What Did We Learn From the #MeToo Movement?
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
The #MeToo movement began four years ago. It’s been four years since the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase to encourage women to share their experiences of sexual harassment. The tweet was motivated by a New York Times article, which accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, and amassed 55,000 replies within one hour and an incredible 16 million in total. What many do not know is that the phrase ‘Me Too’ was actually introduced by grassroots activist Tarana Burke in 2006, who wanted to advocate especially for women of colour and let them know that they are not alone in their experiences of sexual harassment.
While #MeToo was also very much intended to unite women who were sexually harassed – and it in some ways definitely did – it also had its weaknesses. This, and much more, is what this article will focus on.
First things first
First and foremost, when speaking about #MeToo it is important to know what sexual harassment is. This is because many people actually underestimate what constitutes to sexual harassment, which consequently leads to many women not reporting it.
Under the Equality Act 2010, ‘sexual harassment is defined as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of either: (a) violating the complainant’s dignity; or (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant.’ This definition mentions that absolutely ANY unwanted sexual advances are sexual harassment, which is something many people do not seem to understand.
In fact, according to YouGov research, published in March 2021, which investigated how common female experience of sexual harassment is in Great Britain, Germany, France, Denmark and Sweden, many only counted unwanted physical contact as sexual harassment. For example, in Britain a whopping 52% of women stated that they were sexually harassed at least once in their life. In Sweden, this number is even higher with 66%. However, while those numbers are shocking on their own, what is even more alarming is that, other than in Britain and France, most people don’t seem to think behaviour such as the directing of sexual jokes, a man staring at a woman’s chest or wolf whistling is sexual harassment.
The legal system vs. social media
This goes to show why the #MeToo movement also has its flaws. Since it mostly happened on social media, its impact was most evident there. What this also meant, however, is that it was not well regulated and resulted in many people – particularly men – belittling women’s experiences. As already mentioned, many – at least those surveyed – don’t consider unwanted non-physical behaviour to be sexual harassment. Thus, a lot of accounts of sexual harassment which involved exactly that were ripped apart online and women were ridiculed for sharing their experiences.
"the fact that so much of the #MeToo movement is social rather than legal creates a problem"
Martha Nussbaum, author of Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation criticises exactly this about the movement. In her book she states: ‘#MeToo has helped win accountability. But the fact that so much of the #MeToo movement is social rather than legal creates a problem: how to secure justice and protect equal dignity when punishment is meted out not by impartial legal institutions but by shaming and stigmatization.’
Of course, #MeToo is an incredible movement in theory. It did really help women open up about their experiences. The use of social media was also partially beneficial since it helped reach people all over the world and made sexual harassment more visible. However, the movement’s lack of association with legal systems did lessen its impact on society as a whole.
Has anything changed at all?
There has definitely been some change. Cases like the one with Harvey Weinstein brought to light the danger of nondisclosure agreements (NDA), which prohibit an employee from speaking about details of their job. Since #MeToo, many states in the US banned NDAs in sexual misconduct cases, thus making it impossible for powerful figures to buy someone’s silence.
Moreover, many women’s organisations are actively trying to get justice for victims of sexual abuse. For example, the organisation Time’s Up has started a fund which aims to help survivors of sexual harassment to obtain legal representation. Through funds like this, the problem of #MeToo only being an online phenomenon is also lessened, thus showcasing that the movement can move beyond the barriers of social media.
As for the workplace, the developments are not as promising. The survey, ‘The Me Too Effect’, by the women-owned culture consultancy Have Her Back (HHB) found that few companies have actually taken actions to change the working culture. Only 28% of respondents claimed that the #MeToo movement actually had an individual impact on them. In fact, other than sexual harassment training, most companies don’t seem to have taken any action whatsoever.
What the future (should) hold
Even though there have thankfully been some changes, not enough has happened yet. It is unacceptable for companies to maintain the status quo and simply rely on sexual harassment training. In fact, the unwillingness to advocate for women may lead to them losing not only respect but also customers and employees. The same study by HHB showed that 62% of women were less likely to support a company that doesn’t support gender equality and 50% of women would be willing to leave their jobs if they found out they were earning less than their male counterpart. Therefore, not advocating for gender equality may result in a company making serious losses.
And it can’t stop there. There needs to be change at the government level in order for long-lasting and effective change to happen. Thankfully, there are initiatives like this already which can aid as examples. On International Women’s Day 2018, a group of workers of the European Parliament from different political groups, nationalities, ages and work positions founded the MeToo EP movement. It aims to fight sexism and sexual abuse within the European Parliament and it published over 40 anonymous testimonies in less than a month, highlighting that sexual abuse is also a problem within politics: a haven for privileged straight, white men.
Moving forward, we need initiatives like these which are regulated and able to effect change on a national level. Since they function within governmental structures, they have to respect the legal definition of sexual harassment, ensuring that real lived experiences are not belittled and dismissed.
For more articles and resources on women's rights, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka