When Atlanta, Georgia, based makeup artist and entrepreneur Sarah Biggers-Stewart started posting on the social media app TikTok earlier this spring, she planned to make videos about beauty. Instead, she has created a space for young women to give voice to traumatic experiences they might not have even told their parents about and to find community instead of isolation.
Conversations in her comment section inspired Biggers-Stewart, 28, to branch out from makeup tips to other topics relevant to young women, including sexual assault.
Before her followers brought it up, "I already knew that sexual trauma was really common, but in that moment I realized — not that everyone has the same experiences or has all of them — but that safety and sexual trauma fear is pretty universal," she told TODAY Parents.
In early May, Biggers-Stewart published a video using the "put a finger down" format that is popular on the app to ask girls and women to "share their truths" about the "female reality." She encouraged her followers to use her video to make their own.
A month later, users have made more than 10,000 videos on the app using Biggers's prompts, which include "Put a finger down if you've been drugged," "Put a finger down if you've been followed," "Put a finger down if you've been sexually touched inappropriately," and "Put a finger down if you walk to your car with your keys or your pepper spray as a weapon."
The videos feature mothers and daughters — including Rosie O'Donnell and her 17-year-old daughter, Vivi — friends, and individual girls and women of every age, ethnicity, and skin color. They paint a grim picture of just how common fear and traumatic experiences are for girls and women in this country.
"I decided to participate in the challenge because I have been afraid of speaking out in the past, but I felt like it was time to stop hiding from something that I didn’t do wrong," 19-year-old Mariana Afanador of Orlando, Florida, told TODAY Parents.
At the end of her video, Mariana has all but one finger down, disclosing that she has been a victim of inappropriate sexual touch, has had friends who were drugged, and has been followed, among other traumas. She said that she has told her parents about her sexual assault, but not the details of it.
"It gave me the opportunity to speak my truth without actually having to say anything — making it easier to talk about and show to others," she explained.
That element of having the choice to share without elaborating was key to this exercise, because it made it safer and easier for young women to opt in, author and youth culture expert Rosalind Wiseman ("Queen Bees and Wannabes," "Masterminds and Wingmen") told TODAY Parents.
"It doesn't demand an emotional reaction," she said. "It allows them to genuinely process as they say, 'Yes, this happened to me.' This is what young people are craving."
Parents who watch the videos might feel paralyzed afterward. What can we do to protect our daughters and teach our sons how to treat women with respect?
Don't avoid difficult conversations
"Parents will ask me some version of the question, 'When do I talk to my child? Do I wait until something bad happens?'" said Wiseman.
Her answer: You do not wait. "Because these things will happen," she said, "and if they don't happen directly to your child, they're going to happen to someone they are in a relationship with." Though you should address difficult topics like sexual assault in an age appropriate way, waiting until they happen is a mistake, she said.
Don't be afraid to scare your kids
As a parent, you have to accept that there will be things that are out of your control, and one of them could be the sexual assault of your child. "There's not a lot that is more frightening than that," Wiseman acknowledged.
Though talking about personal safety and sexual assault might be frightening for you both, "Your daughters can handle being scared," Wiseman said. "They are growing up as women in this culture. They can't be naïve. Being naïve and unprepared sets you up for being assaulted. Being afraid means you are aware of the risks around you." Ultimately, that will keep our children safer, she said.
Teach kids to identify the "smallest acts of courage" necessary in difficult situations
One of the most chilling questions in the TikTok challenge is the last one: "Put a finger down if something bad happened to you, and the men who were around who you thought would protect you... didn't."
More often than not, the young women in the videos respond by putting a finger down.
"What parents do not always understand is that there is a tremendous amount of really complicated social dynamics — coupled with a large amount of anxiety — in a moment when a young man has to make a decision about interfering when his friends are being disrespectful, abusive, or sexually assaulting a young woman," said Wiseman. "Those moments are really about power — power between the boys."
We don't talk enough about those moments with our sons, she said. "Parents say to me, 'My kid could never do X. He's a good boy.'"
But Wiseman warned that dismissing your son as a "good boy" means you don't parent him in a way to prepare him for situations in which he has to face social and ethical pressures to do the right thing and stand up for a friend in trouble.
She suggested sitting your sons down when they are 12 or 13 years old and telling them, "You might see this, or you might never see this, but if you do... "
"The question to ask is, 'What do you think you can do in that moment to be proud of yourself?'" Wiseman said. And it need not be a grand, cinematic gesture, either, she added.
"I tell kids, 'Find the smallest act of courage required to do the right thing,'" said Wiseman — whether it is a text to a trusted adult or a whisper in the ear of another friend to get help changing the dynamic in a room.
Give your child permission not to come to you
When it comes to a serious situation, it might be easier for your child to reach out to an adult that is not you — and that is more than OK, Wiseman said.
"It's not a reflection of your parenting at all if your child wants to reach out to someone else with problems or in an emergency, she said. "You don't need to know everything. You do need to know that your child has someone they trust to reach out to when they need help."
Acknowledging this might actually earn you your child's trust more, Wiseman said. "You are treating them with the dignity and respect," she noted. "You're telling them, 'I understand that it's not that simple. It's never that simple.'"
Biggers-Stewart said she is overwhelmed by the the reaction to her challenge.
"Women tend to keep this stuff private because they’re ashamed, so I think the open nature of my video challenge allowed many women to have a cathartic public release of those negative and isolating feelings — possibly for the first time," she said. "That’s powerful."
Mariana was one of the young women who felt this challenge helped her overcome that shame.
"This generation should be the one of change, because quite frankly, I’m tired of walking around feeling like I’m responsible for what happened to me," she said. "It wasn’t my fault, and that’s something that many girls are conditioned to believe — that it is their fault. It’s time for change."
Additional reporting by Ronnie Koenig.