UW Student Seeks to Push the Conversation Beyond #MeToo

In response to the recent social media firestorm about sexual violence, a survivor launches an interactive project on campus.

Last month, the Internet exploded with the hashtag #MeToo. Following the publication of numerous allegations of rape and sexual harassment against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano put out the call on Twitter, and millions of survivors shared their stories online—some 13 million posts within 48 hours, according to Twitter and Facebook. Pretty soon after it started, Charlie Shih, a senior in her last quarter at the University of Washington, added her own post to the list.

Shih has been writing, thinking, speaking, and singing about her own experiences with sexual assault and abuse for years now. She’s written an article on Medium; she’s turned in academic papers on the topic, naming herself as a survivor; she’s written poetry and songs about the violence and its aftermath and put them online. As a comparative history of ideas major—a blend of history and sociology, with an emphasis on political engagement—she is producing a thesis that focuses on intergenerational incestuous abuse and the limitations of the institutions we rely on for justice. So adding her voice to a chorus of #MeToo wasn’t that big of a deal.

“I’ve been saying ‘me too’” for years and years, she explains. “So I don’t feel any type of way about sharing that again. I feel like I literally just say it all the time. … I am tired of it. But also, I am a person that feels like I need to scream about it.” She pauses and gives a sad laugh. “So, I don’t know. It’s just that everyone else was screaming, too, this time.”

Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, something felt dissatisfying about the whole thing—almost despairing. “We already knew that all of that existed,” Shih says, heaving a sigh: we knew that millions upon millions of people, mostly women, battle sexual violence and harassment on a daily basis, and that millions more are not even weighing in with a #MeToo. “But you still have to watch it happen! It feels like everything is burning. … But you have to watch it happen.”

And, what she feels like she’s watching is, in effect, another awareness-generating campaign, something that, to a woman who’s been researching and discussing rape culture for years, feels meager, rudimentary, toothless. “I feel frustrated by quote-unquote ‘starting conversations’ all the time,” she says. “Obviously, it’s super important, but, you know. Do something!”

So Shih is. She has installed a six-foot folding canvas and a bunch of acrylic markers near the overhang between the Allen Libraries on the UW campus in Seattle, as part of a weeklong, interactive art installation and performance piece titled “Active Voice,” which will end on Nov. 3. The idea, first, is to shift the burden away from victims of violence and onto the perpetrators of it; “me too because #theydid” is the tagline. Shih, like other critics of #MeToo, isn’t surprised but is very tired of the pressure it puts on the people who have been assaulted to name themselves. New Yorker staffer Alexandra Schwartz wrote, for instance, that a Facebook friend of hers thought “ ‘me too’ sounded too much like a confession, a petition to be forgiven for a wrong that she didn’t commit.”

Active Voice encourages survivors to write, instead, the first names and relationships that their perpetrators had to them (uncle or teacher or boyfriend, for instance) and/or their occupations, in order to demonstrate that people who commit violence are not monsters in the shadows, but people we know. Then, in another space, participants are encouraged to write the first names and relationships of the people who could have helped, but didn’t. Shih says that, in her experience, that’s often what hurts her the most: the “invalidation, not feeling heard. … What’s more terrible [than the assault] is that stuff happens, and you don’t have anyone to support you.” In a third space, participants can write “I will” statements, which is an opportunity for victims, allies, and people complicit in violence to state what they hope to do to moving forward, to help change culture and support survivors. Shih has posted a schedule for the installation on the piece’s Facebook page, and has also invited several UW Police Department and Health and Wellness victim advocates, as well as other community organizations and resources, to stand by at a table she’s set up next to the canvas.

The project is “going to feel different for everybody, depending on where they’re at,” Shih said. “I think that there is power in writing your perpetrator’s name in a public area, even if you’re just only writing their first name, and seeing other people doing that as well … and naming who could have done something.”

And, for Shih, the third section may be the work’s most important: an opportunity for people to think about how we can move forward, take specific steps, and be proactive in combating rape culture, a phenomenon as subtle and insidious as it is heinous and violent. She hopes that “the performative aspect of people writing on the canvas is more than just the end result” of a canvas filled with names, and that “being in that space” is more than just clicking “Like” on someone’s #MeToo.

“It’s really easy to be like, ‘rape is bad.’ Duh. Right? It’s the same as ‘racism is bad,’” she says. But are you “really trying,” are you “delving into anything?”

Shih doesn’t know how deeply Active Voice will delve, in the end. But if this has to be another conversation starter, so be it. If it, like #MeToo, helps demonstrate the enormity of the problem, and helps victims know that they’re not alone, that’s good, too. “I guess if it does something for someone, emotionally, then it does something. You know? … There definitely is a screaming aspect. And even if the screams don’t end, maybe it helps to have spaces to scream.”

And what happens at the end of the week? Shih says she’ll keep doing this work, in whatever way she can. “It is bleak,” she says. “But you can’t stop.”