Beth Alleman doesn’t have one experience of being sexually harassed. She has many.

At 20, she was excited to visit a nightclub with her friend, and the two dressed in matching skirts. A man reached his hand up both skirts... and grabbed.

Another time, she was out with friends when a male friend offered to walk her home, which seemed chivalrous, she said. But then she couldn’t get him to leave her apartment.

She has more stories, and so do her mother, aunt, grandmother, sister and cousin, she said.

Alleman was one of the many Madisonians who took to social media this weekend and used the nationally trending hashtag “#MeToo” to share that they've been a victim of sexual assault or harassment.

“(For many) women it wasn't just that it happened, it was, ‘Which time do you want me to talk about?'” she said.

They used the hashtag to reduce the stigma of being victims, highlight the prevalence of the problem and encourage action to stop what they call a national epidemic of sexual violence.

TRENDING TOPIC

In the wake of the allegations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and assaulted numerous women, actor Alyssa Milano started the hashtag Sunday, posting: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Soon, thousands of women on Twitter and Facebook posted using the “#MeToo” hashtag, some adding stories about their experiences.

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, shared the post. In a Cap Times story published last year, Sargent shared the story of a male constituent who tried to undress her during a business meeting.

“And after that happened, I was like, ‘I really shouldn’t, probably, go to meetings out in the district by myself, unless where I’m going is somewhere public,’” she said.

Sargent said Monday when she has brought up experiences like that one, she has found that too often people assume she’s “making a mountain out of a molehill.” She thinks the #MeToo movement can help people realize the prevalence of harassment and assault.

“It’s epidemic, and we can do better. I know we can do better,” she said. “But we can’t be better unless we’re talking about it and taking steps.”

THE POWER OF “ME TOO”

Erin Thornley-Parisi, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center in Dane County, sat at her computer this weekend and witnessed the Twitter trend in amazement, watching the tweets, retweets and likes on her feed.

“(It was) almost like it was ticker tape rolling in,” she said. “I realized that I was seeing something really amazing, and that all around the world … women were getting to voice something that they’d never been able to say before.”

Women have been conditioned to stay silent about abuse, she said.

“There is much evidence over literally centuries of women being re-victimized, victim-blamed or further harmed by reporting their assault,” she said.

While she said she always supports the right of women to not tell “a single soul” about their abuse, “giving people an outlet to be able to say as much or as little (as they want) in a public venue by simply saying ‘me too’ is incredibly powerful,” she said.

Lilada Gee knows from experience that sharing stories of sexual abuse can encourage others to get help. Gee is the founder of Lilada’s Livingroom, an Afro-centric support program for victims of sexual abuse.

When Gee shared her story of childhood sexual abuse for the first time at her church, women came up to her afterward ready to talk about their abuse, she said. The #MeToo movement could similarly embolden others to seek help, she said.

“The more you can break silence and share your own experience, the more help you can coax other people out of their secrets,” she said.

‘LIKING A POST IS NOT ADVOCACY’

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Gee said that a danger of the #MeToo trend is that people may “like” the post and then assume that their work is done.

“Anything that happens on social media needs to be able to translate into real life advocacy,” she said. “Liking a post is not advocacy. Liking a post is not being an ally.”

Gee said community members can support organizations like Lilada’s Livingroom and The Rape Crisis Center. She also said parents need to teach their boys about the seriousness of sexual assault and harassment.

“Imagine if every mother had a conversation with every son,” Gee said.

Sargent also said that as the mom of four boys, part of her job is to educate them about sexual harassment and abuse.

Sargent also said people need to intervene in situations where someone is being harassed or their story of harassment is being questioned.

“A lot of folks, including myself, have dismissed behavior exhibited towards me and other women based on, ‘That’s just the way these guys are. You have to put up with it if you want a seat at the table,’” she said. “Frankly, we have to stop accepting and dismissing that behavior.”

Thornley-Parisi emphasized that anyone who has experienced any form of sexual assault, no matter what kind or how long ago, can call the Rape Crisis Center hotline at anytime — it doesn’t have to be a “crisis,” she said.

The Rape Crisis center also offers Chimera Self-Defense classes for women, and this week will offer a workshop through the Wisconsin Women’s Network titled, “Bystander Intervention Methods for Domestic and Sexual Violence.” The session, on Wednesday, Oct. 18 from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Sterling Hall, will teach participants to assess and safely intervene to stop or prevent sexual violence. The center's website lists other ways to volunteer with the organization. 

Thornley-Parisi said staff at the Rape Crisis Center are discussing how they can build off the momentum and openness “#MeToo” encouraged.

It’s important to keep talking to make sure that the future is better than today, Sargent said.

“Sometimes it means people will look at you differently (after talking about harassment),” Sargent said. “For me, that is not too big of a price to pay to make sure less women and girls are going to post ‘#MeToo’ in the future.”

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you can call the Rape Crisis Center helpline 24/7 for confidential crisis counseling, referral and information at 608-251-7273 or Linea De Ayuda at 608-258-2567. You can contact Lilada’s Livingroom at 608-622-7235.