MeToo effect: More women focus on healing after sexual harassment
#MeToo: By now, you’ve seen the hashtag, read the reporting, and likely heard personal stories. We explore how survivors of sexual harassment and assault are undergoing therapy during #MeToo.Updated: Oct 17, 2018 12:41 IST
There’s a good chance you saw someone you know post the hashtag #MeToo on social media in recent weeks. In the wake of sexual harassment allegations by actor Tanushree Dutta against against veteran actor Nana Patekar (and now other powerful men in the public eye), the hashtag #MeToo has become a rallying cry of solidarity for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse.
Weeks after the #MeTooIndia hashtag first began to trend on Twitter and raise awareness for sexual violence, its movement is only continuing to pick up steam. And now that the hashtag has become something of a shorthand for naming experiences of sexual misconduct and assault, there’s little doubt of its impact on survivors.
Therapists and psychologists are seeing a change in the way their patients open up about sexual harassment and assault since the movement took hold — but it isn’t so much that more women are going to therapy because of #MeToo. Rather, the psychologists we spoke to say that, for the most part, existing patients are more openly discussing experiences in ways that they perhaps hadn’t before the hashtag came along.
“I haven’t seen more women coming in with sexual assault stories, but I have seen a lot of them that said, ‘Well, that happened to me, too,’ and then tell me about it,” says Dr Aparna Sengupta, a clinical psychologist who maintains a private practice in Kolkata.
Dr Sengupta says she’s also noticed a pronounced change in how empowered sexual abuse survivors are when they’re speaking out in therapy. She says that her patients seem to be experiencing “less shame-based emotions” in telling their stories.
“What I am seeing shift now is that women are starting to put the blame where it belongs: on the abuser,” she says, adding, “More people are openly admitting to having been sexually abused or sexually harassed.”
Dr Sengupta says many of her clients say that they had no idea that they suffered from sexual trauma. Women carry a lot of shame, guilt, and confusion about their experience and need to know that there is nothing they did to cause the sexual violence, Dr Sengupta says. While she has had a few patients come into therapy citing #MeToo as a catalyst, her clients have been discussing their experiences with sexual violence — and parsing out the accompanying trauma — since well before the #MeToo India movement began.
“I think that women come to therapy because they have symptoms that they do not know how to take care of. Many of my patients did not know that they face trauma symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to their experience and are shocked that their anxiety and depression might be linked to that. So many of them say they had no idea that they suffered from trauma. A few said they thought only rape survivors suffer from PTSD.”
As the difficult, often polarising #MeToo conversations continue, it’s important to remember that movements like these can take a toll on everyone involved.
Like Dr Sengupta, Anjali Mehra, a trauma and relationship therapist from Mumbai, says that she hasn’t had any new patients citing #MeToo as a catalyst in starting therapy, but some of her ongoing clients have actually been triggered by seeing the hashtag on their social media feeds.
“Initially, some women reported feeling overwhelmed and triggered by the large amounts of #MeToo appearing on their social media feeds, as this brought up experiences of feeling the chaos or intrusiveness around their own assaults or harassment,” says Mehra, adding that on the flip side of this worldwide wake-up call, many survivors have also struggled with whether or not to open up about their stories.
“A few clients discussed the struggle of not posting #MeToo, because they did not feel ready to share about their abuse so publicly and felt a pressure to do so in order to be part of this movement,” she says. “There can be a myth that telling one’s story is fully cathartic and healing, and that is not necessarily the case.”
To actually help them heal, Mehra says she wants to support survivors in taking care of their needs and deciding to whom they tell what and when. That being said, there’s no doubt that #MeToo has had an impact on the way we discuss and handle sexual assault, she says.
“I find that the majority of my women clients have been sexually harassed in some way, but never felt they could talk about it,” Mehra says. “It’s as if we all had common knowledge that this was a fact of life and it was best to be silent. A power differential still exists, but now the conversation is being had.”