We owe sexual abuse survivors more than #MeTo

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion
October 17, 2017.   

The bleak crowdsourcing exercise of #MeToo commandeered my Facebook wall Monday. Teachers, painters, public servants, journalists and hairdressers from their 20s right up to their late 60s typed in the words “me too,” publicly signalling for the first time that they, too, experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault at some point in their lives. The cumulative effect of my Facefriends’ revelations was deadening.

After Harvey Weinstein’s body count tipped at least 30 women last week, actor Alyssa Milano launched the #MeToo hashtag campaign on Twitter as a collective scream. Ms. Milano’s hope was to give the world “a sense of the magnitude of the problem” of sexual abuse against women. Her tweet prompted quick affirmatives from celebrities Lady Gaga, Rosario Dawson, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Paquin. In a mere day, more than half a million tweets featured the #MeToo hashtag, with thousands of women recounting visceral memories of sexual violence.

The floodgates have opened and the deluge won’t stop. Across various social-media platforms, women are coming out in droves to divulge the day (or days) they “got Harveyed,” which is now depressing shorthand for the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment under monstrous, entitled bosses such as Mr. Weinstein, who get to pull the strings as women’s professional executioners.

Before #MeToo, Toronto writer Anne T. Donahue asked the people of Twitter, “When did you meet YOUR Harvey Weinstein? I’ll go first: I was a 17-yr-old co-op student and he insisted on massaging my shoulders as I typed.” Thousands of women recalled disturbing encounters with their doctors, high-school chemistry teachers and driving instructors. France’s version was the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, which loosely translates to “squeal on your pig.” French journalist Sandra Muller started this one up, outing a former boss who propositioned her with, “You have big breasts. You’re my kind of woman.” Ms. Muller argued that this kind of sharing online is liberating for women who don’t speak up in professional settings because of very real fears of reprisals. Online, there is strength in numbers.

Critical mass. Catharsis. Raising awareness. They are the buzzwords of such revelatory, grassroots hashtag campaigns. Before #MeToo, there was 2014’s #YesAllWomen, which motivated women to go public with their experiences with misogyny. Also that year, the Canadian initiative #BeenRapedNeverReported encouraged women to speak up as allegations of sexual assault emerged against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.

In other words, we’ve been “raising awareness” this way since at least 2014. If it wasn’t clear from the mountains of painful revelations such hashtags spur on, then it should be crystal clear from Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and now Harvey Weinstein that sexual harassment is a near-universal reality for women.

But is awareness actually the problem? Just how many hundreds of thousands of stories will it take to convince those who haven’t suffered sexual abuse that the issue is real and life altering? What is the precise threshold of tweets and Facebook status updates to change a perpetrator’s mind?

While hashtag campaigns can feel empowering for women who have previously remained silent, stating the prevalence of sexual assault is not a finish line. It’s the beginning of a conversation – the very bare minimum – not an endpoint.

What needs more airtime? Concrete measures for enacting cultural and institutional change – conversations more complicated than hashtagged confessions. From the ground up, we need to start with schools imparting deeper knowledge to young minds about consent, empathy, entitlement, bodily autonomy and bystander behaviour. We need real protections for women at work, including stronger unions. We need to start looking at potent deterrence for perpetrators and their enablers, be that through the court system or through robust independent reviews in the workplace.

Ultimately, we need to ask why we still leave the heavy lifting to survivors. Critics of Ms. Milano’s hashtag such as journalist Helen Rosner pointed out that the words “me too” focus on women’s victimization, rather on predation. Others suggested that abusers take up the handle “me too” to fess up what they’ve been up to. A somewhat more hopeful hashtag emerged Monday: #HowIWillChange featured guys taking the lead on the issue, promising not to stand by doing nothing and to take survivors at their word

For victims, there is heavy emotional labour involved in outing yourself and sharing your horror story with the world, let alone on a warm and fuzzy social-media platform such as Twitter. For years, victims have shared and shared only to see momentum stall and the issue fade out of view until the next iteration of Cosby or Weinstein. This time around, we’d be wise to focus on which lessons should stick.

https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/we-owe-sexual-abuse-survivors-more-than-metoo/article36627326/

5 Comments

  1. I, like many others, felt hesitant to post this hashtag. knowing that many women and men have endured far worse than I have …. who am I to claim ‘victim status’ …but of course…#metoo .
    #metoo speaks for all people who have been victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment. all the cat calls. all the assumptions made by partners past …that ‘no’ doesn’t really mean NO. all the experiences that you have chosen to forget… those count. for every person who identifies with #metoo but chooses to keep silent… you’re not alone. being a victim is not a choice.. it’s a consequence caused by another persons actions. The purpose of #metoo was to demonstrate the immensity of the issue…of the culture in which women are sexualized and objectified in every medium…the reason we have to teach our girls to preach “no means no” and “my body, my rules”…and teach our boys to break the cycle of perpetuated messages about masculinity and dominance. why it’s suggested that women take a ‘self-defence’ class…these are means used to COPE with the status quo. the question is, how are we going to CHANGE it.?

  2. My previous reply was originally posted on Facebook as my personal response to the #metoo campaign. In fact, I posted it before I read this article. After reading this, I thought it would be appropriate to copy-and-paste the message here. Upon further consideration, I realized I had something to say in direct response to this article, which is more appropriately aligned with the professionalism of this website. Without further ado ….

    Dear Zosia Bielski,

    I was not at all surprised at the volume in which #metoo posts were flooding my news feed. I am sadly aware of the ‘magnitude of the problem”. What surprised me, in the midst of #metoo’s, were the posts from men admitting their shock at the immensity of the issue. Men began posting statuses admitting that they had inadvertently taken part in “rape culture” at some point in their lives by seemingly harmless actions like whistling or staring, or ‘complimenting’ a woman they do not know. Another post that sparked a week-long discussion asked the question: “What behaviour(s) do you do daily to avoid becoming a victim of sexual violence?” Responses ranged from holding keys as a weapon, to not being outside in the dark at all.
    Although you state that we have been “raising awareness” since 2014, many people are still unaware. Those guys who drove by her when she pushed her stroller for the first time, screamed “MILF!” out the window, turned around and did it again. That boyfriend she said “No” to fifteen times, kept trying. These people have sisters, girlfriends, daughters… and do not know that they are ‘perpetrators’.
    I agree wholeheartedly that action needs to be taken. I believe that empowering victims through raising awareness is an ongoing and necessary piece of that action. With #metoo in the forefront of everyone’s minds, maybe we will be more conscious of the messages we send our children; speak up and call people out when they are inappropriate; discuss the topic openly and begin to change the status quo. So with all due respect Bielski….a collective scream IS a call for action.

  3. Dear Zosia Bielski,

    I agree with your opinion that we have to do more as a society to stop these behaviours and that a simple hashtag campaign will not fix the issue. However, I feel your condemnation of the #metoo was a little short sighted and you missed some of the important aspects of it. At the beginning of your article you write that by using the #metoo many were “publicly signalling for the first time”, and I don’t think you know how important that small aspect is. Many women have not talked about the things that have happened to them and have been carrying around these negative feelings and guilt for many years. The ability to come forward and share their story with other victims for the first time is a very empowering moment and may have been a first step to recovering from their pain that they have needed to take for months or years. Your article also focuses on violence against women perpetrated by men, but an eye opening aspect of the #metoo campaign for many was the men coming forward saying they have been victims of sexual misconduct, in varying forms, from other men or women; and woman coming forward with stories of sexual misconduct from other women. This is a very important piece of the puzzle that does not get discussed nearly enough as men are often stigmatized at an even higher rather than women for coming forward as victims; and women are often thought of as just the victims and not the perpetrators. The #metoo will not stop these events from occurring but it did shed light on how deep this issue goes; and it did help many victims come forward and speak their truths in an environment that felt safe and supportive, and there will never be anything bad about that.

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