Dear Wayne and Wanda,
I've been dating my girlfriend for more than a year and we were friends for a couple of years before that. We have a very strong relationship and have talked openly about difficult topics, like how her parents' divorce affected her, or about financial difficulties I had when I was younger. Bottom line, I thought I knew pretty much everything about her. So I was pretty surprised a week ago when the "#metoo" hashtag showed up on her Facebook status.
She has never said anything to me about being harassed or assaulted. All the comments were like "sorry this happened to you" and "#metoo too" and "you're a strong woman." I felt completely left out. Did these friends know what she was talking about? Had she gone through some major thing and never told me? Was this an instance of like a male co-worker flirting with her inappropriately, or were we talking some major physical assault? I want to be clear – I don't think any of it is OK.
This whole #metoo thing has made me look back at my past, my actions, sort of like looking through my own inventory to make sure I never stepped over the line at any point. Obviously I've never sexually assaulted anyone, but were there ever times I said inappropriate things to friends or co-workers? Or made a woman feel like I expected something from her in exchange for something? I couldn't think of anything, but maybe?
Anyway, that's beside the point. I think the #metoo thing made a lot of us think about our friends and ourselves. But I never expected my own girlfriend to come forward and share that she's had some kind of experience when she has never told me about that. The same day, I texted her and said I saw her Facebook post and did she want to talk about it. She simply said no, but thank you. I don't feel like I can let it go there. I feel helpless, and in a way I feel a little frustrated that she isn't sharing this with me but felt OK sharing it with her 1,000 friends.
What can I do?
In the wake of the flood of #metoo posts that filled Facebook screens this past week, many people – not just men, but people – are wondering what they can do to both stand up against sexual harassment and assault and to support those who've opened up about being subjected to it. For many people, seeing a #metoo tag on friends' social media feed became the first time a person could definitively say, "I personally know someone who has been assaulted or harassed." That kind of nearness to an issue is powerful. Not only does it bring things close to home, but it also galvanizes us to want to protect people who've been hurt and to act to prevent it from ever happening again. While you may feel lost about how to proceed, and even confused or hurt because you never had any inkling of her past experience, your instincts are decent and coming from a place of love. For that, your girlfriend is surely grateful.
One brilliant thing about the #metoo campaign was its grassroots simplicity. Nonpartisan, and not even owned by any commemorative day, month, event, or specific organization, it allowed a very succinct way for people to stand together, bonded by solidarity of experience, without having to divulge details or relive embarrassing or horrifying experiences. When you asked your girlfriend if she wanted to talk about it, her answer was honest: No, she doesn't. Because there's a difference between telling a story, reliving the experience, relaying how it all unfolded, than finding strength in using the #metoo moment to be part of a movement. It's quite possible that without that opening, you would have never known anything happened to her at all. Now you do, and what to do with that?
An article from CNN – "What decent men can do in response to #MeToo" – offers some concrete ways that people of any gender can "help improve the climate for women around them." One of the simplest things the author suggests is to speak up when someone is being disrespectful toward women. Or here's something: More men should read more feminist writers. I remember in college, having a guy in our women's studies classes was always an amusing anomaly and inevitably it felt like someone asked, "Why are you here?" I see now the question really should have been, "Why aren't more men here?" All told, the article offers 14 pointers that anyone can use to do better, be better, and overall make the world better.
What can you do? Don't make this about yourself.
After seeing your girlfriend's post, it's natural for you to feel surprised, confused or a little lost, and even like you have no answers. I think that was a common reaction for many men, family members and even close friends when they read some of the powerful and extremely personal posts, or even simply seeing a #metoo on the timeline, from women who are close to them. But here's the thing: They aren't asking for your advice or help. And you definitely don't have the right to use this as an opportunity to put the focus on your hurt feelings or disappointment. This is about them – expressing hurt, finding understanding, hopefully healing.
This is, however, an amazing opportunity for you to listen, learn and create an even stronger bond with your girlfriend. Next time you're both in a good, calm place, ask her about her post. Don't say you were surprised or bummed that you were in the dark. Instead, tell her that you were sorry to see that she went through something traumatic and that it was moving to see that so many women that you know who went through something, as well. If she's comfortable with it, you would love to know her story, understand what she went through and what it's like to live as a woman today, and support her, if she wants it.
This is also a great opportunity to dissolve trust with your girlfriend – if you make this conversation about your disappointment or shock about her post, you'll instantly be part of the problem. You also don't need to make a grand speech about how you wish you could have help her earlier. Remember: This isn't about you.
Tread lightly, tread with love, tread with respect, tread with understanding.