific. I didn’t have to coerce terrifying declarations from my mouth, those truths I knew but didn’t yet want to say aloud. I did not have to regurgitate my trauma in explicitness, did not have to fear the threat of retaliation. It is powerful, yes, to name the beast, and I wanted to be able to do that, to articulate rape. The continuous surge of people doing just that let me feel seen, but not hypervisible. I still don’t know a word that really expresses the depth of trauma for me. I still negotiate my own experience, smoothing out its shape when I am unable to tell the whole truth. But I want to say, now: that is okay.
Language is constantly in flux, malleable and unforeseeable. Words are not stationary or affixed; we invent words, remake our vernaculars every day, and I find such aliveness in this fluidity. In high school, I wanted to intern at the MLA, until I realized that the very construction of “standard” English grammar itself is another imaginary architecture, encoded with archaic whiteness and maleness. Language is weaponizable, and we must recognize the sudden shifts of certain terms as deliberate acts of rhetorical violence.
The #MeToo movement never achieved perfection, or full, inclusive representation. As a queer Latinx femme, I felt at once represented and on the outskirts. White celebrities co-opted the work of Burke, a Black woman, and immeasurable narratives were left out. Racism, classism, transphobia, the erasure of the layers of intersectionality—knots in representation abounded. But at the core, a necessary conversation that has always existed underneath the surface became mainstream. The catharsis of such visibility mingled with the gruesome barrage of misogyny, tone-policing, and exhausting “devil’s advocate” takes by white people, mostly cis men. Legitimate critiques of the movement are far and wide; like so many abolitionist writers and activists have pointed out, who is left out of our dialogue about sexual violence? Why do we only listen when cis, famous white women speak? Why was there not, in tandem, a demand for transformative justice rather than a reinstitution of carceral feminism?
But alongside those necessary critiques, what infuriated me was the sheer reduction of the intractable trauma of sexual violence. In 2020, #MeToo has become a verb.
I’ve heard my father say it. I’ve heard my mom say it. I’ve heard the bizarre bait-and-switch of this phrase: “So-and-so just got #MeToo’d.” Reconfiguring #MeToo into a verb isn’t just lazy, it’s dangerous. “#MeToo’d” shifts the position of victimhood to the abuser, not the abused. Using “#MeToo’d” to describe someone receiving an accusation of sexual abuse quietly transfers our empathy to the accused perpetrator rather than the actual survivor, the accuser. When we say “Oh, looks like Ansel Elgort just got #MeToo’d,” what we’re really saying is, looks like this guy is on the receiving end of the violence. Accountability ceases to exist; culpability shifts. Ansel Elgort did not get “#MeToo’d.” Ansel Elgort sexually harassed, groomed, and assaulted young women and is finally being called the fuck out for his behavior. The seemingly innocuous manipulation of language here actually works to undermine the movement, not support its importance.
The problem, of course, is that when sidelined conversations finally enter the mainstream, people weaponize, reposition, and simplify their meanings. The phrase becomes a punchline or a watery catch-all. When someone uses the phrase “getting #MeToo’d,” they usually mean that an alleged abuser has finally been publicly held accountable for their actions. But often, this term is not used in celebration of the justice of that accountability, or in solidarity with the survivors. Often the term is used to belittle or minimize the act of accusing, to express disbelief or exhaustion at the “overreaction” of the public, as a means to critique “cancel culture,” as if “canceling” has anything to do with holding an abuser accountable. As if abusers shouldn’t be wholeheartedly held to task and recognized for the terror they’ve wreaked.
Another example: once, while working, a coworker slipped past me to get by, putting their hand on my back. Another colleague joked, “Don’t touch her, you might get #MeToo’d now!”
As if someone can get “Me Too’d.” As if being accused of sexual violence is like a cough or cold, something annoying and easily dramatized. These jokes overcrowd comedy, particularly the “comedy” put out by white men. I am tired of these jokes. I am tired of these easy but ignorant, uncritical usages of important language. We reduce the harm done by abusers when we position, lingually, their lives as those on the line rather than the survivors themselves. We do not say, “Oh, Ansel Elgort is finally being held accountable for his sexual abuse and grooming of minors.” We do not say, “He/they/she allegedly hurt this person in this way, and that’s awful.” Hegemonic American society trembles at accountability. Complex social movements are wielded as examples of “cancel culture” and “hysteria.”
Adrienne Maree Brown, radical abolitionist writer and pleasure activist, writes, “I believe that all organizing is science fiction—that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced.” An essential piece of that optimistic futurism is how we restructure our language, how we hold our own voices accountable. How we examine the complicity we may be missing. How we seek to transform rather than prosecute, rather than reimplement easy paradigms of dismissal. The reclamation of language, the disowning of internalized shame, by survivors is a wide-open space for us to begin this practice.
By Sofia Sears
Illustration by Hannah Kang