What happens after #MeToo?: Boulder advocates look to continue movement against sexual violence

#MeToo.

Six characters that , and . Fueled by stories from women and men of sexual assault and harassment across the country, the #MeToo movement dominated headlines in 2017 and sparked a much-needed conversation about sexual violence in America and enabled survivors to talk about their struggles.

University of Colorado student Brittney Westphal holds signs for a #MeToo rally at her apartment in Boulder. ()

“It was an incredibly powerful, wide-reaching movement that allowed for a lot of people who have been survivors to feel validated and normalized and not alone,” said Janine D‘Anniballe, director of trauma services at Mental Health Partners and director of Moving to End Sexual Assault.

Boulder sex assault survivor Kendra Heuer said the movement, especially on social media, created an environment where people could talk about their #MeToo stories without fear of victim blaming or people trying to discredit them.

“They can post, and they can be believed,” Heuer said. “I think that was empowering for people.”

But as the calendar turns, advocates who are working to stop sexual violence know that they need to capitalize on the awareness raised by the campaign if there is ever a hope of a society in which people no longer have to say #MeToo.

“There‘s a lot to be said about posting about #MeToo, and it‘s incredibly brave” said Brittney Westphal, a sex assault survivor and advocate living in Boulder. “But now that needs to transcend into actual change. That needs to stem from legislators to bystanders, to me, to survivors, to any human being in this world, if we are going to change the discourse.”

‘It was someone‘s story I could relate to‘

When Heuer was raped by after a party on St. Patrick‘s Day in 2014, she initially didn‘t go to police after wondering if it was ” .” It wasn‘t until she looked up stories of other reported rapes in Boulder that she knew without a doubt that what happened to her was sexual assault.

“I thought, ‘That sounds like what happened to me,‘” Heuer said. “For me, it was someone‘s story I could relate to.”

Telling her story so others could come to terms with their sexual assault is one of the reasons Heuer decided to , and it‘s one of the reasons she thinks the #MeToo movement has been so important.

“There are so many diverse stories, you can‘t just say there is one type of sexual assault,” Heuer said. “You can‘t just think of it as the boogeyman jumping out and grabbing you.”

One of the people who saw Heuer‘s story was Westphal, who found that, as a survivor, she couldn‘t really find a safe space to talk about her trauma after moving to Boulder.

“I found a lot of things like art therapy or yoga, but I could not find any type of group therapy or support groups,” Westphal said. “It was just shocking for me there was no group talk therapy with sex assault because it is such a prevalent issue.”

After reaching out to and meeting Heuer, Westphal started , a regular place in Boulder for victims of sexual assault to talk about their cases.

It‘s that sort of support and solidarity that Westphal thinks was one of the reasons the #MeToo movement quickly gained so much momentum.

“The most healing thing I can say I ever experienced was when I have talked as a victim and a survivor to another survivor, because they understand,” Westphal said. “It was huge in my recovery, and people need to know that they are not alone. This is a huge epidemic, and there are many resources out there for them to get support and not feel judged.”

D‘Anniballe added that one of the reasons the movement was effective is because people saw friends and family members posting #MeToo and telling their stories helped to show just how far-reaching sexual violence is.

“I think the general public was a bit shocked by the pervasiveness of the issue,” D‘Anniballe said. “It cuts across socio-economic, gender, racial and geographic lines. It also showed there is no real stereotype of a sex offender, either.”

The list of men who have been accused of sexual assault or harassment continues to grow as more and more victims have come forward with their stories, and Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett said he hopes it will result in more victims coming forward.

“I hope we see more reporting, because sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes,” Garnett said. “I hope people will have more confidence in their ability to speak up.”

MESA actually shortly after the sex assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein came to light.

D‘Anniballe said that in addition to empowering victims, she hopes that the #MeToo movement will help to change attitudes toward sexual assault.

“Even in 2017, victim blaming is still rampant,” D‘Anniballe said. “We have not really transcended that. If this can help push us to the next level where people are responding with belief and support and putting the accusations on the perpetrators, then that would be huge.”

Affecting change locally

The consequences for many of them men accused in the #MeToo movement have been swift. Actor Kevin Spacey host Matt Lauer and Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. .

But while employers and politicians have been quick to side with accusers, Garnett said the criminal justice system works much differently.

“We live in a rigorous world of due process where we have to review accusations very closely and make decisions about which cases can be filed,” Garnett said. “In the criminal world, defendants are presumed innocent. I strongly believe that is the way it should be in the criminal world, and it‘s a bit different from similar discussions of these kinds of things. It needs to be this way to protect everyone‘s rights.”

Westphal — whose own case was never prosecuted — said that getting convictions without evidence isn‘t what victims want. Rather, Westphal said survivors just knowing they are being heard and their cases are being taken seriously would help to increase the amount of cases that are reported.

“We‘re not trying to go on a witch hunt,” Westphal said. “We are all entitled to due process and fair defense. It‘s about creating a positive vibe and effective change in our society.

“Maybe the likelihood isn‘t so great you will get the justice you feel you deserve, but you are standing up and saying, ‘no, this is wrong.‘ More people doing that, that alone changes the societal view.”

To that end, Garnett said he feels the changes that need to be made aren‘t necessarily to the laws, but in making sure prosecutors are well-trained in handling sexual assault cases.

“Our obligation is to make sure victims are treated in a way that is respectful and also helps get to the truth of what happened so we can determine whether a case can be filed,” Garnett said. “What we have to do is make sure our police departments are well-trained in handling these kinds of cases, have lawyers who are experts in sex assault prosecution, and victim advocates to help deal with the emotional impact.

“I think the laws that we have are adequate. What we need to do is continually improve our protocols for how people are treated.”

That might be a tough sell for some like Heuer, who watched her rapist serve at the local jail.

“I think, ‘How can (a judge) sentence this guy to no prison time?” Heuer said. “But then you hear DAs say mandatory minimum sentences wouldn‘t work.”

So if the criminal justice system can‘t be changed, the question now becomes how to turn the momentum behind #MeToo into actual steps toward curbing sexual violence.

“That‘s the big question,” Heuer said. “Maybe it is just about changing perspectives. Changing the perspective of judges, or of jurors who might believe misleading stereotypes.

“I don‘t really know the answer.”

In the meantime, Westphal said advocates need to continue to work for change in other areas, from asking for changes to training workers at bars to better recognize predatory behavior.

“We can all bring something to the table to ignite and stimulate the change that needs to happen in our society,” Westphal said. “We need to keep continuing this to get the change that needs to occur. It‘s a huge issue that has gone unnoticed for so long, and it‘s not OK.”

For an organization like MESA, it‘s about taking the attention that the #MeToo movement has garnered nationwide and finding a way to turn that into action at a local level.

” We have to hope people say, ‘This was such a huge issue nationally, how can I get involved locally and stay connected to this issue?‘” D‘Anniballe said. “That‘s how we can affect change locally.”

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