In 2006, activist Tarana Burke founded the “me too” movement — a grassroots campaign to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-wealth communities. Over time, the movement with a simple message — you are not alone — built a community of survivors from all walks of life.
In fall 2017, in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and harassment by film producer and entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, “me too” went viral — and global — with a single hashtag. Social media feeds were suddenly flooded with #MeToo, sometimes accompanied by personal stories or alternately issued as a statement in itself.
In the year that has followed this mass call for awareness, stories of sexual harassment and assault have continued to come to light. The discussions about how to achieve safety and equality show no signs of flagging. Some of these conversations are happening in counseling practices as counselors help clients process their own #MeToo stories.
For licensed professional counselor (LPC) Sarah Kate Valatka, a private practitioner in Blacksburg, Virginia, the most striking element of #MeToo has been the sense of community — albeit an unchosen one — the movement has created for survivors. That feeling of community not only helps clients feel less isolated but also engenders hope as they see other survivors navigating their own trauma, says Valatka, an American Counseling Association member whose practice specialties include addressing gender-based violence.
Other counselors say the movement is encouraging women who previously chose to remain silent about their experiences to seek help. “I absolutely believe this has empowered more women to come forward,” says Brooke Bagley, an LPC at the Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee in Knoxville. “I have heard the narrative repeatedly — that many have been scared, isolated or unsure of the legitimacy of their own traumas, and this movement has given these individuals a voice.”
Indeed, Bagley says although the practice where she works has not seen a substantial increase in new clients, a number of people who had not previously thought of themselves as survivors have come in looking for help to process their experiences.
Charity Hagains, a licensed professional counselor supervisor who specializes in sexual trauma, says she and other counselors at the Noyau Wellness Center in Dallas have seen many new clients seeking help not for assault but for experiences they are just now realizing had crossed the line into sexual harassment. Hagains says she has commonly heard statements from clients such as, “It never occurred to me that this [behavior] wasn’t OK. Every boss I have ever had commented on my body.”
Hagains says the #MeToo movement has also caused many adult women to reconsider their younger experiences. Typical incidents these women have shared in session with Hagains include being pressured to show their bodies in a chatroom when they were preteens or being coerced into having sex as teenagers. At the time, they didn’t consider it coercion because they thought they were old enough to consent or had been drinking and thus excused the other person’s actions.
“It always made me feel awful,” clients have told Hagains. “I was ashamed, but I didn’t realize that it was something that other people would see as not my fault.”
Conversations such as these — both inside and outside of counselors’ offices — are long overdue, asserts Laura Morse, an LPC who specializes in relationship and sexual issues, including assault and trauma. Telling these stories has served to highlight how often sexual assault occurs, but clients are grappling with what comes next, she says.
“So much of the counseling journey with sexual assault survivors is figuring out the ‘and’ after identifying with #MeToo,” says Morse, a private practitioner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Empowering individuals after assault to write their narrative, decide their legal choices and how or if they want to share their story, that’s the part of the conversation that #MeToo leaves us grappling with as a community.”
Moving on from #MeToo
The journey to healing from sexual trauma often begins with defining what has happened to the client, Bagley says. Using psychoeducation, she talks to clients about what constitutes sexual assault or harassment. She also explains common reactions and responses to sexual trauma. Once clients have a better understanding of what they have experienced, Bagley says she can delve into how their trauma is manifesting and work toward the management of symptoms.
Shame and guilt often accompany sexual assault and can be difficult to move past, says Trish McCoy Kessler, an LPC and owner of Empower Counseling, a practice in Lynchburg, Virginia, that focuses on the needs of women and girls. She starts by normalizing what clients are feeling and emphasizing that the sexual violence or harassment they have experienced is not their fault.
Kessler, a member of ACA, uses cognitive behavior therapy to help clients note when they experience a negative emotion and identify the thoughts that are evoking that feeling. She then challenges those thoughts, asking clients to consider whether any evidence exists to support their negative self-talk. Simply instilling hope in clients that their feelings of shame and guilt will lessen over time can help reduce their anxiety and stress, Kessler adds.
Kessler also focuses on coping skills with clients, she says, because many people who have experienced trauma use maladaptive coping skills such as substance abuse and emotional eating. Kessler teaches clients to instead use positive skills such as meditation, reaching out to friends (to avoid isolation), listening to music and writing or journaling. She has found it especially helpful to suggest that clients (and particularly teen clients) keep a list of effective coping skills on their phones to refer to when they are feeling overwhelmed. Kessler also emphasizes the importance of self-care, including getting adequate sleep, getting the proper nutrition and engaging in regular exercise.
Hagains notes that many of her clients lack compassion for themselves. She encourages them to identify as survivors rather than victims and attempts to teach self-compassion by holding a mirror up to the compassion that her clients show to others. For example, Hagains asks clients to consider what they would say to a friend going through the same experiences. “It’s usually not something like, ‘You’re awful,’” she notes wryly. “If you would give your friend a hug, give yourself a hug,” she urges.
Hagains also asks clients to identify the shame statements that they tell themselves. Then she helps them create positive, affirming messages to replace the negative self-talk.
Over time, Bagley has created a five-phase model that she uses for clients who have experienced sexual trauma. In the first phase, she assesses and identifies the client’s level of trauma through a symptom-based checklist. She then explores the emotional, cognitive, physiological and behavioral responses the client is experiencing.
Phase 2 focuses on building rapport and establishing the therapeutic relationship. Because clients who have experienced trauma are very vulnerable, it is imperative to provide a nurturing and safe environment, Bagley emphasizes. Once she has established a bond with the client and a sense of safety, Bagley focuses on the person’s present strengths and explores how the client can use those strengths to cope with the trauma.
Bagley begins cognitive-based interventions in Phase 3. Together, she and the client identify thought distortions attached to the trauma and start practicing ways of reframing negative beliefs.
In the fourth phase, Bagley focuses on identifying specific emotions. She teaches clients to practice mindfulness by noting where on their bodies they feel certain emotions and what is happening around them when they experience these feelings. Bagley says this helps clients identify triggers and also aids in bridging the mind-body disconnect that can occur with recent sexual trauma.
In the fifth and final phase, clients build a narrative surrounding their trauma. “At this stage in the therapeutic process, clients should be displaying more stability and management of symptoms,” Bagley says. “This is often apparent through changes in the language clients use to describe their trauma experience, as well as a shift in self-view.”
At this point, Bagley has clients retell their trauma to desensitize their trauma response and to empower them to feel more in control of their story.
It takes a village
Morse often works with other professionals, including law enforcement, to help survivors of sexual violence. She tells clients there are different paths they can take as part of their treatment and asks them what makes sense or seems helpful to them. Some clients are empowered by learning about their legal rights, and the possibility of pursuing justice gives them a sense of agency. For other survivors, gaining strategies to manage anxiety is critical to their daily functioning, Morse says.
When clients choose to seek justice through the legal system, Morse offers to go to the police station with them and sit in on a meeting with detectives. Beforehand, she prepares clients by explaining that they will be asked numerous questions about what happened to them. She also educates them about how lengthy the legal process can be and the emotional toll it may take.
Many of Morse’s clients have experienced harassment at work, and in these cases, they often choose to file a complaint through their employer’s human resources department. To prepare these clients, Morse goes through their employee handbook so they fully understand the company’s harassment policies.
Morse also strives to help survivors of sexual violence feel safe again, which often requires connecting them with outside resources. She frequently recommends self-defense classes, noting that in many cities, there are now free classes offered for survivors of assault. In some cases, reestablishing a client’s sense of safety may require a change in phone number or residence.
For those who struggle with overwhelming anxiety, Morse is a big proponent of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and she refers these clients to a certified EMDR practitioner. If anxiety and depression are impeding her clients’ daily functioning, she has them meet with a psychiatrist to explore the need for short-term medication management of symptoms.
Morse says group therapy can also be a crucial therapeutic tool because it provides a way for survivors to share their stories with others who have experienced sexual trauma. Many community agencies and YWCAs offer free groups, she notes.
Morse also emphasizes the power of just being there for clients. “Many survivors of assault reflect that the most helpful part of the therapeutic process is simply having someone to listen and believe them on their journey,” she says. “Oftentimes, we’ll spend several sessions talking through the details and allowing a woman to rewrite her narrative as an assault survivor.”
When #MeToo is painful
Although counselors generally say that the #MeToo movement is socially necessary and can be personally empowering, they also note that for some survivors, the constant reminders of sexual trauma can have an unintended adverse effect.
“The movement can often feel like a double-edged sword in terms of awareness for survivors,” Bagley says. Although many survivors are grateful that the truth of the widespread nature of sexual violence is being made evident, the sheer volume of stories can be overwhelming. “It floods social media, news outlets [and] radio programs, leaving little escape for survivors,” Bagley explains. “Additionally, the backlash and negative media response to the movement has … a triggering and negative impact.”
Valatka agrees. “You [a survivor] may be on social media, and it’s just a normal day. Then someone shares, and it’s bringing it into your day — bringing it to survivors when they weren’t planning for it.”
Shaina Ali, an LPC and owner of Integrated Counseling Solutions in Orlando, Florida, says that when clients who are survivors of sexual assault or harassment bring up #MeToo, she uses an existential approach. “How does this affect your story? What does this mean for you?” Ali asks clients.
Her intent is to help clients focus on how hearing these stories affects their progress. In some cases, clients realize that they have handled potentially retraumatizing information better than they thought they might, says Ali, who specializes in trauma work. For others, their reactions are an indication that they have more trauma work to do. Ali notes that some of her clients who had come to her for issues unrelated to trauma realized that the #MeToo stories mirrored their own experiences — experiences they previously hadn’t recognized they needed to talk about.
Because #MeToo and other news stories related to mental health — such as the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — can potentially have an effect on any client, Ali always raises such topics in session. She says this serves two purposes: to check in and head off trouble before it starts and to give clients an opportunity to bring up experiences they haven’t previously been ready to share.
Sometimes the triggering comes from the casual conversation of people clients are close to, Hagains points out. As people talk about #MeToo, sexual assault and harassment survivors hear a lot of opinions being shared, some of which are full of blame. It is not uncommon to hear people say things such as, “Well, she went to his apartment, so she deserved it,” Hagains notes.
Hagains tells clients that in these cases, they need to set boundaries by telling friends or family members that they do not wish to discuss the topic and that they will have to agree to disagree. In certain cases, such as with casual Facebook friends, Hagains urges clients to decide how important it is for them to stay in contact. It may be in a client’s best interests to mute those who are making hurtful statements. Sometimes setting boundaries means limiting contact; other times it may become necessary to cease contact altogether.
What are men learning?
The larger goal of #MeToo is to change the way that men and society as a whole see — and treat — women. Is it working?
Hagains says the topic is definitely coming up in sessions with male clients. She says that about 90 percent of the men she counsels have asked her about behavior — as in what is OK and what isn’t.
“I think a lot of men are reexamining their roles,” she says. Many of them are realizing that what they thought was appropriate or complimentary to women can actually be offensive.
A familiar refrain that Hagains hears in session from male clients who are grappling with the implications of #MeToo: “I thought women liked to be complimented on their bodies.” She responds by telling them that it might be OK to say in a bar but definitely not at work.
Ali, an adjunct professor at both Central Florida University and the Chicago School of Psychology, has also heard increased discussion from men about the topic of sexual assault and harassment, both in her practice and in the classroom. Ali teaches clients and students about harassment, setting boundaries and establishing healthy relationships.
“The way I see it,” says Kessler, “is that #MeToo is not just for women. I want men to see, this is how you treat women.”
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “Effective ways to approach sexual assault response” by Hasmik Chakaryan
- “Counseling survivors of sexual assault” by Brooke Bagley and Joel Diambra
- “After an assault” by Margaret Edwards and Charlotte Chapman
- “Going beyond ‘no means no’” by Laurie Meyers
- “Informed by trauma” by Laurie Meyers
Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)
- “Adult Child Sexual Abuse Survivors” by Rachel M. Hoffman and Chelsey Zoldan
- “Intimate Partner Violence — Treating Victims” by Christine E. Murray
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.