Updated 10:16 p.m.
As she scrolled, Natalia Rudiak found herself reliving emotions and tearing up. She read post after post from her female friends, sharing experiences of sexual assault and harassment, then adding “me too.”
“I realized that just like all these women out there, I, too, had a filing cabinet full of experiences to share,” the Pittsburgh City Council member told The Incline today.
She started writing the list, detailing the times she was sexually assaulted — as a girl, during trips around the world and here in Pittsburgh. At first it was just a cathartic exercise. Then, she decided if she wanted to post it, she had to tell her dad, John.
“I’d put off telling my family for years and years and years, and there’s never a good time ever,” she said. Encouraged by other women’s posts, she told her dad, who she said was both shocked and supportive.
She published the list of 13 experiences in a Facebook post on her personal page Monday. A few hours later and after an interview with CBS, she publicly posted this.
Starting Sunday, “me too” flooded Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted using the hashtag. She told the Associated Press that she wanted to refocus the conversation surrounding Harvey Weinstein on victims by providing a look into the scope of the issue. Tarana Burke, director of Girls for Gender Equity, launched “me too” more than 10 years ago, when she was an activist and filmmaker in Philadelphia, WHYY reported.
Rudiak started her own mental list about a year ago, around the time the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, in which then-presidential candidate Donald Trump discussed groping women. Women openly shared their experiences on social media then, too, she recalled.
Scrolling through “me too” posts, whether they are experiences or just two words, is “really touching, but not not at all surprising,” said Jessica Semler, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Western Pa.
Semler and Kristy Trautmann, founder of Southwest PA Says No More and executive director of FISA Foundation, agreed that the personal stories and cross section of people posting make this movement powerful. It’s not just celebrities but people we eat dinner with and see every day, Trautmann said. Plus, she said, the outpouring shows women that they’re not alone, and they’re not to blame.
But the campaign can have a triggering effect, she said, adding that there are a mix of feelings that come with telling a secret — feeling supported and emboldened, feeling sad and upset, and feeling trigged by the memories. Trautmann added there are also people who have “really good personal reasons” for not sharing, too.
Rudiak said she thought about making her first post public, but decided against it, because some commenters shared personal stories. She asked that the details of that post not be shared here, either. Despite the outpouring of support since posting, the council member admitted she was anxious thinking about how this will come up when her name is searched in Google.
“This openness is something I’m going to live with for the rest of my life,” she said.
But it’s worth it, she said, if she helps even one person.
Power and politics
As a woman and an elected official, Rudiak said she’s struggled with how to share her experiences, but ran for office despite them.
“I never wanted to be seen as weak. I never wanted my political advisories to exploit what could be seen as a vulnerability, and I never wanted this to overshadow the real work that I’m doing in communities from building senior housing to getting roads fixed. I never wanted this to dominate the conversation,” Rudiak said. After eight years as a member of city council representing the city’s southern neighborhoods in District 4 and with two months remaining in office, she’s just now talking about it.
“A lot of women are so destabilized by these experiences, its kinda like death by thousand cuts,” she said, adding that assault and abuse “cuts away at your confidence and ability to feel powerful.”
That’s not talked about, especially in politics, she said. Instead, female politicians privately talk about the men who hit on them or intimidate them and the “very specific way that women move their arms” when men at political events want to kiss on them on the cheek or mouth, she said.
Female candidates don’t want to be defined by their victimhood or labeled as all about gender, Rudiak said. But when half of constituents experience this, it should be discussed by both female and male politicians.
Sexual assault and harassment are about power, Semler said, adding that there are power systems that allow it to happen. It boils down to a leadership issue, Trautmann said, because those in power set the tone. Roughly three-fourths of people who experience sexual harassment at work don’t report it, per a June 2016 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Often, victims are uncomfortable and fear reprisal or think that nothing will happen, Trautmann said.
Rudiak spent today in back-to-back interviews with reporters but said she doesn’t want this conversation to stop after this 24-hour news cycle.
Continuing dialogue is a good thing, sexual assault prevention advocates agreed. “Me too” brings the issue to people, who despite good intentions aren’t aware, Semler said, adding that many men don’t have to confront this issue, but are now seeing what happened to friends, family and women they’ve dated.
For men who don’t know how to respond, Trautmann encourages them to listen and respectfully ask questions to try to better understand. Don’t try to fix it or problem solve, she added.
There also needs to be more discussion about bystander intervention, Trautmann said. That doesn’t have to be jumping into an altercation on the street; it can be calling out an inappropriate joke or remark in a way that makes the perpetrator look bad, but doesn’t cause a scene, she said.
“We teach particularly young women, from an early age, mixed things about what they should expect in relationships,” Trautmann said. “We make it hard for them to trust their gut.”
When sexual assault happens, it can be confusing to label it and figure out how to respond, Rudiak said.
“It took me years to realize the times I’ve actually been sexually assaulted and even raped. … I never wanted to see myself as a victim. I always thought that was something that happened to to other people, that it happened to women who were attacked by strangers that jumped out of the alley or bushes,” she said. “I never thought that it could be a guy that you just spent five hours on a very pleasant date with or a guy you’ve been dating for three months.”
Trautmann of Southwest Pa Says No More stressed that 24-hour hotlines are there to listen — from talking about how to deal with workplace sexual harassment to sharing any type of sexual assault experience.