What began with a news story turned into a tweet that changed everything overnight. 2017 will forever be known as the Year of the Reckoning.
Or, more precisely, the year of the beginning of the reckoning. Because at year’s end, the phenomenon of powerful men being knocked off their perches by allegations of sexual misconduct — in Hollywood, on morning television, in chic restaurant kitchens, in the U.S. Senate — showed no signs of slowing. Each morning, we awoke to ask: “Who’s next?”
To that question, we should also add, “What next?” Because as the year drew to a close, many were also wondering just how deep and lasting the change would prove, going forward. Was this, indeed, the cultural earthquake many have called it? Or was there a chance it might all eventually slip away?
“We can’t be sure,” says Gloria Steinem. “But what I CAN be sure of is that this is the first time I’ve seen women being believed.” And that, says the feminist author, “is profoundly different.”
Whatever forces had been stirring under the surface, it all burst into the open with an October scoop in the New York Times, a story alleging shocking misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. The powerful producer’s misbehavior had long been the subject of whispers, but it was actress Ashley Judd who finally gave a well-known name to the allegations — a crucial launching point for what followed. Her account of a hotel-room encounter in which Weinstein asked her to give him a massage or watch him shower sounded familiar to many others, who were inspired in the ensuing days to come forward with their own allegations against Weinstein, from harassment to assault to rape. To date, some 80 women have come forward; Weinstein still denies all nonconsensual sex.
Then came the tweet heard round the world.
“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status,” actress/activist Alyssa Milano tweeted on Oct. 15, “we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Then she went to bed.
“I couldn’t have been in bed more than eight hours, because I’m a mom,” Milano says now. When she awoke, tens of thousands had taken up the #MeToo hashtag (a phrase introduced 10 years ago by social activist Tarana Burke.) Less than 10 days later, Milano tweeted that more than 1.7 million people in 85 countries had used the hashtag.
“The thing that was so surprising was the sheer magnitude and the quickness of how it happened,” Milano says. But she feels conditions had been ripe for a good year.
It began, she says, with the election of President Donald Trump, who had bragged openly about groping women. On top of that came some aggressive investigative reporting — she cites Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker — and the domino effect of women emboldening each other to come forward. Public fascination with anything Hollywood didn’t hurt either. “For this to have taken off the way it did, it had to be a perfect storm, and we had to be ready,” she says.
Even before #MeToo happened, and just a few days after the Weinstein story broke, Anita Hill was sure something significant was happening. “I think we need something to push the needle and I think this has done it,” said Hill, a symbol of the fight against sexual harassment ever since her 1991 Senate testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Still, she noted, it was a lot easier for Hollywood stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie to speak out than it was for ordinary women experiencing harassment from their bosses.
But Hill, who for years has been living a quiet academic life at Brandeis University, stressed that the next step has to be more than just conversation: “We now have to start putting into place measures at schools and workplaces and the military … about how people should be treated, and we have to enforce them.” Hill has just been named to a new commission on sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.
As the weeks went on, the accusers multiplied, and so did the accused, from Hollywood (Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Brett Ratner, Dustin Hoffman) to the news business (top morning hosts Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer) to the music world (Russell Simmons) to politics (Sen. Al Franken, Alabama candidate Roy Moore) to the food world (Mario Batali). The accused lost jobs, TV shows, book deals, a Senate seat — with dizzying speed (Spacey was even erased from a completed movie.) Some simply apologized, while others fought back — like Simmons, with his hashtag #NotMe. Some apologies were more effective than others. Spacey drew flak for deciding to come out as gay as he apologized for unwanted sexual advances; Batali was scorned for appending to his email-blast apology a recipe for Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls.
A few voices called for differentiating between levels of sexual misconduct. It didn’t always go over well. When Matt Damon said “I just think we have to start delineating between what these behaviors are,” Milano replied on Twitter that there are various stages of cancer, “but it’s still cancer.”
Not to be forgotten were the accusers who decided not to come forward with their names, many out of fear of retaliation. Attorney Gloria Allred, who held news conferences with some Weinstein accusers, said there were many more she’d spoken to who have not yet gone public.
And what about the alleged abusers we’ve never heard of, because they’re not famous? “There have been stunning accounts of farm workers harassed in the field, factory workers on lines, restaurant workers,” says law professor Catharine MacKinnon, who decades ago pioneered the legal claim that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. “They don’t have the high-profile man … but I’m telling you, to the women he does it to, he’s plenty big.”
Still, says MacKinnon, of the University of Michigan and Harvard law schools, “any time any victim is believed, it’s a miracle.” And that’s why the events of late 2017 have been unprecedented. “It’s amazing to me that people are being believed and listened to and responded to, and their accounts being acted on,” she says. “That’s never happened before in the history of the world.”
And to those who might still doubt there is tangible change, MacKinnon points out the remarkable sight of “white upper-class men deserting white upper-class men, in droves. We’ve never seen that before, ever. They feel they can no longer afford to be associated with this. THIS is cultural change. THIS is real social change.”
What Can We Expect Now? Leaders Talk About Problems and Solutions To the #MeToo Movement:
Don’t be surprised by the backlash
Jamia Wilson, executive director of the Feminist Press at City University of New York
Throughout history, we’ve never seen progress without backlash. From the civil rights movement to the movement for gender justice and beyond, retrograde hardliners have always endeavored to hinder the advancement of equality to ensure that their ideas and their unearned social power survives and thrives. That’s why we must continue to resist, persist, and practice radical solidarity in the face of pushback. We should treat backlash as a sure signal that the positive disruption we’re creating is working to undermine systems that are broken and/or unjust.
Now is the time to keep applying pressure, stand with each other in the face of adversity, maintain our tenacity, and keep powering through — because our lives depend on it.
Jennifer Drobac, professor at Indiana University School of Law
People who wield great power sometimes abuse it. When challenged, they don’t want to give up the “high” of that power or its perks. They often respond to resistance with a tighter grip to secure their position. For example, they enlist allies to discredit subordinate challengers. That’s why in sexual harassment cases, you often hear that the woman was “nutty,” “slutty,” or a “gold digger.” In high-profile cases, allies begin a media “spin” to recast the allegations as a cover for poor job performance or unrequited feelings by a miserable wannabe lover.
To that end, these predators will protest their innocence and fight their disempowerment. They don’t want to feel like the women they abuse.
People, especially men, may wonder if they even want to work with women now. Executives may hesitate to mentor female subordinates. Men may fear unfounded accusations or that their own clueless behavior could prompt a complaint. Are the battle lines being drawn? Yes, but let’s be clear. Those battle lines are between men and women against sexual predators. Co-workers are in this battle together. This #MeToo phenomenon could divide us or bring us together to cure a social evil: sexual predation.
Forget about the backlash — let’s talk about the institutions that have helped harassment thrive
Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center
With a new headline every day about the severe and pervasive harassment in Hollywood, politics, and beyond, some might argue that the only part of the story left to come is a backlash to counter the deafening #MeToo chorus.
We are just getting started.
The stories we have heard so far have involved some of the most egregious incidents — powerful men stripping off their clothes during business meetings, routinely groping breasts and other body parts without consent, retaliating against women who rebuffed sexual advances. These stories are headline-grabbing for a reason — they are outrageous and the sort of conduct that any employer should address swiftly.
And we haven’t even gotten to the also unlawful day-to-day harassment that women face in nearly every industry, and we have barely touched on the harassment that women of color and LGBTQ people routinely face at work, at school, and in other areas of their lives.
Nor have we effectively outlined the many reasons our laws and policies are not fully prepared to meet this moment. Right now our system is broken. People are reporting their stories in the press because they believe they will experience less retaliation and gain actual accountability with the sunlight the media affords. I hope they continue to do so. But our next important step must be focused on the institutions that failed survivors for years.
We need leaders to rise to meet this moment, and there is plenty of room for our institutional leaders to take a stand for change — to move beyond just responding to harassment to also preventing it. They must examine their policies, procedures, and culture, and investigate why reporting and accountability have been so low even as harassment rates remain high. So the best counter to any backlash to come is to build systems that allow for institutions to do the hard work of changing the culture of the workplace. It’s time for that to finally happen.
Alicia Garza, strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter Global Network
With every act of courage, there is the potential of retaliation. When a survivor who bravely exposes the prevalence and varied nature of harassment and violence is attacked, like bees, we must ensure that there is a swarm ready to give aid. A backlash is little more than an attempt to further silence and shame the survivors, and to keep abuses of power intact. Our response must support survivors to shape the interventions that come next.
There are conditions that allow sexual violence to go unaddressed — and make some survivors particularly vulnerable to harassment and assault. A lack of pay equity, inability to access labor protections, and absence of services and social supports are important examples of why survivors may be fearful of speaking up. For example, whom do domestic workers go to when being violated by their employer, when some federal labor protections may not even view your work as work? What does it mean to expose your employer when that may be your sole source of income for your family? If you’re an immigrant woman, what if your employer threatens you with deportation if you don’t comply with their abuse?
To change this, we must ensure that communities get the resources necessary to limit their vulnerabilities. That means strengthening laws that ensure survivors’ safety, creating accessible structures that can intervene in harassment and violence. It means interventions that ensure accountability with meaningful consequences without feeding an already bloated criminal system. It means passing immigration laws that keep families together and create pathways to citizenship. It means eliminating the inequities that make women especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence in the first place. It means believing and trusting women. And it means all women coming together to change all industries and make every workplace safer.
Emily May, co-founder and executive director for Hollaback
Many people for the first time are realizing how prevalent harassment and assault are, and many more are coming forward and sharing their stories for the first time. What I love about this moment is the impact it’s [having] on those hard-to-reach people who are still awakening to the impact of sexual violence, and [are] able to hear about it, learn about it, in ways that our work as a movement hasn’t touched them before.
I want the intolerance toward harassment and assault to build. I want those who have experienced to feel their true power — and to have the space and love needed to let the trauma they’ve been holding on to, keeping secret for years, defrost at last and be held not by the victim but by society itself. I want each of us to recognize we have a role to play in ending sexual violence, and that “not assaulting people” or even “being nice to women” isn’t nearly enough. Harassment and sexual violence are an epidemic, and we need to treat it with the urgency it deserves.
Bernice Yeung, reporter with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers
In the end, speaking out about sexual harassment is a lot to ask of someone, and we keep this momentum going not just by asking more women to speak out but by finding ways to prevent the abuse in the first place. Part of that comes from expecting men to hold other men accountable. This is an approach recently taken up by some of the janitors and farmworkers [through my reporting on low-wage immigrant workers].
At a 2016 sexual violence training I attended at a Florida tomato farm sponsored by Futures Without Violence, the Fair Food Program, and others, an instructor named Angel Garcia asked a hard question: Why do men let other men get away with behaving badly? He told the assembled farmworkers that this was a critical point: “We are creating a culture of respect, and one part of that is to challenge males to talk to other males,” he said. Meanwhile, in California, the president of the janitors union marched alongside female members protesting on-the-job sexual assault, and told journalists and the male membership that “enough is enough.”
More men should follow suit. After all, it shouldn’t be the job of women, who bear the brunt of this problem, to somehow be responsible for fixing it too.
Jaclyn Friedman, an anti-violence activist and author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All
We need to stop being reactive — waiting for victims to come forward to name yet another famous and powerful man — and start talking about the systems that foster this kind of abuse.
We should seize on this moment to push to expand comprehensive, fact-based sex ed school district by school district, so that young people grow up seeing sex as an act of collaboration, not a means to domination. We should be supporting union drives, so that workers with non-famous bosses have enough power to demand abuse-free workplaces. We should be demanding that the institutions that shape our culture — all the media, tech, journalism, and political organizations — share and implement short- and long-term plans to transform their workplace culture, including creating gender equity in their highest echelons of power.
“Throw the bums out” is satisfying, but if we want to leverage this moment for real change, we have to refuse to be sated by the firing of any individual predator. We’ll secure our gains when we change our systems so that they no longer nurture men (or anyone) who abuse.
Women are being left out of the #MeToo moment, and it’s time to include them
Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and Guardian columnist and author
I see sexual harassment through the lens of income inequality. That’s at least partially because I run an organization devoted to covering economic instability and we at EHRP cover that topic from all angles. Astoundingly, women are still paid significantly less than men. That may trap women in bad or even abusive jobs where they can’t even afford the time to look for work elsewhere.
Female workers may also be un-mentored throughout their careers, passed over for promotions on account of their gender or their refusal to cater to the egos and libidos of male bosses. It’s no coincidence that the news and tech and entertainment industries have produced so many spectacular cases of harassment.
These are industries reliant on star systems with particularly steep income gradients — Matt Lauer made $25 million per year, while on-the-ground former journalists are now receiving food stamps. In essence, an economic madness has enabled men like Bill O’Reilly and Lauer and that guy at Amazon to feel untouchable while they sexually harassed women.
Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action and a co-founder of the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence
To end sexual violence, we must be led by low-wage workers. People in the lowest income brackets experience sexual violence at disproportionately high rates. Many of these workers don’t have time to keep up with social media campaigns. Their abuser is no celebrity — just another nameless person who just happened to have more power than they did. Their story will never make it into a splashy headline bringing down an industry titan. And their erasure from the current media narrative is just another way their worth is diminished; another reason why workplace predators won’t think twice about targeting them.
These survivors know firsthand that a hashtag cannot address the root causes of sexual violence — unsexy issues like income inequality, inhumane immigration policies, and housing instability. Gender parity in Hollywood and congressional measures to protect legislators will not pay these workers’ rent, buy their babies’ diapers, or prevent their deportation.
All the same, some put everything on the line to seek justice. These workers are warriors. Their survival is improbable. They clean our houses and hotel rooms, care for our children and elders, serve our food, package our goods, and pick our crops. They are the most powerful among us, and we must center their voices in creating new solutions to sexual violence, because the old ones don’t work. It’s time to bring the experts in.