#DontLookAway: What men can learn from campaigns like #MeToo and #MenAreTrash

A demonstrator takes part in a #MeToo protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Hollywood. File picture: Reuters African News Agency/ANA

A demonstrator takes part in a #MeToo protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Hollywood. File picture: Reuters African News Agency/ANA

Published Nov 30, 2018


Durban - Sexual violence has an effect of shaming, often into silence, the very people who are violated.

Other effects of shame include self-blame and self-destructive behaviours. Instead of shame attaching to the perpetrators of sexual violence, who according to statistics are overwhelmingly men, the shame becomes the burden of the survivor.

In no other crime (eg robbery or murder) does shame become the problem of the victims or survivors.

The debilitating aspect about shame is that it disrupts the sense of self, and threatens the core of who you are. Many survivors of sexual violence experience shame because they feel that they have been irreparably damaged by their sexual violation.

Both Helman, a young white woman, and Ratele, an older black man, have struggled with the feeling of shame. Both came to understand at an intellectual level that they ought not to be ashamed for being violated, although the emotional burden of shame is hard to shake.

As people who get paid to think about sexual violence, the differences between how we respond to our experiences are striking and instructive.

Helman has chosen to speak out, on various platforms, about her experience. Speaking out is an attempt to disrupt both her own shame and the shame of other survivors.

This is the first time Ratele has publicly spoken about his experience, outside of his intimate circles. Like many men, the fact that Ratele has not spoken out is because he feels rape does not happen to men like him.

A lot of people who have been sexually violated struggle with speaking out or even disclosing to those close to them because of feelings of shame.

We see campaigns such as #MeToo and #MenAreTrash as attempts to disrupt and redirect the shame of sexual violence. The #MeToo movement, which was initiated in 2007 by Tarana Burke and went viral in 2017 after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted, write 'me too' in reply to this", drew international attention to the prevalence of sexual violence.

Similarly #MenAreTrash, which called out problematic masculinity, gained increasing online popularity in South Africa in 2016 and 2017.

While these campaigns are ostensibly about encouraging the voicing of sexual trauma and challenging the acceptability of men's violence, they are also about shifting the shame from the survivors to the perpetrators.

Many men have responded to these campaigns with anger and denial.

They claim that they are not trash and that they have never sexually violated anybody.

What anger, denial and other negative responses inhibit is an empathetic engagement with the shame-inducing and humiliation that men's violence, abuse and sexual harassment are intended to produce.

There are at least two consequences of this refusal to engage.

Firstly, by refusing to engage with the experiences being presented by campaigns against sexual violence, men deny survivors the ability to transfer their shame to where it properly belongs: to the violators.

Secondly, men's refusal to empathise with survivors prevents them, as men, from expressing their own traumas.

We know that young men experience sexual abuse from other men.

The recent case at Parktown Boys' High and the events detailed in the book  The Lost Boys of Bird Island are just two examples of this.

We think that there are at least three important lessons men can learn from campaigns such as #MeToo and #MenAreTrash:

1. A well-developed sense of empathy. Empathy allows men to understand women's fear of sexual violence, particularly in a context like South Africa where rates of violence are high.

Developing enhanced empathy means men are more likely to have meaningful and richer relationships with women and children.

Developing this empathy will also enable men to see, and hopefully challenge, problematic masculinities and disrupt violent tendencies.

2. Speaking about their trauma. What men can learn from women who refuse to be silent is that speaking out about pain and trauma disrupts shame. By speaking about sexual violation, survivors are able refute that they should be ashamed of being violated. We have seen this with Cheryl Zondi. Her refusal to be shamed allowed us to see that the shame belongs to the pastor who raped her and the male lawyer who badgered her in court.

3. Showing vulnerability is not weakness. Men's speaking out makes it easier for other men to come forward, just as Milano’s tweet opened up space for other women (and some men) to come forward and speak their pain.

One of the things that prevents men from speaking out about sexual violation is the association of masculinity with invulnerability.

An admission that we are all vulnerable to violence does not diminish men, but makes them human.

* Rebecca Helman is a PhD candidate at Unisa. She is also a researcher at Unisa’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the SA Medical Research Council-Unisa’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. Helman’s research interests include gender violence and sexualities within post-colonial contexts.

* Kopano Ratele is a professor in the Institute of Social and Health Sciences at Unisa and researcher in the Medical Research Council - Unisa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. He runs the Trans-disciplinary African Psychology Programme and the Research Unit on Men and Masculinities.

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