Mental Challenges

Why the Compounding Traumas of the Pandemic Year May Spark Another Wave of the #MeToo Movement

Jessie Van Amburg

Photo: Getty Images Stephen Maturen; Getty Images / George Pimentel
On Monday evening, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) took to Instagram Live to discuss her experience during the Capitol riot in January. And during the nearly-90-minute session, she shared personal information that was likely at once startling and relatable to a number of her 5.5 million viewers. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” she said, “and I haven’t told many people that in my life.”

Her disclosure comes on the heels of weeks of various other instances of high-profile sexual-assault allegations, including from actress Evan Rachel Wood—who, for the first time, publicly named singer and former romantic partner Brian Warner, whose stage name is Marilyn Manson, as her alleged abuser—and new accusations of assault and abuse against Armie Hammer, Soulja Boy, and TI and his wife, Tiny. (All of the above-mentioned accused parties have publicly denied these allegations.)

“I am done living in fear of retaliation, slander, or blackmail,” Wood wrote in her Instagram statement on February 1 confirming the abuse. “I stand with the many victims who will no longer be silent.”

Seeing so many allegations making headlines in the past month feels reminiscent of the first wave of what is now known as the #MeToo movement of fall 2017. Dozens upon dozens of abuse victims publicly came forward, collectively raising public awareness of the realities and prevalence of sexual assault while toppling the careers of seemingly untouchable Hollywood giants.

The fall of Harvey Weinstein ushered in the beginning of the #MeToo movement nearly four years ago, but this current resurgence seems to be reflective not of a single person so much as a global phenomenon. As Ocasio-Cortez said in her Live, “when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.” While she was referring to the assault on the Capitol reopening mental wounds associated with her experience as a sexual assault victim, there is another new trauma universal to this past year that may compound the effects of sexual assault for the one in every six women (and one in 33 men) who have experienced it: the pandemic.

The compounding trauma of the pandemic for sexual assault survivors

Given that trauma has become such a buzzword in the past year, it’s important to understand what it actually is. “Trauma is an incident that renders a person [emotionally] overwhelmed and [is] usually a sense of threat to their well-being,” says Karol Darsa, PsyD, a trauma psychologist and founder of Reconnect Integrative Trauma Treatment Center in Los Angeles, California. “Any time a person is under a threat, facing a life-and-death matter, or even being neglected and abandoned—even though they’re not going to die—could be considered a traumatic event.”

Sexual assault and abuse are traumatic incidents that can have significant health effects on survivors. In the short-term, trauma survivors can experience guilt, denial, and shock. While not all sexual assault survivors experience long-term trauma, Dr. Darsa says those who do can experience flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma can also increase a person’s risk of mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders) and physical health issues (such as chronic pain and sleep disorders).

“Pandemic restrictions actually trigger the past trauma. Being home, completely out of control, facing some form of a fear of death could be a replica of what a person felt if they were abused.” —Karol Darsa, PsyD

The COVID-19 pandemic is also a form of trauma, Dr. Darsa says—one that can be deeply triggering to victims of sexual assault and abuse. “A lot of people don’t see the correlation because it looks like they have nothing to do with one another, but what happens is that the [pandemic] restrictions actually trigger the past trauma,” she says. “Being home, completely out of control, facing some form of a fear of death could be a replica of what a person felt if they were abused.”

When you have prior traumas, they can intensify the experience of living through current trauma, like a pandemic, bringing up old memories and symptoms that are often incredibly difficult to grapple with—truly compounding, to use Ocasio-Cortez’s phrase, your traumas. “The main theme of facing death can bring up everything [for survivors],” Dr. Darsa says, adding that no matter where a patient is along their healing journey, the experience can feel like living through past and present traumas at the same time. (Having a prior history of trauma also increases one’s risk of PTSD with each new trauma experienced.)

The pandemic has also cut off many sexual assault survivors from their existing support systems, Dr. Darsa says, which can further compromise their well-being. Not only are support groups and therapies inherently harder to access with various degrees of lockdown in effect throughout the country, but losing regular contact with supportive loved ones leaves people with fewer relief avenues as well as “so much time to think on things that have occurred that may still be open wounds,” says Ebonique Bethea, clinical director at Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). This may be forcing people to confront their past traumas in ways they may never have had to before.

What’s bringing people forward now?

It’s one thing to experience trauma (and to relive it during the pandemic), but still quite another to come forward and speak about it, whether you are a public figure speaking to millions or a person talking to a friend. But one thing that’s potentially bringing people forward now, says Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, is the societal shift in perception of survivors that has occurred since the original #MeToo era. “The first resurgence of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and 2018 really had us, as a society and culture, come to many realizations about what it means to believe in and validate survivors,” Palumbo says.

While there are certainly still folks who continue to doubt and shame survivors, many pockets of American society have become much more willing to take victims’ stories and experiences seriously. “What’s really changed [since 2017] is the overwhelming amount of public support for survivors and the push for more awareness,” agrees Bethea.

That matters, as confidence in being believed is critical to survivors speaking out and getting help, says Dr. Darsa. “Belief is actually the most important factor,” she says. “[Many] survivors do not come forward for that reason, especially young kids.” Cultivating disbelief, meanwhile, is a key tactic of abusers, she adds. “That’s their way of manipulating in the moment. They say stuff like, ‘Nobody would believe you. You wanted this anyway, you didn’t fight me back.'” (For her part, Wood cited being “brainwashed and manipulated into submission” as a reason why she did not come forward publicly for so long.)

“What’s really changed [since 2017] is the overwhelming amount of public support for survivors and the push for more awareness.” —Ebonique Bethea, clinical director, RAINN

While the loss of in-person support has been a huge challenge for survivors and a factor in compounding traumas, society’s increasing reliance on the Internet for connection during the pandemic may be playing a role in this moment. “Online communities have really become people’s support systems,” says Palumbo. “The ways that people are relating and expressing themselves are within their online communities, and so that’s where these stories are coming forward.”

Indeed, while earlier stages of the #MeToo movement were dominated by news outlets breaking stories of alleged abuse—as in the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., for two examples—this time around, most of the survivors seem to be relying on their own digital networks to share the news in a manner and moment of their choosing, which may cater to a sense of control over one’s own narrative. Wood publicly accused Manson in an Instagram statement, Ocasio-Cortez revealed her history on an Instagram Live broadcast to millions, and Armie Hammer’s alleged transgressions were revealed not in court cases or news stories but through screenshots shared on social media.

Moving forward in this new pandemic-fueled #MeToo era

“I think that 2021 will open up the opportunity for more folks to be vocal about sexual violence and their experiences, and for folks to support [them],” says Bethea. “These high-profile cases will help survivors who may have been teetering on, ‘Do I want to talk about it? Do I want to come forward?’ I think we’ll get more movement.”

Dr. Darsa agrees. “The more people come, the more other people show up,” she says. “It’s all about timing. Starting with the #MeToo movement, people are getting more and more encouraged…I think the trend is to be more honest, to be less embarrassed about trauma.”

That said, there are key lessons to be drawn from previous years to help propel this movement forward and truly support survivors. “It takes time for survivors to come forward. It also takes a lot of time for survivors to heal and that is not a linear path,” says Palumbo. “The next stage is for there to be a deeper realization of the complex needs of survivors of sexual assault and [of] the complexity of trauma in having long-term impacts on someone.” She hopes that the immense mental-health impacts of the pandemic will present an opportunity for all communities and systems to become more trauma-informed.

“The next stage is for there to be a deeper realization of the complex needs of survivors of sexual assault and [of] the complexity of trauma in having long-term impacts on someone.” —Laura Palumbo, communications director, National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Like Palumbo, Bethea also wants to see renewed and consistent national attention on the experiences and needs of sexual assault survivors. “This has got to be a priority,” she says. “People are suffering and are in pain…Let’s keep this at the forefront and push legislation and push to talk about what survivors are experiencing and the services and programs that they need.”

In the meantime, the experts urge survivors to believe that they are not alone right now or ever. “If you’re struggling, if it feels as though this is harder now…[know that] healing is not linear,” says Palumbo. “It takes a lot of resilience to even recognize the fact that you are struggling and to be looking out for yourself in that way.” There are resources available to all, including the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline, which Bethea says can offer a wide range of services depending on what you need and are ready for—whether it’s just having a cry and a talk or getting connected to resources in your area for counseling or support.

While the trauma of this pandemic year has compounded prior suffering, it’s a move toward the positive that there’s finally some momentum again around supporting sexual assault survivors—and advocates and allies are ready to ride that wave. “We’re not going to hide this, this is not the dirty little secret in the closet,” says Bethea. “This is happening every day. It must be addressed.”  We’re on the precipice of change—and it’s on us as a society to see it through.

If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual assault trauma, please seek help from the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or RAINN.org.

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