Sexual Assaulters Are Interacting With #MeToo Posts, & It Reveals An Awful Truth About Rape Culture

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Thousands of people, many of whom are women or identify as non-binary, have been flooding social media with their stories of sexual harassment and assault this week. The campaign was popularized after actor Alyssa Milano urged her Twitter followers to share their experiences with the hashtag #MeToo, and went viral in part thanks to Amy Siskind, president of women's advocacy nonprofit The New Agenda. (The Me Too movement, sans hashtag, was actually started 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke.) But now, in the midst of the movement's popularity, some are grappling with a disturbing situation: seeing their sexual assaulters interacting with #MeToo posts on social media.

It isn't a hypothetical scenario. Women have seen their assaulters showing solidarity on social media this week, and it shows that some people don't understand they've even committed sexual assault. There's more than one way to emotionally process the shock of seeing your assaulter's name pop up in your notifications, and only you know what's right for you, but some people who have experienced it say it feels like they're being re-traumatized. Bustle spoke with three women who have seen their assaulters interact with #MeToo posts on social media, or make solidarity posts of their own in the wake of the campaign's popularity, and asked experts why assaulters might be performing this kind of solidarity in the first place.

Assaulters Could Be Unaware They Did Anything Wrong

Emma, 24, who requested anonymity to protect her privacy, met her assaulter in high school. He assaulted her after he asked to sleep over at her house, then got into bed with her while she was sleeping and touched her sexually without her consent. When Emma posted a "Me Too" Facebook status Monday about being sexually assaulted, he liked it.

"I'm not sure if he liked my status out of ignorance and not getting it, or out of malice or mockery," Emma tells Bustle. "When I clicked and saw [the like], my stomach dropped. It was so bold."

For Emma, cutting back on social media usage has helped her feel better. Before her assaulter liked her status, she was constantly online. After, she deleted the Facebook app from her phone and is only checking the site twice a day, she says.

Abigail, 25, who also requested anonymity because of privacy concerns, tells Bustle that seeing a supportive Facebook post from the man who assaulted her brought back awful memories.

"I remember him making several comments over the course of knowing him that he would personally physically harm anyone who forced a woman to consent, so I knew he'd come out with this bullsh*t," she says.

"I'm the only one who knows how big of a hypocrite he is."

She befriended him at her favorite bar after a traumatic breakup last year. He made her a little uneasy with the number of drinks he bought her, she says, but she says she didn't think too much of it. She stayed friendly with him, thinking he was harmless, until he one day assaulted her.

"I walked him out to his car one day, and he shoved his hands in my pants in the middle of the street," Abigail tells Bustle. "I tried to set my boundaries, but he told me that he couldn't respect my boundaries because he wanted me too badly. He said it like it was a compliment."

Over the next two months, he continued to ignore her boundaries, she says.

"I got more and more used to the flood of drinks and not being able to remember why or how I let him do what he did," Abigail tells Bustle.

She cut off contact with him soon after, but searched for him on Facebook after #MeToo went viral; she had a feeling he'd have something to say. She saw a public post from him condemning men who would ever take advantage of women. Almost all of the likes were from fellow men, she says.

"It just felt like, why are we even baring our souls when our abusers can so easily dodge the question?" she says. "It feels like yelling into an echo chamber that only hurts our fellow victims."

Abigail has spent the last week making use of support groups, both in real life and on social media. An avid beauty lover, she's in Facebook groups dedicated to makeup. Those groups have shown solidarity, she says.  

"It's freeing to be able to admit the anger and the feelings of helplessness, and then to take all of those feelings and then turn them into support for both friends and complete strangers," she says.

Abigail's experience shows the complicated consequences of the #MeToo movement. Some survivors feel liberated thanks to the hashtag, and many men are responding with things they'll do to help eradicate rape culture. On the other hand, the posts potentially give assaulters a chance to re-traumatize survivors. In 2016, Vocativ explored the phenomenon of rapists and sexual assaulters sending friend requests to their victims on Facebook and found that offenders acting obliviously on social media is terrifyingly common. Hundreds of people responded to a Reddit post about an alleged sexual abuser liking a survivor's photo on Facebook, with many of them sharing similar stories.

Interacting With Survivors After Abuse Is Common

Kristen Zaleski, a psychotherapist and professor of mental health at the University of Southern California, says assaulters offering support to survivors after a traumatic experience isn't uncommon. Zaleski says she's seen survivors receive concerned text messages from suspects as they're undergoing forensic rape exams. She says it's "a natural tactic" of assaulters. "For a survivor of sexual assault to acknowledge a crime was committed against them by someone they trusted is a really difficult psychological process to go through," she says. "Any attempt on behalf of the perpetrator to further confuse them is jarring."

Zaleski says she tells her clients to trust their guts, even if they feel confused by the way an assaulter acts after the fact. "If they felt in any way like [an encounter] was inappropriate, I want to honor that feeling they had, no matter how the person interacts with you after that," she says.

Mary, 31, says she was assaulted after she moved in with her high school boyfriend to escape her abusive family. (Mary also requested anonymity in order to protect her privacy.) According to her, he was afraid she'd get pregnant, so he forced anal sex on her without her consent. She moved out and broke up with him shortly after.

"I've never felt more disgusted with myself for tolerating such poor treatment. I never told our group of friends," she says. "I didn't want to impact their relationships or for them to accuse me [of] lying just get back at him."

The assaulter eventually got married and now has daughters himself, but he never apologized to Mary for what he did. She says she doesn't think he understands that he sexually violated her. (One study found that men are almost always less likely than women to define a distressing encounter as sexual assault.) On Monday, she saw him commenting on and sharing #MeToo posts. She says she doesn't have the words to describe how it made her feel. She didn't realize how angry she was about the assault until his posts.

"Here he is ... talking about how he's teaching his daughters about consent, and I'm the only one who knows how big of a hypocrite he is," she says. "I know we all grow and change and mature, but if you're going to tell other people how to behave, it seems like you have time to at least apologize for your egregious mistreatment of others."

What To Do If Your Assaulter Likes Your Post Or Makes Their Own

Psychotherapist Silva Neves says the #MeToo campaign has given a voice to people who may have felt silenced after being sexually harassed or assaulted. But if your sexual assaulter takes part in the campaign, she says, you could experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including panic attacks, loss of appetite, and even the urge to self-harm. If your assaulter makes a show of defending women on social media, first know that it's valid for you to feel angry or betrayed. Then, there are things you can do to deal with what's happening. You can block them from accessing your profile, which stops you from seeing their content and vice versa, or enlist a friend to help you do so if you don't want to go on their page yourself. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline to talk through your feelings.

"It is important not to suffer in silence," Neves tells Bustle via email. "Find a loving and trusted friend or family member and talk to them about it. Seek comfort, reassurance and nurture from your loved ones."

Mary says she talked to friends and journaled after she saw her assaulter active on social media. Self-care made her feel better, she says. "Don't be afraid to confront them if you want to," she says. "But there's no shame in choosing not to do that, too."

Many people are facing the same trauma over again as their assaulters appear to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence. Is it meant as a weak apology, or do these men not understand the magnitude of the crime they committed? It's impossible to say, but one thing is for sure: Men need to take a look at their past behavior around women before they try to paint themselves as allies.  

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org for support.