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Me Too Founder Tarana Burke Wants Candidates To Talk About Sexual Assault

'There's no conversation about it in these presidential debates. Nobody asks the question'

By De Elizabeth

In 2006, Tarana Burke set into motion a much-needed national dialogue surrounding sexual assault when she founded the Me Too movement. What began as a community for survivors of sexual violence focusing on Black women and girls, has sparked a growing societal awareness of the scope of sexual harrassment, abuse, and assault — and has inspired and supported widespread calls for a cultural shift away from such violations as permissable. And with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, Me Too has taken on another purpose: holding elected officials accountable in their commitment to supporting survivors.

On October 16, Burke announced the launch of #MeTooVoter, a campaign that amplifies the needs of voters who have experienced sexual violence firsthand, and serves as a reminder that the two identities are not exclusive. With the Iowa Caucus just months away, Burke hopes to see the current Democratic presidential candidates put more of a spotlight on sexual violence, from their stump speeches to their policies to the answers they give at forums, town halls, and debates.

“Me Too has been one of the biggest media stories of this decade,” Burke recently told MTV News’s Yoonj Kim. “And yet there's no conversation about it in these presidential debates. Nobody asks the question.” While some candidates have been outspoken about their allyship to survivors, Burke wants to hear more about their specific policies and platforms. She says she wants to hear phrases like: “‘When I am in leadership in this country, I plan to pass the Be Heard Act, and I plan to talk about statute of limitations,’ or ‘I plan to deal with Title IX.’”

While it’s always important to be discussing sexual assault and harassment, the topic is especially timely as the 2020 election approaches, given the legacy of the incumbent candidate. At least 25 women have credibly accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct; he has repeatedly dismissed his accusers as “liars,” or insulted their physical appearance in response to allegations.

“We have a sitting president ... who declared himself a sexual predator by talking about how he grabs women by their vaginas,” Burke said. “This is what we have in the White House. The president is supposed to help set the tone for the country. And that is not just about policies and laws. It's about culture. So I want to know where these candidates stand. What kind of president are you going to be in relation to setting the stage, or creating a cultural shift around sexual violence?”

That cultural shift involves addressing the multi-layered range of the problem, as highlighted by the moment that took Me Too viral two years ago. In October 2017 — a full 11 years after Burke initially created Me Too — Alyssa Milano used a hashtag version of the phrase on Twitter in order to draw attention to the widespread prevelance of sexual assault. At the time, the allegations against former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein were just beginning to unfold; Trump, who bragged about groping women on camera, had been in the White House for nearly a year. Millions of people, from Senator Elizabeth Warren to actor Gabrielle Union to an untold number of everyday people, have since opened up about their experiences.

The hashtag, which was later correctly attributed to Burke and her legacy, put a spotlight on the need to communicate more honestly about sexual violence — and amplified the truth that survivors are not alone in their pain, anger, and frustration about the lack of accountability and repercussions for perpetrators of such violations. “There is an enormous community of survivors and people who support us, right in the millions,” Burke said. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center (NSVRC), one in five U.S. women are raped in the course of their lifetime. A 2018 online survey conducted by a nonprofit called Stop Street Harassment found that 81 percent of the women polled had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime; 43 percent of men responded the same.

As “Me Too rapidly became part of our everyday vernacular, there’s been more room for the stories that are objectively harder to define, yet are a crucial piece of the larger puzzle. We’re beginning to hear more stories of behavior that was not illegal but still made someone uncomfortable; stories that reflect an imbalance of power; stories where someone finally felt empowered to look back and conclude: “That shouldn’t have happened to me.” Earlier this year, Lucy Flores, a former candidate for lieutenant governor in Nevada, came forward to accuse former Vice President Joe Biden of behavior that crossed boundaries and made her uncomfortable; at least three other women echoed her allegations with similar experiences. (He later said that he was “sorry I didn’t understand more… I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally, to a man or a woman.”)

“You can't put everybody in the same bag,” Burke said when asked about Flores and Biden. “Notice when Lucy Flores came forward and talked about her experience, she didn't use the words ‘me, too.’ She didn't use the word ‘predator.’ She didn't say ‘sexual assault.’ She said what he did: made her uncomfortable and made her feel powerless. Those are very important feelings.”

Burke went on to highlight the importance of Biden’s response, where he said he would “be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.” To Burke, this type of reaction is essential — especially from someone in a position of power. “If we don't have the person who caused harm responding by saying, ‘I recognize and understand what you experienced and I want to learn how to be different,’ then how does the young girl with a coach that’s really touchy but very popular...how does she talk about her discomfort and powerlessness? People in leadership have to set examples of what accountability can look like.”

That is where 2020 comes into play: It’s essential to elect lawmakers in all levels of government who will support survivors and continue the work that has already begun. When former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro unveiled a plan that specifically advocates for Native peoples, he included policies that would advocate for Native women who experience sexual violence; Warren also addressed the issue in her plan, which came a few weeks later. Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) is continuing that fight in Congress by advocating for new provisions to the Violence Against Women Act. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) have been working to pass a federal bill that would target perpetrators of revenge porn.

Real change is possible, and this is ultimately why Burke is calling for all Me Too supporters to take their passions and voices to the polls. There is still plenty of work to be done, and at a time when people’s reproductive rights are constantly under attack, standing up for bodily autonomy is as crucial as it’s ever been. And in order to spark tangible and lasting change, we need to participate in the process and demand better from our nation, our leaders, and each other.

“We have to make a statement that the survivors — our power base — are a powerful group of people,” Burke explained. “If you are still here and functioning and trying, and you were able to declare yourself a part of Me Too, and say ‘this happened to me’ — or even if you weren't able to do that, but you are working really hard to have a life every day. There's power in survival. There's power in getting up every day after something like this tried to kill you. Saying, ‘I won't die, I'm going to live. I'm going to try to fight this with everything I have.’”