Just over six weeks ago, the New York Times published an article exposing allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Two weeks later, actress Alyssa Milano suggested that women act in solidarity with Weinstein’s victims by posting the words “Me Too” on social media. The posts, along with the hashtag #MeToo, spread quickly, and soon the words were accompanied by personal stories of rape, sexual assault and harassment from women all over the world.
Milano stated that the purpose of posting “Me Too” was to give people an idea of the magnitude of the problem. The strategy was quickly derided as “clicktivism”; another passing moment on social media that will slowly dissipate and be forgotten.
That was October 14. Just over a month later, it’s clear that those who dismissed #MeToo were – thankfully – mistaken.
Changing the conversation matters
Those who dismiss movements like #MeToo often argue that they create emotional responses on social media without any capacity to translate this into tangible structural change.
Even if this were true of the #MeToo movement (it isn’t, but we’ll get to that in a moment), I would argue that many movements like this don’t create tangible change precisely because they do not intend to.
They intend, instead, to shift the plane on which we publicly discuss issues that are often silenced, such as sexual assault, and in so doing they empower victims and allies, giving them the strength and autonomy required to make change in more structural ways.
This change in the conversation may feel like an unsatisfying or intangible step towards change, but it is a necessary one.
The way we talk about these issues matters, and changing the conversation is a victory because without it, structural change does not come easy. This is especially true for issues which shame and silence persistently cling.
Shame begets shame, and the same is true of its opposite: every single time someone speaks the truth without fear, the culture of silence that surrounds this issue is fractured.
This is true both on the public stage and in private. Changing the public conversation empowers women because it tells us that we are finally being listened to, and that the power balance is, at long last, shifting in our favour.
But this new conversation makes a difference on a much smaller scale too.
I have been surprised and gratified by the support networks that have sprung up around me in recent weeks as a result of this movement alone. The men I know have started paying attention, asking thoughtful questions, listening to and validating our experience, and calling out other men in their lives for perpetuating sexual predation or harassment.
Even more importantly, the women in my life and I have opened up an unprecedented dialogue about our experiences of assault – from the everyday to the very, very serious – and it has made me feel both more empowered and more connected than during any other political moment I can remember.
It’s easy to underestimate the impacts of changing this conversation, but we shouldn’t. Being listened to is something we – as women, as feminists, as survivors of assault and harassment – have been fighting for, for a long time, because we know it matters. We know it will change us, and I believe these last few weeks mark the start of that process.
Look how far we’ve come
Another thing we need to remember before we dismiss #MeToo is just how low the bar was set going into this global moment.
In 2015, allegations came out against Hollywood favourite Bill Cosby. Five women, then ten, then fifteen, each with the same story, came forward to reveal Cosby’s crimes. No one believed them. And it didn’t stop there – they were attacked by members of the press in an attempt to discredit them and their stories. TV presenter Don Lemon told one of the women, on air, that “there are ways not to perform oral sex if you don’t want to”, implying her account was far-fetched and untruthful.
In October 2016, a tape was released of then-president candidate Donald Trump telling other men to “grab her by the pussy” because “if you’re famous, they let you do whatever they want”.
Unlike Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump was not fired. He was not indicted. He was elected.
We have come a long way since then. When Trump was elected president, I wrote that his ascension sent a message to all victims of sexual assault that the world still isn’t listening, and confirmed to all women that they are never truly safe. I’m so glad to say, cautiously, that this is no longer true. The world is finally listening, and that could mean the beginning of the kind of change we’ve only ever dreamed of.
Which gets me back to the fact that we have already seen the tangible impacts of the Me Too movement.
Firstly, Harvey Weinstein has been fired from his high-profile job, his reputation poisoned, and Manhattan’s District Attorney Cyrus Vance is actively considering indicting Weinstein for sexual misconduct. Vance is expected to empanel a grand jury to indict Weinstein in coming weeks.
It doesn’t stop there. More and more women have come out with accusations against other high-profile men, who in turn have faced real-world consequences. Kevin Spacey had his contract with House of Cards terminated after multiple accusations of sexual abuse of young men surfaced. Comedian Louis C.K was forced to admit to sexual harassment and misconduct.
The impacts of this movement extend beyond Hollywood and into politics – Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has now been accused of sexual misconduct by five women, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has gone on the record saying, “I believe these women.”
Me Too has proven not only that speaking the truth can change the conversation, but that changing the conversation can change the world. That’s a victory worth celebrating, and learning from.
Having said that, of course the Me Too movement is an imperfect vehicle of social change.
Of course it should not be incumbent upon us, as women and as survivors, to perform yet more emotional labour in revealing our trauma in order for it to be taken seriously.
Of course it would be preferable to be able to demand a greater degree of empathy from our community than one that requires personal stories from loved ones before the structural dimensions of the issue are acknowledged.
But in pursuing change we must take the world as it is and not as we wish it to be. The bravery and honesty of women is, unfortunately, one of the only things that has ever changed the world to make women safer. Hopefully, if we keep it up, one day we can create a world in which the burden is shared more evenly.
We must also ensure this conversation meets the highest ideals of our feminism. It must be inclusive. It must recognise the intersections of oppression. It must be acutely aware that the voices we have heard so far in these conversations, while new in the sense that they are women’s voices, represent the traditional faces and voices of privilege in every other sense. It must never allow the conversation to stop there, and must continue until it succeeds in enabling all women and victims to feel empowered. It must reject those, like Lena Dunham, who claim to be feminists but who allow the trappings of privilege and power to confuse their principles.
Death by a thousand paper cuts
So if we have it in us, let’s keep speaking the truth and creating the possibility of more truth around us.
Let’s use the supportive, honest spaces created by Me Too to make each other feel safe enough to keep this conversation going as long as we can.
Let’s care for our friends who speak out and our friends who are unable to.
Let’s remember that there is no right way to be a survivor. Let’s keep making this conversation safer for those who wish to participate in it.
Men and allies of survivors also need to remember that if we are to have any hope of having the energy to keep this up, we will need your help. Think about what you can do to share the load. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Tell the women in your life that you believe them and support them and are ready to listen and to help.
So while Me Too is imperfect, those who would dismiss its relevance forget that with issues as endemic as sexual assault, there is perfect solution. There is no silver bullet that the Me Too movement missed; no easy path to immediate, tangible change. Change occurs in increments, and Me Too was an important one of those increments. Let’s use it.
The endemic of sexual assault will die not by a fatal wound but by a thousand paper cuts, and in these last few weeks we have added hundreds of incisions to the stubborn skin of this problem. Let’s keep going.