*Warning: This article contains stories that depict sexual assault and rape that some readers may find difficult or triggering.
From left to right: Recy Taylor, Terry Crews, Tarana Burke and Safe Horizon’s Blake Johnson
February 26, 2018
“I was told it wasn’t that bad.”
“I’ve waited almost 40 years to tell my story.”
“We are everywhere.”
According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Sexual violence will affect 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 6 men, in their lifetimes. Stories from survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment have dominated our news feeds since Harvey Weinstein’s accusers were met with unprecedented support and media coverage starting last October. The #MeToo hashtag reached millions on Facebook and Twitter in the first 48 hours. Conversations that had long been happening in private, or not at all, were now going public.
Long before the events of the fall of 2017 brought more attention to sexual assault, people have bravely spoken out about their experiences and advocated for fellow survivors. In the context of the #MeToo movement, we want to highlight four individuals who helped pave the way for this national conversation.
Recy Taylor, Tarana Burke, Terry Crews, and Safe Horizon’s Blake Johnson have changed the landscape of our understanding of sexual assault and our efficacy in addressing it, each in different ways.
Recy Taylor was a 24-year-old wife and mother returning from church one September evening when she was kidnapped and raped by six white men. She didn’t stay silent during a time when speaking out against a white assailant could have deadly consequences for women of color. Unfortunately, despite giving information that enabled law enforcement to identify at least one of her attackers, she was flatly denied justice and faced threats for making the report. “They seemed like they weren’t concerned about what happened to me, and they didn’t try and do nothing about it. I can’t help but tell the truth of what they did to me.” Though she never found legal justice, her story helped propel the civil rights movement and galvanized efforts to support her and others like her. Taylor worked with the NAACP and Rosa Parks to seek justice for herself and others and became a lifelong advocate.
In 1997, Tarana Burke sat across from a 13-year-old girl who was disclosing her experience of sexual abuse. Overwhelmed by the feeling, (Burke herself first experienced sexual abuse at age 6 according to reports) she resolved to become a source of support for fellow survivors. In 2006, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-income communities, find pathways to healing. #MeToo went viral last October when celebrities (notably Alyssa Milano) began using the hashtag, but Burke has been doing this work for years.
“It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to survivor, to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening.” She reminds us that while holding abusers accountable is crucial, the driving force is solidarity. “This iteration in social media has placed a larger focus on perpetrators being called out and held accountable for their actions. But the actual Me Too movement is about supporting sexual assault survivors.”
Terry Crews is an actor and former NFL player who publicly accused a Hollywood executive of sexually assaulting him at a party. Since calling out his alleged abuser and taking to Twitter to support others, Crews has spoken frequently about the experience of male survivors, especially black men, and the additional barriers to justice and empathy that they face. “I did nothing wrong. You almost have to repeat it. […] Because if no one gets a pass […] the whole system will be disciplined into knowing how to behave because this is all about not accepting this foul behavior[…] If I would have just retaliated, in defense, I would be in jail right now. Being a large black man in America, I would have immediately been seen as a thug, but I am not a thug.”
Crews also urges men to hold each other responsible for treating others with respect. “You need to be held accountable for the things you say, the things you do.” Tarana Burke applauded his courage, “It’s really difficult I think as a black man to come forward and be honest about the way in which they are looked at and dealt with as survivors of it, not perpetrators.”
Blake Johnson is a Supervising Social Worker at Safe Horizon, supporting survivors of sexual violence as they work to recover from their trauma. The #MeToo movement has brought sexual assault into a national conversation, and it’s about so much more than just reporting criminal behavior. “I wish people understood how amazingly pervasive sexual assault is in society. Many behaviors are not quite sexual assault but are also not great. They’re non-consensual,” he says. “What’s missed is that this is actually pervasive rape culture. I really want to work on what’s so wrong with our culture that this is happening so often, despite a lot of intervention from organizations like Safe Horizon. The fight against sexual violence has been a very long one. How are we still here?”
A critical part of the work, he says, is helping survivors reject the fear that they are responsible, and the societal pressure to be silent. “You see people understand what’s happened without having to constantly feel like they were somehow at fault,” he says. “It’s great to see when people have that peace of mind. They go from, ‘If I had done x, this wouldn’t have happened,’ to ‘This person is a predator who chose to victimize me. I could have done things differently, sure, but this person is at fault.’”
Safe Horizon offers trauma-informed support and other services for survivors of sexual assault. To find out more about the help available to you, call our 24-hour hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).
In celebration of Black History Month, we are highlighting the work of nine leaders in three fields within the scope of Safe Horizon’s work: advocating for the rights of children who have experienced trauma, survivors of sexual assault, and boys and young men of color harmed by violence. We mourn the staggering measure of humanity and talent that has been denied in the African-American community due to racist actions, policies, and beliefs, and we celebrate all of the achievements that have been made despite this.