As a human being, I’m in favor of social changes that make it more difficult for sexual harassment and abuse to take place. But as a psychoanalyst, I have some misgivings about the #MeToo Movement. In my capacity as a therapist, my primary concern is always for the emotional well-being of the individual. While the #MeToo Movement has moved the ball forward in terms of social justice, it also inadvertently leaves some victims emotionally vulnerable, especially those who lack mental health support. In the spirit of camaraderie, victims reveal the outline of their experiences without the nuances and without the safety net of a therapist’s office. That can be anti-cathartic and can leave victims exposed because it’s virtually impossible to convey in a public venue the complexities of a person’s traumatic experience, and contributing to the movement can minimize the magnitude of a person’s suffering.
In my life and my work, I’ve known many people who have been victimized, and the sad truth is that these occurrences are repetitive in nature. People who have been subjected to acts of sexual misconduct, abuse, and/or rape often have a history of prior violations, and they tend to struggle to maintain strong boundaries. It’s difficult for someone to process the psychological aftermath of sexual trauma, and when a person suffers such a grievous emotional wound, it’s better, in my professional opinion, to process the experiences in the privacy of a therapist’s office. Posting publicly in a global movement can inadvertently strip a person or their privacy and can cause them to be lumped together with other people, all of whom lose their individuality. Those public disclosures can actually cause secondary traumas because they put private, painful experiences into the public realm without a professional safety net.
In a way, a person who writes their story and pushes that “Post” button is repeating the wrongs that were originally perpetrated against them and is inadvertently engaging in what psychoanalysts call “repetition compulsion,” which is a person’s unconscious tendency to repeat their history in the belief that they can make right a wrong. When a person contributes a traumatic story to the #MeToo Movement, they’re trying to heal old wounds, but they may be inflicting new ones on themselves.
When someone makes their private life public, they inadvertently violate their privacy and their boundaries. The act is also what many psychoanalysts call “identification with the aggressor,” in which a victim engages in self-destructive behavior that is similar to the perpetrator’s original harm. In a very real way, they are turning against themselves by revealing information that leaves them vulnerable. Posting such accounts might be good for the movement as a whole, but it may do more harm than good for the individuals who comprise the movement. Those acts of self-exposure result in further objectification because they require individuals to become statistics at the expense of their identities as unique individuals.
I believe that the #MeToo Movement may unintentionally create a platform for demeaning the humanity of the individuals participating in the movement. Social media offer a flat, two-dimensional form of expression that can leave victims feeling further degraded. With one click of the mouse, a victim’s intimate tragedy is cast out into the world, where millions of people could potentially read it. The sense of relief that may accompany the post might feel satisfying initially, but those public admissions can also be retraumatizing, especially down the road. I can’t emphasize the enormity of the cognitive, psychological, and physical ramifications of sexual aggression and assault. Research shows conclusively that the impairment of such traumas can be debilitating over a lifetime.
To be clear, a victim shouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty, and no one should ever blame them, but, sadly, harsh, judgmental voices too often blame victims for their traumas, and that evokes feelings of shame and guilt in those victims. I worry that after the dust from their declarations settles, they may become fragmented without mental health support, and that may increase symptoms of trauma such as nightmares, anxiety, dissociation, and depression.