#MeToo movement brings women’s voices into open
By Brenda Martin
November 5, 2017
The social media moment has shown us how many women have experienced sexual harassment, assault or gender bias.
Emily Roll Moore was a young Fairview woman who struggled with life. She had a family, went to school, was a gifted writer and was the fashionista of her family. She was a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife.
But she also had a past that haunted her, a series of events that she experienced in elementary school in upstate New York, that colored her days and nights.
She was sexually assaulted by a man connected to her grade school.
The assault changed her. It affected her relationships. It made her hurt herself.
Moore died several years ago at the age of 31 as a complication of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that Moore and her family believed was brought on by her childhood sexual abuse.
Her mother, Carolynn Roll, says #MeToo on behalf of her daughter, because her daughter can no longer say it herself.
On Oct. 5, the New York Times published a story detailing allegations that powerful Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted women for decades, paid settlements to keep them silent, and was protected by his male-dominated movie company in a male-dominated industry.
Since then dozens of women have come forward to paint a picture of Weinstein as a serial abuser who over 30 years raped and assaulted women, at worst, or derailed women’s careers when they wouldn’t agree to his sexual demands.
But outside of Hollywood, millions of other women joined a social media chorus using the hashtag #MeToo, detailing their own experiences of assault or harassment or gender bias.
For some, #MeToo is an acknowledgment of a nearly universal experience among women in which relationships in workplaces, neighborhoods, gyms and schools are colored by gender-based jokes and barbs. For others, #MeToo brought stories of sexual advances rebuffed, or of experiences of gender bias that the women had not forgotten, but from which they had moved on. But for others, #MeToo has triggered memories of painful experiences of gender bias, harassment or assault.
“You have people who haven’t talked about it in 30 years, and they’re seeing it on the news, and people start to think they may have to talk about it because they have unresolved issues,” said Angie Devine, 45, the marketing and development coordinator for the Crime Victim Center of Erie County, which helps women, children and men who have been the victims of sexual assault.
Devine has her own #MeToo story of harassment that started when she was 22.
“I started my first professional job in customer service working for a small company,” she said.
The owner of the company introduced her to many sales representatives and customers who visited the office as “his Girl Friday with a smirk that made my skin crawl every time,” she said.
“I endured many inappropriate comments such as, ‘And what are your job duties? Do you work nights, too?’” she said.
Devine said she approached the owner and told him the comments made her uncomfortable. She said his response was that he only hired her because she was “cute and had a great set of legs.
She said the “last straw” was a Friday incident, a day when she was taking a half-day off work to meet her future husband at the courthouse to apply for their marriage license. She remembers what she was wearing that day because of the occasion: a flowing, white, knee-length dress.
Instead of a day of celebration, she said it was a day of harassment, beginning when the owner of the business had her place a sign on the business marquee along a busy Erie street. The sign that she was ordered to post said, “The leading cause of divorce is marriage.”
Then, she said, the owner told her to clean a storage room covered in dust. He picked up a binder, wiped it on the skirt of her white dress “and said I was a dirty girl,” before asking why her fiancé would marry such a woman.
She said she soon found a new job and contacted a lawyer, who told her that she didn’t have a case for sexual harassment because the owner hadn’t pressured her to have sex. “So my attorney sued for a hostile work environment,” she said.
The case was ultimately settled out-of-court.
For Moore, any justice for the assault she experienced will happen after her death
Roll, her mother, said that while her daughter was strong and had a powerful voice on behalf of others, especially her own child, she struggled to find her voice in advocacy for herself.
Roll said the damage her daughter’s abuser “did to her had her doubting everything in the decisions she made, feeling not worthy, always feeling that she needed to be punished, that it was always her fault.
“I thought that maybe having a child of her own, she’d be able to see it wasn’t her fault, that she was an innocent, that someone took advantage of her,” said Roll, 59. “She couldn’t let go of that guilt. It paralyzed her.”
Moore’s abuse happened when she was in elementary school. Her abuser was a seminarian who was serving at her Catholic school.
After Moore’s death, her parents contacted the Roman Catholic diocese where the abuse took place, which referred her case to the district attorney. While no charges have been brought in the case because of Moore’s death and because of the statute of limitations, Moore’s parents continue to be in conversation with the diocese.
Roll said that as a young adult, her daughter explained to her the cloud the abuse cast over her life.
“She said, ‘Mom, I don’t know what it is to be normal,’” Roll said. “It’s heartbreaking. I think it just prevented her from moving forward. She always felt so unworthy, that it was wrong, that she permitted it.”
Roll said she and her husband reached out to the diocese so they could be their daughter’s voice. She is now saying #MeToo on behalf of her daughter, so other women know they aren’t alone.
“There are a lot of other children out there who have been abused,” she said. “In any woman’s case, the earlier they get some kind of help, the better.”
Another Erie woman said #MeToo inspired her to share a story on social media that she had never told anyone.
Sherry Rieder, 51, told of an incident that happened to her when she was working as a server at a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant on upper Peach Street in the late 1980s. She said she never told a soul about the incident, and hesitated even now to share it.
Rieder, a former managing editor at the Erie Times-News who now works at Mercyhurst University, said a customer approached the cash register at the restaurant to pay his check, and handed her the check and some cash.
“He then looks down at his crotch,” she said. “I look where he’s looking and see that he’s pulled himself out of his pants and is fondling himself.
“Now he’s looking at my face, hoping for a reaction, I presume. I ring up his check, give him his change (into his non-busy hand), smile and say, ‘Have a nice day!’” she wrote in her Facebook account of the incident. “I think he was disappointed because I didn’t flinch. His wife and kids were waiting for him in the car. Crazy.”
Rieder said after the incident, she just kept working because the “restaurant was packed.” But she said she’s proud now of how she was able to respond as a 20-something.
The Rev. Karen Martin Kepner, a pastor who lives in Circleville, Ohio, south of Columbus, said she remembers an incident when she lived in Erie County and went into a store in Edinboro dressed in her clergy apparel.
“My most obnoxious encounter was when I was first ordained,” she said. “I was in a store buying a bag of dog food. The manager asked me over and over to ‘hear his private confession.’ He then insisted I step back and turn around so he could look at me from all sides. Needless to say, I never went back to that store.”
Kepner, 58, said she never felt unsafe, but “completely at a loss. He was clearly seeking something consensual and never did anything more than caress my hand, as though that would encourage me to accept his offer.
“Like a deer caught in the headlights, I froze, but remained ready to finally flee when I had the opportunity,” she said. “The store was empty but for the two of us. He may never have been so bold if other customers were present.”
Kepner says she knows the experiences of other women are “far worse,” but said any experiences of gender bias, harassment and assault are not acceptable.
Devine, of the Crime Victim Center, said that while the #MeToo campaign has helped some women find their voices, the number of people helped by the agency shows how prevalent assault is in Erie County.
In 2016, the center provided services to almost 5,000 women, children and men. (Statistics have not been compiled for 2017.)
Nationally, one in four girls under the age of 18 are sexually assaulted, Devine said. For boys, the number is one in six before they’re 18.
Erie County’s Crime Victim Center began as the Rape Crisis Center, which had a 24-hour crisis hotline, which the Crime Victim Center continues to maintain. “It’s a very busy hotline,” Devine said.
Devine said when someone is assaulted or raped, representatives of the agency accompany the victim to the hospital, stay with the victim during the forensic interview, hospital treatment and a police interview.
“We will go to the hospital, make sure we’re there holding their hand, make sure their victims’ rights are being taken care of,” she said.
The center then provides crisis counseling and supportive counseling to victims.
“We help if there are injuries, or, heaven forbid, a death,” she said.
The center maintains contact with victims throughout any court proceedings, providing assistance with filing claims for victims’ compensation and also helping to file impact statements that judges use during sentencing procedures when restitution is often set for someone who has pleaded guilty to a crime or been found guilty during a trial.
She said the center tries to step in to make sure victims are believed and treated properly during the legal process, “because they’re not all the time. Those types of things still happen.”
Devine said the center also, during 2016, reached about 20,000 people with prevention education in schools and in the community. The center focuses on internet safety, teaches about good secrets and bad secrets, and helps people understand bystander behavior and how to safely step in to protect someone.
“This whole #MeToo is bringing about such a huge awareness all over the country,” Devine said. “Bystander education is something that needs to be taught. It helps people recognize and know how to handle situations. A bystander can keep things from happening.”
That’s especially the case, Devine said, when you notice someone who may be intoxicated or who may have been drugged.
While the #MeToo movement has given some women a voice for the first time, it has also triggered others who may not know how to handle the emotions that have surfaced, Devine said.
“One of the things we talk to people about is self-care,” she said. “When you’re triggered, we help with the techniques that you can use. We teach folks how to take care of themselves. Sometimes it’s disengaging, sometimes its redirecting. Those are things that we encourage people to do.”
She said those who haven’t talked about their experiences for many years are especially encouraged to use good “coping mechanisms.” Abuse and assault, she said, can leave victims vulnerable to drinking, using drugs or otherwise self-harming. “That’s why we really encourage people to learn about self-care and handle their feelings” in the most constructive way possible, she said.
Roll said women speaking now, as she is on behalf of her daughter, may feel the pain of old wounds, but speaking out may also help with healing.
“It’s like any wound,” she said. “Give it some air and it will have pus ... but healing will come.”