Here’s a note to self: You are not alone. You don’t have to fight your perverse, lewd offenders alone.
This June marks the completion of 8 months of the #MeToo movement that started last October in the wake of sexual assault allegations against the Hollywood movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein. These allegations didn’t stop at Weinstein but extended to several others in media, music, modelling and politics. A lot has happened since actress Alyssa Milano’s first tweet of the hashtag last fall.
Numerous women, famous to not, have come out on social media with their stories of rape, sexual assault, harassment and inappropriate behaviour in workplace and otherwise. Men have been named and shamed, suspended and condemned by the public at large. What started as a tweet to make voices heard, managed to revive and redefine an entire movement already in place to make it agreeable to women across cultures, geography, race, religion and politics.
The MeToo movement was launched by activist Tarana Burke -a sexual abuse survivor herself- in 2006 to help victims of sexual harassment and assault. More than a decade later, the movement found its way back into limelight when Ms. Milano promoted the hashtag #metoo in her attempt to give voice to victims of sexual abuse. “If all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” – read her tweet after allegations against Weinstein surfaced.
#MeToo: A Timeline
As the movement against sexual misconduct reaches a crescendo, let’s take a look at all the major happenings of the movement so far.
Accusations against Weinstein began materializing after actress Ashley Judd’s statement in a breaking story by the New York Times. All these came to a halt on May 25 when Weinstein turned himself in to the New York Authorities after being charged with criminal sexual acts and rape.
Weinstein’s accusal ignited a fire that spread itself as allegations against scores of celebrities from art and entertainment. This list included names such as Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Aziz Ansari, James Franco, with Morgan Freeman being the latest addition. Not only entertainment, these allegations pervaded all kinds of workplaces from politics to academia, from business to church. Roy Price - Head of Amazon studios, Lawrence Nassar – Sports doctor at Michigan State University, Mario Batali – Celebrity chef and Roy Moore – Republican Senate Nominee are just few of the several names that came into limelight during the past eight months.
The movement also brought to the forefront cases of abuse, that weren't strictly sexual but also involved obscene use of power. The infamous affair of former US President Bill Clinton with his then intern Monica Lewinsky, that led to the initiation of his impeachment proceedings, is one such case. While Lewinsky agreed that the affair wasn't sexual assault by it's standard definition, she believed it "constituted a gross abuse of power" that muted any possibilities of there being denial. Clinton has till date been trying to level against the accusations made by Lewinsky, stating that he had apologized to her. Even though he claims to understand and support the movement, in a recent interview, Clinton refused to look at the national scandal that was his affair, through the #metoo lens of how his power dynamics had affected his relationship with Lewinsky and resulted in misuse of power at workplace. This denial has been taken with severe criticism by the #metoo community that stands in solidarity with Lewinsky, and against her abuse and ostracization.
To honour the solidarity of survivors, Time magazine on December 6 named ‘Silence Breakers’ as its Person of the Year acknowledging Tarana Burke, Terry Crews (prominent face of the male #MeToo) among others as spearheads of the movement. This was closely followed by the formation of an anti-harassment bloc called Time’s Up, by more than 300 women of Hollywood. This coalition brought together a legal defence fund of $13 million to support low income women, seeking justice for sexual harassment and assault in workplace. The 75th Golden Globe Awards saw stars wearing black in solidarity with the Time’s up movement and speaking about sexual abuse and harassment.
The hashtag didn’t stop in the United States but trended in more than 85 countries all across the world including India, Pakistan, Australia and the United Kingdom. In India, amidst numerous allegations that surfaced with the hashtag, several lists of alleged rapists and harassers also started doing rounds including “The List”, created by activist Inji Pennu and an Indian student in California by the name Raya Sarkar, which included names of about 60 highly reputed academia men, whose involvement in abuse was allegedly personally confirmed by Sarkar. Pakistan has been the latest entry in the group with actor/singer Ali Zafar being the first celebrity accused of sexual assault and harassment.
The me too movement had arisen as a consequence of a systemic failure of the American legal system which failed to protect its women against sexual abuse and harassment. This has in fact been construed into possibly the biggest critique that the movement has faced so far of letting a “witch hunt” or “vigilante justice” take over the due process of legal trial without the accused being given any fair voice of defence.
However, Weinstein’s arrest has ensured that a legal trial will take place where he will be allowed to put forward his side and a proper procedure will ensue. In addition to this, Bill Cosby’s conviction in the month of April of drugging and molesting former basketball player, Andrea Costand has proven to be the movement’s first legal victory in a celebrity trial.
Both these events have proved that the Me too movement is not antithetical to the legal system. Because of its failure in doing its job, the movement made an attempt to make all the voices heard but ultimately seeks to bring permanent change with the help of a better functioning legal system. These victories have also managed to create sexual harassment into a nationwide topic of discussion, of not just individual cases but of the bigger picture of misogyny and abuse, both financial and cultural.
The Gray Zone
Just like the “gray zone” of sexual encounters that allows inappropriate behaviour, bawdy remarks and sexual harassment to step in, in the name of “exploring the relationship”, a huge ambiguous gray zone exists around the purpose and means of the movement. In wake of all its criticism, of being “mob rule” relying on emotions rather than evidence and of “vigilante justice” bypassing courts to seek justice from the public directly, several questions arise.
Primarily, is social media a good means of seeking justice?
Critics of the movement believe, that social media allows exacerbation of the situation with a faceless mob that is its product, giving its rulings on issues and increasing the magnitude of the problem manifold. This mob tries to bypass the courts and give a rushed judgement straightaway based on emotions. They believe that a due process should be allowed to pan out to ensure fairness to the accused as well.
However, what they don’t consider gravely enough is the failure of the justice system in providing retribution to the accused and taking any measures to protect its people. What is also worth noting here is the limitations of legal recourse in terms of being exhaustive of resources of time and money. Since any changes that a system undergoes after a revolution are proactive, rather than being retrospective, for most of the victims of sexual misconduct, internet justice has arisen as the only form of justice as compared to delayed or no justice at all, especially in cases where considerable time has passed since the act of harassment. Thus, it seems only fair to allow them to at least voice their sufferings and know they aren’t alone and more importantly, are part of a larger cause.
Moreover, the reason why this movement has managed to sustain its momentum and traction months after its inception is because of the sheer magnitude of people that have associated with the cause and voiced their resentment not just online but on the streets as well. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, where issues lose significance by the end of 140 characters, the volume of posts that have flooded and stayed on social media only point out obnoxious silence that had been all-prevailing in the lack of better means of expression. All of social media with its use of hashtags allows millions to come together with the help of two revolutionary words. This solidarity helps envision a scenario where sexual harassment cases no longer revolve around “he said-she said” accusations, but are characterized by “he said- she said, she said, she said,” cases, ad infinitum, as illustrated in a recent New York Times ad.
The question that then becomes crucial is whether the role of social media has actually been as severe and singular as critics of the movement claim it to be?
While it’s unfair to undermine the contribution of social media in starting the movement by providing everyone a common platform, its role as the sole means of the movement as well as change has been rather overstated. The articles, filled with accusations and details of the happenings that played a pivotal role in bringing down the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, weren’t products of the social media but rather of the finest print media. These stories were a result of great journalism taking their ethics and due process of name and shame into consideration before outing any stories. The legal win in the Cosby case and the initiation of trial in Weinstein’s, happened independently of any social media support.
Secondly, what discourse has the movement set in motion and how does it change the society?
Like any other movement against sexual misconduct, the me too movement also aims at calling out offenders and providing justice to the victims. But the reason why it stands apart is because of how it has managed to redefine itself to include women and men across class, caste, colour, religion and ethnicity. The discourse that the movement has managed to create is not just of naming-shaming individuals and making sure they are punished but a much deeper one. The magnitude of stories, the compilations of cases across all fields of work, culture and money delineate a crucial underlying issue. Questions are being raised about that toxic masculinity that our culture propagates, the kind of misuse of power that it deems okay. These in turn raise questions about our education and training systems and their obvious failure in altering the norms of the society created by deep rooted patriarchy and a critical need for change.
This change, the movement hopes, can only begin by stripping the abusers of the very power that the society provides them with and leads them to believe that they can get away with their misdoings.
Lastly, the movement encompasses inappropriate behaviour, groping and rape all under a common overarching umbrella of sexual misconduct and treats them with similar condemnation. Does this move do more harm than good?
In status quo, there exists a huge disparity between the public view of acceptable and appropriate workplace behaviour and legally existing guidelines of terming an act a sexual offence. This “gray zone” as already mentioned has put countless women in distress because of not being able to fight for justice. The Me too movement has thus rather obviously managed to redefine notions of acceptable workplace behaviour and set standards for behaviour that is appropriate and desirable, ignoring the concept of legalities to a certain extent.
While this move allows a certain amount of credibility to each voice of condemnation against any act of sexual misconduct, this ambiguity between desirable and legal also creates certain problems. The use of an overarching umbrella of resentment puts the men – who need to absorb and understand the message the most - at a rather distant position from the movement itself and deters them from negotiating or even listening. This is because, while rape and sexual assaults are outright criminal offences that need to be punished, inappropriate language or improper perception of signs on a date are contingent more on the toxic masculinity that has been a significant part of their upbringing. If a discourse has to be created, men have to be brought on the same page of acceptance of the fact that the culture is toxic and there is need for change.
#MeToo, but what now?
The Me too movement, unlike most other forms of social media activism didn’t start as a campaign calling for action with rallies and protests and speeches. The movement began as an attempt to make people understand the normalcy and prevalence of sexual abuse and assault in the society around us and not just as some distant reality.
With the movement in place for a while now, the polite euphemisms that the society has used for ages to dilute the immediacy and urgency of the problems have been ousted, and the magnitude of voices have managed to come together in solidarity. It’s time now to take the actions that we should after we’ve said #metoo, as Ms Burke stated in a recent interview. The legal victory in the Bill Cosby trial or Weinstein’s trial aren’t supposed to be exceptions to the movement, they need to become the norm.
There is perhaps a need for more men like Terry Crews to join the movement, to make #metoo more expansive and inclusive of people, groups and communities that have been isolated until now. There is also a direr need to create divisions of inappropriateness, harassment and assault and approach each of them seriously yet differently thus making it easier for men to realize the problem with each one of them. The distinction of what behaviour is illegal, what is legal but inappropriate and what is private behaviour that needs condemnation can help set clearer objectives for the movement and makes it easy to assess the levels of focus required by each division. With more support and clarity, the legal system can also become more accessible.
There is a humongous amount of work to be done and changes to be made by the movement in order to confront and fight the all-pervasive culture of sexual harassment and assault that has oppressed, abused and undermined women for ages. But what the movement has managed to achieve so far, in addressing the seismic scale of the problem and making sure that everyone’s voices are heard and fought for has been nothing less than revolutionary either.
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About The Author
Hiba Ahmad is a student of Literature at Hansraj College, Delhi University, India. She is the President-elect of the Hansraj College Debating Society (Class of 2019) and has worked with NGOs such as CRY. She is also a recipient of an award by the Kalam Foundation.