It’s been a little more than a year since actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” That came on the heels of stories by The New York Times and New Yorker about allegations of sexual assault by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Twenty-four hours after her tweet, Milano had 500,000 replies. Headlines about Weinstein and allegations against other prominent men dominated the headlines not just in the US, but across the world. A year later we have to ask: have things truly changed?
Tidal waves like the one created by #MeToo are hard to quantify. For what we can track, we know that the proportion of Americans who say that sexual harassment in the workplace is a “serious problem” in the US, rose from 47% in 2011 to 64% in 2017.
In India, a YouGov survey of 1,000 urban Indians, conducted after #MeToo stories broke, found that 76% of respondents believed that sexual harassment is a very serious problem. But India’s reckoning with sexual violence has been years in the making, with awareness growing ever since the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012. Immediately after, women’s groups organized to demand legal and cultural reforms around sexual violence.
In Iran, Egypt and around the world, women have been pushing for new dialogues around women’s rights for decades. In Iran, women began the “My Stealthy Freedom” movement in 2014, taking photographs in public places without their hijabs to question the regime. In Egypt, young women started the #NudePhotoRevolutionary movement in 2011, posting photographs of themselves to make a political statement about agency, morality and autonomy.
But we remain deeply divided about how to respond to sexual assault and all forms of gender-based violence. Many are now wondering how, or whether, we should integrate accused harassers back into our everyday life. According to Bloomberg, “at least 425 prominent people across industries have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, a broad range of behaviour that spans from serial rape to lewd comments and abuse of power”. Celebrities are returning to work and politicians are planning their comebacks.
The appointment of the US Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, crystallized the debate over how we should handle sexual misconduct. A recent NPR-Ipsos poll showed that 69% of respondents believe the #MeToo movement has created a climate in which offenders will now be held accountable, yet more than 40% feel the movement has gone too far.
And a September 2018 survey by YouGov on behalf of The Economist shows a “small but clear shift against victims”. In less than one year, the percentage of adults in the US who agree that men who sexually harassed women at work 20 years ago should keep their jobs increased from 28% to 36%. Whether or not you agree with that statement, it is clear that there is growing concern and suspicion that #MeToo is overreaching.
The allegations against Justice Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford fell victim to this shift in public perception. Dr Ford and other women who shared their stories of assault were praised publicly, only to be mocked and then ultimately ignored. Many have wondered if the #MeToo movement had met its match.
The reality is, there’s no going back. We’ve only scratched the surface and systemic, cultural changes take time. We must have the patience and fortitude to keep fighting for those changes. Simply put: it is on all of us to keep up the momentum of #MeToo and we can – if we do it together.
One of the things that #MeToo exposed is the diversity of this experience. Sexual harassers do not discriminate. Women and men of all sizes, races and gender identities are vulnerable. In fact, Alyssa Milano did not create #MeToo; it was started in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke to build a conversation around sexual violence, especially among young women of colour. We must acknowledge those that have come before us, and those who will come after, in service to this movement. We must invite allies – women and men – to embrace a message of transparency, accountability, and inclusion.
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Here are four ways to be part of the solution
1. Share your story. If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that there is power in personal stories and everyone can make a difference. The New York Times profiled 20 women and men about what happened after they shared their stories. Many were emboldened to know that their stories and voices mattered. Yours does, too.
2. Listen. Create space in your life – whether at home, with friends, or at work – to better understand sexual violence by reading and listening to the stories of those who have experienced it, particularly those that get left out of the mainstream media like women of colour, LGBTQ survivors, male-identifying survivors, and people with disabilities.
3. Engage companies at all levels. #MeToo wasn’t just a watershed moment for high-profile companies and celebrities. NAVEX Global tracked an increase in reporting of ethics and compliance incidents in 2017 across thousands of companies of all sizes; and found that 44% of the reports received were substantiated, a 10% increase on the previous year. Companies can be two employees or two million, but change starts with HR.
4. Take the pledge to know more, stand with survivors, and speak up. Approximately 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the US. Silence and lack of knowledge about these problems play a large part in why domestic and sexual violence persist. Understanding the warning signs for this kind of abuse is a critical first step in addressing and preventing these crimes. Your pledge empowers you to make a difference – for yourself, for your community, and your world.
What’s next will be determined by those around the world who are determined to make real change. The extent of the problem of sexual harassment and assault is now clear, and we cannot turn away.