#MeToo Isn’t Just for Adults
April, organizations and individuals across the country pause to acknowledge
one of the most persistent forms of violence in our society–and across the
world. Yet, as we see increasing public discourse around many of the issues
that led to the creation of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month in 2001,
there is still a tremendous lack of attention paid to the group of people that
represents both the population that is most vulnerable to sexual violence, and
our greatest hope for transforming the culture that begets that violence.
I’d like for us welcome in May by taking a moment to reflect on what #MeToo means for our youth.
Tarana Burke, my friend and longtime colleague, first created the #MeToo movement in order to support and affirm Black women and children survivors that have been consistently ignored and neglected by America’s narrow ability to recognize victims of abuse. It has since expanded into an international call for greater protections against sexual violence and harassment, and better ways of holding those who commit these acts accountable. However, despite Tarana’s greatest efforts and the advocacy of her allies in this fight, there remains a tendency for members of the media to continue centering privileged victims, salacious, celebrity-driven stories and narratives that suggest that ‘me, too’ is a witch hunt that may leave innocent men and boys destroyed in its wake.
we fight to correct this narrative, we must also push to better include
children and teenagers in the discussion, particularly girls of color, and in
our efforts to address the myriad issues that make sexual abuse, harassment and
assault as commonplace as they are today. When we fail to protect our young
people, when we blame them for the harm they experience or tell them that there
is no hope for eradicating those harms, we send a very clear message about how
they are valued by the world around them and how they should value themselves.
We also allow the cycle of abuse to continue; though while the majority of victims
do not become abusers, the majority of abusers were victims themselves.
what do we need to do? Well, first, we acknowledge what our young people are up
against. Approximately 1 in 10 children–1 in 7 girls and
1 in 25 boys–will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, while some 60
percent of child sexual abuse victims don’t tell anyone what they have
experienced. The statistics are even more troubling for Black girls,
approximately 60% of whom will experience sexual abuse by the age of 18.
terror has been an inextricable part of the Black experience since the first
enslaved Africans were brought to these shores, their bodies poked and prodded,
policed and penetrated by slaveholders in order to develop the labor force that
would build up this country without recognition, compensation or agency. This
legacy continues today, supported by the inaction of the state and the apathy
of the masses–but it doesn’t have to.
recognition of the pervasive nature of sexual violations in the lives of our
youth must then come with a commitment to action from institutions and
individuals that claim to work in the service of girls and women, of children,
of LGBT people and of people of color.
Our country, which does not adequately recognize the dignity and
humanity of even its most privileged children, is currently led by an
administration has targeted the meager
accommodations and rules implemented to protect them
sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has
targeted Title IX protections that were created to make it easier for survivors
to report and seek assistance. This is particularly dangerous when you consider
the number of public and private school systems that have failed to adequately
implement those protections to begin with, often failing to have enough staff
and resources dedicated to addressing individual incidents and campus-wide
concerns in the first place.
For example, the New York City Department of Education has just one Title IX coordinator responsible for responding to reports of sexual assault and violence on the campuses of our K-12 public schools–hardly enough for a school system with 1.1 million students.
means that the other responsibilities of a Title IX coordinator, which include
preventing and addressing issues of discrimination and disparity on the basis
of gender expression and/or sexual orientation and ensuring support for pregnant
students, can very easily lose precedence when there may be more urgent
allegations to address. Furthermore, one person cannot adequately support the
City’s principals and other school staff with the tools they need to create a
culture of safety on their campuses and to respond properly when an incident
that reason, it should come as little surprise that a lawsuit was filed just this week
accusing the DOE of failing to adequately protect students, investigate when
incidents have been reported and provide support in the aftermath. The suit was
filed by Legal Services NYC on behalf of four girls of color with learning
disabilities. Among the allegations: a 13-year-old being told by a dean “He
just likes you” after a classmate reached under her skirt to touch her and the
rape of a 14-year-old girl with autism in a school stairwell. All four students
unsuccessfully reported incidents to school officials on numerous occasions to
is also critical that we hear from young people and empower them to fight on
behalf of themselves. My organization, Girls for Gender Equity is
“intergenerational,” which means that we both work side-by-side with youth and
bring their perspectives into spaces where they may not be able to enter. Why?
Because young people know what young people need and feel, and they will
articulate those things clearly to adults who take the time to both listen to
their voices and address their concerns.
of us who are committed to addressing sexual violence must be certain to
include children and young adults in our analysis, our advocacy and our
activism. By failing to do so, we train them to expect abuse and harassment as
a normal consequence of life–and, at times, to repeat those behaviors.
As we prepare for last month’s showers (hopefully) give way to May flowers, let us be intentional about creating a world in which our young people won’t have to say, #MeToo at all.
Joanne N. Smith is the Founding President and CEO of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), an intergenerational advocacy organization, engaging cisgender (cis) and transgender (trans) girls of color and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth of color and working intentionally to center Black girls in the movement for gender and racial equity. Since 2001, GGE has worked both alongside with and on behalf of our youth in supporting the optimal development of our communities through a combination of direct service measures, advocacy for policy change, community organizing, and culture change work. Follow GGE and Joanne on Twitter: @GGENYC and @JoanneNSmith
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