Emer O’ Toole, Contributor.
In October 2017, the New York Times published an investigation on American movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, detailing decades’ worth of sexual abuse, harassment, and intimidation. So far, over 50 women – including actresses Angelina Jolie, Cara Delevigne and Léa Seydoux – have publically claimed to have been molested, assaulted or raped by Weinstein, who is currently under police investigation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Hollywood reacted much like you would expect. Certain celebrities denounced Weinstein’s behaviour and spoke out in solidarity with his victims. Others – Woody Allen, Donna Karan and Lindsay Lohan among them – were quick to victim-blame or brush off Weinstein’s actions as boys-will-be-boys banter.
What’s more, in the aftermath of the revelations, a social media movement emerged. At the behest of actress Alyssa Milano, women and men took to social media to speak out about their own experiences of assault or harassment – often at the hands of older, more powerful men – under the hashtag #MeToo. It has since emerged that the American activist Tarana Burke originally created the ‘Me Too’ movement a decade ago, when social media was in its infancy.
The response to Milano’s tweet was huge, with millions of social media users worldwide using it to describe their experiences. The online campaign has been widely praised for giving survivors the opportunity to share their stories. But is the hashtag an entirely positive initiative, or is it a depressing symptom of a society that isn’t willing to listen to women until it’s too late?
Primarily, the hashtag has provided victims of sexual abuse, who are disproportionately female, with the opportunity to find solidarity, and to unburden themselves from the secrets they’ve kept, often for years on end. Sadly, women who speak out about assault are often interrogated on their outfits, blood alcohol level and sexual history, and their accounts dismissed if the victim is considered ‘at fault.’ #MeToo gives survivors the chance to control their own narratives, and to receive support, compassion and empathy from those who have faced similar situations.
One of the oft-repeated, and entirely valid, cries of frustration during the rise of #MeToo has been that anyone who needs Twitter’s help to understand that sexual abuse is an epidemic has been going through life with their eyes shut. However, a major advantage of the hashtag has been its ability to remind us that people of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and professional backgrounds have been affected by sexual misconduct. The movement will, hopefully, go a long way in highlighting the sheer scale of the problem, and in proving that sexual harassment doesn’t discriminate: there is no one archetypal victim.
What’s more, while the range of incidents recounted under the hashtag – including assault, catcalling, groping, harassment, intimidation, and rape – is harrowing to read, #MeToo helps to challenge the lingering, offensive misconception that sexual abuse always consists of attacks by strangers in dark alleyways. It reminds us that being on the receiving end of any kind of unwanted sexual behaviour – be it physical, verbal, or emotional – can have a lasting impact on its subject, and that it needs to be stopped.
Social media naysayers often criticise millennials’ over-dependence on the Internet when it comes to effecting change. Given the effortlessness with which Twitter users can like or share posts without modifying their real-life behaviour, critics have seen fit to write off #MeToo as slacktivism. The movement’s opponents – frequently men who are ostensibly unfamiliar with the justice system’s less-than-sympathetic treatment of sexual abuse victims – have questioned why so many people feel compelled to share their stories online, rather than reporting them to the police.
However, let’s not forget that social media can be a powerful tool in women’s struggle for equality. Discussions of issues that directly affect the female population – from abortion rights and healthcare to maternity leave and workplace discrimination– are often dominated by the voices of upper-class men. Twitter is, obviously, no substitution for the fair representation that women are still denied within the media and politics, but grassroots online movements can provide women with an outlet, and the opportunity to have their voices heard.
Similarly, in recent years, the Internet has been the home of innovative, creative campaigns which have put the spotlight on society’s mistreatment of women. Five years after Laura Bates first chronicled an incident of sexual harassment online, her Everyday Sexism project has become an international initiative. Latin America’s anti-gender violence campaign has also garnered global attention thanks to the spread of the hashtag #NiUnaMenos, which has enabled activists to raise awareness about their countries’ high rates of abuse and femicide. Clearly, social media can bring women’s issues to the fore: hopefully, #MeToo will spark similar dialogues.
Of course, #MeToo is testament to the bravery of the countless survivors who have come forward to speak about personal, and often deeply distressing experiences. Revealing the intimate details of traumatic incidents on an international, online platform – especially one like Twitter, which is notoriously poor at protecting its users from trolls and death threats – takes guts.
However, it could be argued that #MeToo places too much onus on survivors of sexual abuse to put an end to assault and harassment: perhaps the movement reinforces the idea that women must publically open their wounds to be taken seriously, and that women are consequently responsible for putting an end to sexual violence.
In the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s fauxpology and the revelations that many Tinseltown stalwarts turned a blind eye to Weinstein’s behaviour, maybe a more appropriate social media campaign would oblige perpetrators’ accomplices, rather than victims, to re-examine their behaviour, and hold themselves accountable for their failure to denounce the predatory or abusive acts they witnessed.
Furthermore, whilst participation in #MeToo is, of course, voluntary, reliving and tweeting about sexual abuse or harassment can be extremely painful for those who have lived through it. A presupposition of the movement is that all victims are in a position to denounce their abusers – we have to remember that this is not always the case, and that publishing personal information or detailing incidences of abuse can leave victims open to virtual or real-life retribution. Furthermore, whilst there was an outpouring of support for those who took to Twitter to share their stories, many #MeToo participants went on to become victims of online trolling or victim-blaming. The movement has women’s empowerment at its core, but we must keep in mind that some online initiatives encourage women to open up about distressing life events and then deal with the fallout alone.
For some of its users, #MeToo has been liberating, empowering, and cathartic. Its unprecedented popularity has encouraged women and men alike to speak out about the recent or historic sexual abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of rich or famous people who, previously, seemed untouchable. It has reminded survivors that they aren’t alone, and that they aren’t to blame.
However, it remains to be seen if #MeToo – or, indeed, the fallout of the entire Weinstein case – will actually lead to a sea change in legislation, attitudes towards women, or the treatment of survivors who speak out about sexual abuse. As much as we like to believe that the culture of complicity and silence that enabled the Catholic Church, the Magdalene Laundries, and Jimmy Saville to take advantage of vulnerable people is of a bygone era, the Weinstein story reminds us that sexual abuse is still commonplace. Its prevalence should not shock us.
Ultimately, #MeToo will drop off Twitter’s trending charts, but the problem of sexual harassment, assault and abuse will remain. Praiseworthy as the online campaign has been, it’s even more important that society focuses on putting a stop to the macro- and micro-aggressions which, while not considered as newsworthy as a high-profile rape case, have a daily impact on women’s lives across the globe, and which contribute to a toxic culture in which men like Weinstein get away with it. If it doesn’t lead to tangible, long-lasting change, a hashtag is nothing more than a tiny shout into cyberspace, which falls on the ears of people who don’t want to listen.