On July 30, American senator Dianne Feinstein received a then-confidential letter containing an allegation of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh, the man who, months later, would be in the running for a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Then, on September 16, California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, the letter’s author, publicly recounted the assault—which allegedly took place at a high school party in the 1980s—in the Washington Post. “I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” she said. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.” When she tried to scream for help, Ford says, Kavanaugh covered her mouth.
Here’s another date: October 5, 2017, the day the New York Times published an investigation by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Towhey. The bombshell exposé revealed Hollywood’s worst (and worst-kept) secret: Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein had allegedly been sexually assaulting women—many of them high-profile, like Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow and Italian actress Asia Argento—for decades, then buying their silence with the help of pliable handlers and plenty of hush money.
— Asia Argento (@AsiaArgento) October 28, 2017
But it wasn’t just another story about another powerful man behaving badly; Kantor and Towkey’s investigation inadvertently kicked the modern-day #MeToo movement into high-gear.
The patriarchy is still going strong
A year on, the movement has opened the door for millions of survivors to reveal their experiences of sexual violence, in the workplace and beyond. Scores of perpetrators, long hiding in plain sight—Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, Hedley’s Jacob Hogarth—have been stripped of their power, or at the very least forced to publicly reckon with their past indiscretions. But for every disgraced Weinstein, up pops a Kavanaugh, refusing to cede his quest for a Supreme Court seat in light of so-called “smears;” a Trump (predictably) supporting Kavanaugh by playing the “false accusation” card; and, closer to home, a Ghomeshi, continuing to grasp at sympathy in ill-written, narcissistic op-eds.
Why is this still happening 28 years after Anita Hill? And 12 years after a 13-year-old confided in Tarana Burke, inspiring the activist to found the #MeToo movement? How, after so many survivors have finally aired their traumas? Why are men still being emboldened and enabled to behave badly? Didn’t they listen while all those women were talking?
The answer is that a lot of things can happen in 365 days, but dismantling the patriarchy wholesale isn’t one of them.
In defense of “hashtag activism”
Still, those citing the world’s seemingly unending supply of slippery judges and feminist backlash and the slow, slow drip of systemic change as evidence of #MeToo’s failure are ignoring its greatest coup: In extremely short order, a hashtag dialled the world’s loudest whisper network up to 11, exposing the very conversational blind spots and retrograde myths that allow rape culture to flourish in the first place. And it all happened on Twitter.
Laura Parisi, chair of the department of gender studies at the University of Victoria, has encouraging words for those who are cynical about the real-world effectiveness of so-called hashtag activism. “Social media is part of our real world; it gives more people access to organized movements across borders, and, certainly, #MeToo is an example of that.”
Parisi says that while public conversations about sexual violence have existed “under a different vernacular” at least since the concept of “date rape” rose to prominence in the 1990s, the fact that #MeToo spread via tweet dramatically boosted its scope, allowing for the creation of an unprecedented global network of survivors and allies.
We’re still learning how to talk—and think—about sexual misconduct
Yet amid the millions of catharsis-fueled revelations, another harsh reality was exposed: our widespread cultural inability to address the precursors to sexual violence with sensitivity and nuance. #MeToo finally got regular, non-media people talking, but the resulting conversations were often embarrassing, when not downright toxic.
Take the issue of consent: In May, months after the Weinstein allegations exploded, the Canadian Women’s Foundation released a survey that revealed that, of more than 1,500 respondents, only 28% of Canadians say they fully understand what consent means. That’s down five percentage points from 2015. “Legally, the definition of consent hasn’t changed in Canada since the ’80s,” says Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based women’s rights advocate, public educator and support worker for survivors of sexual assault. “An unfortunate thing that #MeToo has highlighted is that people purposely make the consent conversation seem confusing, when it’s actually very clear. They make it seem as though feminists are complicating the issue or changing the rules. Like, ‘Oh, what are the new rules of dating?’ There’s nothing new.”
— Debra Messing (@DebraMessing) September 24, 2018
This apparent regression is best exemplified by the curious surge of men who, despite engaging in completely innocuous behaviours (like, say, casual water cooler chats), are suddenly afraid to be alone with women for fear of being accused of sexual assault. Or, in another Hollywood example, the ham-fisted confusion that characterized the public’s reaction to the sexual misconduct allegations levied against comedian Aziz Ansari in a story on Babe.net, a then-little-known online publication published by Tab Media. Weinstein was the kind of predator we could understand, whereas many could only go so far as to cast Ansari as a “bad date.” We’re not so good at grey.
The need for nuance
“How do we have a healthy relationship culture where people can say, ‘I don’t know if I’m into that’?” says Lalonde. “As an educator, I want to create a space where people can say, ‘You know what? I hadn’t thought of that before.’ How can we try things that feel safe? We don’t yet have language for that.”
Perhaps even more complex is the issue of victimhood—in particular, who is allowed to claim their experience of assault, and what we collectively expect of survivors when they do. In August, Asia Argento, one of Harvey Weinstein’s first and most vocal accusers, was herself accused of assault by actor Jimmy Bennett, who was 17 at the time of the alleged encounter. (Argento has since counter-accused Bennett of assaulting her.)
People will use these recent news stories to try and discredit this movement – don’t let that happen. This is what Movement is about. It’s not a spectator sport. It is people generated. We get to say “this is/isn’t what this movement is about!”
— Tarana (@TaranaBurke) August 20, 2018
Naturally, #MeToo dissenters saw the allegations against Argento as an opportunity to discredit the entire movement. But “[Argento] being accused of sexual assault shouldn’t diminish her own experience of sexual assault—we should be able to separate those out,” says Parisi. “What you see here is a continuation of how the courts treat survivors, that unless you have a squeaky clean moral background, unless you’re the ‘perfect victim,’ your claims are considered suspect.”
The #MeToo movement’s adherents are now also faced with the question of who gets to participate in and advance the conversation going forward. It’s clear we haven’t quite figured out how men factor in quite yet, not without “discussing comebacks above accountability,” says Lalonde. But based on the slew of non-apologies from the likes of Louis C.K. and Casey Affleck, neither have a lot of them. You know what’s more pressing? The question of how to access and address the #MeToo accounts of women typically relegated to the margins: racialized women, trans women, queer women and women living with disabilities.
A way forward?
Time’s Up, an-anti harassment movement founded by Hollywood celebrities following the Weinstein revelations, is a promising example. Though it once risked getting pigeonholed, like #MeToo, as a largely symbolic gesture thanks to its black-dress campaign at this year’s Golden Globes, the organization has since demonstrated its commitment to real-world, grassroots results. But by February, just a month after its launch, the organization had attracted more than 200 volunteer lawyers and raised $20 million for its legal defense fund, which supports regular, non-famous women dealing with harassment or assault in the workplace (in any industry). It also sponsored a walkout in support of Blasey Ford (and Deborah Ramirez, a second Kavanaugh accuser) on September 24, which saw women across America leaving their homes and workplaces dressed in all-black and, perhaps signalling a change of era, tagging selfies with a new hashtag: #IBelieveSurvivors.
In her letter to Feinstein, Blasey Ford explained her long reluctance to address the alleged assault, saying, “It is upsetting to discuss sexual assault and its repercussions, yet I felt guilty and compelled as a citizen about the idea of not saying anything.” Indeed, in the wake of Weinstein and the ensuing (and heartbreaking) deluge of sexual-assault admissions, from women in and out of Hollywood, it is now impossible to shy away from things we used to shy away from speaking about.
In fact, it is imperative to any meaningful, collective progress that we don’t. “The conversations themselves are a form of change, which always happens at the level of individual beliefs,” Parisi says. “And when you have that attitudinal shift, that [ripples] outwards to who we elect, and the kinds of pressures we can put on the legal system and governments—local and national—and all the way up to the U.N. But it’s going to be incremental and slow.”
Parisi is now monitoring the newly viral hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, one that spotlights structural injustices—like a legal system with embarrassingly low conviction rates for offenders—and, with any luck, one that might have a #MeToo-sized impact in those arenas. We’ll let you know next year.
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