The #MeToo movement has continued to make headlines since it got underway last October. However, has the outpouring of stories actually led to any real social change? Abi Millar investigates in the latest edition of Overseas.
On 15 October 2017, the American actress Alyssa Milano posted a screenshot to Twitter: “If all the women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
The tweet went viral almost immediately. By the end of the day, the phrase had been tweeted more than 200,000 times, with a long list of celebrities joining the chorus. On Facebook, the hashtag spread even more rapidly, appearing in over 12 million posts during the first 24 hours alone. Nearly half of Facebook’s US users had friends who posted ‘Me Too’.
Although #MeToo was not Milano’s coinage – it was first used by the activist Tarana Burke in 2006 – it crystallised the mood of the times. Ten days previously, the New York Times had broken its first allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who faced complaints of sexual misconduct stretching back decades. Over the months that followed, dozens of other prominent men would experience their own fall from grace.
Amid these conditions, all it took was one tweet to spark social media wildfire. As millions of ordinary people came forward with their stories, Milano’s tweet proved more accurate than she could have imagined.
“One tweet has brought together 1.7 million voices from 85 countries. Standing side by side, together, our movement will only grow,” she said on 24 October.
Nearly a year later, the #MeToo movement is far from over. Google Trends data shows a sharp peak in searches last October, followed by a very gradual decline. We can see a secondary peak around the time of the Golden Globes in January, which was dominated by talk of sexual harassment in Hollywood.
While the initial flurry of tweets is long since over, the conversation continues to evolve. It’s happening in Chile (where the women’s movement has taken on a new momentum); it’s happening in Germany (where debate is raging about sexist noun forms); and it’s happening in the US (despite Donald Trump’s attempts to use the phrase as a punchline). Meanwhile, the phrase “Me Too” has been Googled in every country on earth.
“I want people to know that this movement isn't stopping. We're going to move forward until we have an equitable and safe space for women,” said actress Mira Sorvino at the Oscars.
However, the question remains whether #MeToo has been anything more than a discussion point. Despite all the headlines it has generated, the movement has been criticised as aimless and diffuse, lacking in clear objectives.
Indeed, Tarana Burke, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, made the case that #MeToo had lost its way – becoming a vague rallying cry for gender equality, rather than a specific protest against sexual violence.
“Part of the challenge that we have right now is everybody trying to couch everything under #MeToo,” she said. “You can’t cover so much, and so many things. And sexual violence is wide enough.”
Previously, Burke has suggested a number of specific goals for the movement, including processing all untested rape kits; ensuring schools have policies for vetting teachers; examining sexual harassment policies in workplaces; and taking community action to support survivors of sexual violence.
“There are millions of people disclosing their experiences of sexual violence and there’s no container to process this. There’s nobody here to help them, to walk through what disclosure feels like. What do you do after you put #MeToo?” she said.
On top of that, the movement has been panned for its lack of representation – an unsurprising charge, given that the lion’s share of the media focus has fallen on wealthy white women.
Some have expressed concern about the definition of ‘sexual assault and harassment’, fearing that lesser offences are being lumped together with serious crimes. Others are concerned that men could be falsely accused, or that women could miss out on opportunities at work because men are afraid to work with them.
Still others worry that the movement overemphasises individual stories (often with an element of prurience) rather than tackling the system as a whole.
“We seem to be much more concerned about recording our victimhood [than] putting up options for social remedies,” says Eva Cox, an Australian sociologist and a research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney.
As Cox sees it, #MeToo in itself is not enough. Firstly, it points up problems, without much in the way of corresponding solutions. Secondly, it raises questions about what feminism has accomplished, and suggests we may not have the gender parity we think we do.
“I have been an active feminist for 45+ years and have seen both changes and stagnation,” she recalls. “We made a lot of changes in the 70s and 80s but stalled since as markets and individualism took over. Feminism second wave was about changing the power balances, not just about equality on male-determined values and criteria, and that aspect has been lost.”
The #MeToo protests, she feels, fail to address the wider causes of sexual violence. On top of this, she thinks our existing legal frameworks can damage the complainant as much as the perpetrator and don’t really serve as a deterrent.
“The current legal system is not about change,” she says. “We need to address the problems more radically by looking at the continuing conflicts and power imbalances between what men expect and impose, and gender equity needs.”
While Cox does think #MeToo has had some positives (e.g., greater visibility of the problem, talk of more funding support for victims) she is broadly sceptical about ‘clicktivism’ as an agent of change.
“We need to address the socialisation of men and women and shift the power balances and what is valued,” she says.
True enough, if we look at concrete changes wrought by #MeToo they are still relatively thin on the ground. Perhaps the most obvious signs of change have occurred in Hollywood, where those who exploited the ‘casting couch’ culture are now being held to account. At this year’s awards ceremonies, dozens of stars wore all black in support of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund – a project funding legal aid for those who have been sexually harassed at work.
Despite its association with red carpet glitz, Time’s Up aims to support women across all industries. As the website puts it: “Time’s Up is an organization that insists on safe, fair and dignified work for women of all kinds. We want women from the factory floor to the floor of the Stock Exchange to feel linked as sisters as we shift the paradigm of workplace culture.”
Given that one in three younger women have been sexually harassed at work, this is clearly a pertinent issue. It is also very much an issue of power: research has shown that women in male-dominated occupations are more likely to be sexually harassed than women in balanced ones.
Clearly, this nexus of problems is hard to untangle and it’s also where #MeToo’s remit becomes fuzzy – should it encompass broader workplace inequalities, including women’s representation at senior levels, or should it focus more tightly on sexual violence?
Sian Brooke, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, studies sexism online. She agrees that #MeToo needs more direction to be successful.
“One of the things it has lacked is an end goal of a particular link to an organisation or policy sphere,” she says. “That could have been more easily pushed forward. If you take the Ice Bucket Challenge, one of the reasons that worked so well was that there was a very definite cause people could donate money to when they engaged in this social media trend.”
This said, she thinks the #MeToo movement has made it easier for those who’ve been harassed to come forward.
“It’s not really seen any viable change in terms of legal systems, but it’s a step in the right direction, increasing visibility not only for women but also for men using the MeToo hashtag,” she says. “It means that institutions such as Westminster, Washington and the United Nations can no longer close ranks about examinations of their moral behaviour.”
At the most basic and obvious level, #MeToo has created an environment in which survivors of sexual violence feel emboldened to tell their stories, and are maybe more likely to be believed. This can be construed as empowering, especially if you think of social media as a democratising force that gives a platform to the voiceless.
On the other hand, having the opportunity to speak out can too easily mutate into feeling pressurised. For some survivors, the outpouring of #MeToo stories was actively harmful – it forced them to revisit their old traumas, and served more as a trigger than a call to action. Between October and December 2017, calls to one US rape crisis hotline rose by nearly a quarter compared with the same period in 2016.
It is clear, then, that the #MeToo outpouring – no matter how massive – was not actually commensurate with the scale of the problem. By and large, the more vulnerable the person (through virtue of their position in society, or perhaps the depth of their trauma) the more likely they were to be rendered invisible.
“If you didn’t use the MeToo hashtag, your sexual assault or harassment can still be invisible and perhaps even more invisible because you didn’t engage with what people did online,” says Brooke. “You haven’t conformed to form and you haven’t used a hashtag, so does it really matter in terms of the public eye?”
Generally, though, Brooke feels that social media can function as a powerful tool of protest.
“Social media is a political tool inasmuch as any time people interact is political,” she says. “It can be used by political figures to convey a message or to suppress one. It can also be used as a form of protest, helping people communicate and organise.”
She thinks that in the years to come, we are likely to see more gender-based protests on social media, particularly given the Toronto attacks and the rise of ‘incel’ culture.
“The anonymity of online is seen to make everyone equal but there is still a long way to go in terms of gender,” she says. “There will be more gender-based political protests online because it’s a place that’s so problematic and where toxic ideas of gender do seem to bubble to the surface.”
#MeToo, then, is perhaps best viewed as a starting point, rather than an end in itself. The outpouring of stories suggests a real hunger for change, even if we’ve yet to decide what forms that change should take.
“Me too has aired and encourages women to speak out. Now we need to find solutions,” says Eva Cox.
Read the rest of the latest edition of Overseas here.