Has #MeToo actually made things worse for women?

It seemed like the #MeToo movement would change the world, but more than three years from its explosion, what’s its lasting legacy? Lizzy Dening investigates

The #MeToo movement has been making powerful men sweat for over three  years. In October 2017 actress Alyssa Milano popularised the hashtag (first used back in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke), encouraging others to share their experiences of sexual violence. It blew up – in part thanks to support from stars including Jennifer Lawrence and Ashley Judd – with millions of tweets in dozens of different languages.

‘These feelings had been brewing for a while, and the Weinstein accusations became the catalyst for the movement,’ says activist and author of Dark Matter, Winnie M Lee. #MeToo was simple and accessible – you didn’t need to have a high profile to add your voice to the mix. It allowed people from all backgrounds to feel heard on some level, and unified survivors from across the globe. But for all of the ‘think-pieces’ it inspired, and the pressure it placed on high profile rapists, it can sometimes feel that not much has changed as a result. While the amplification and unity of angry voices is a fantastic tool, were we unrealistic to expect systemic change in its wake?

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Jennifer Lawrence added her voice to the #MeToo debate (Getty Images)

The power of #MeToo

For a glorious, fleeting moment, it felt like the internet had become a more democratic place, and a level of power had been awarded to victims of sexual violence. While we might have hoped that this momentum would be enough to challenge systems – workplaces, court rooms, education – it’s been a much rockier road. But that doesn’t mean that #MeToo wasn’t a powerful force for good.

‘Social media movements can create change, because they show a public consciousness and an awareness of the issue,’ says Siân JM Brooke, a researcher at Oxford Internet Institute. ‘The sheer volume of media articles covering #MeToo and the systematic nature of sexual assault is progress. Bringing perpetrators to face a trial is progress.’ In fact, a year after its instant popularity, the hashtag was, according to the New York Times, integral in bringing down 201 powerful men, and, of course,  Harvey Weinstein who was sentenced to 23 years after being found guilty of two counts of sexual assault.

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Weinstein enters a Manhattan court house during his trial in February, 2020 (Getty Images)

While #MeToo allowed survivors to speak out, it also, crucially, allowed others to hear them. ‘I think some men had no idea how angry women were, or of the vast spectrum of violence, from catcalls and street harassment, to domestic abuse, and rape and murder, that women experience. Or the fact that the threat of all of those things forces women often to not speak up, to change their behaviour, or their clothing, or their opinions,’ says Sophie Walker, Chief Executive of the Young Women’s Trust. And the movement’s reach was a crucial factor in its strength. While a YouGov poll from last year found that just 55 per cent of Brits had heard of #MeToo, this still put it head and shoulders above similar awareness campaigns (I Weigh had just 2 per cent; Time’s Up, 17 per cent).

Also, while it might seem simplistic, there’s a certain strength to attaching a catchy phrase to your cause. ‘In just six digits, people know what you’re talking about,’ says Winnie M Lee. ‘While #MeToo can be misused as a marketing tool, it also works as a ‘flash-word’ that continues to bring attention to these issues, which can only be a good thing. It also helped demonstrate what a broad spectrum of sexual violence there is, and helped to link the whole spectrum of misogynist behaviour and structural injustice.’

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Empty promises

While successful awareness campaigns encourage survivors to seek vital help (US helplines saw a 25 per cent rise in calls in the aftermath of the Weinstein accusations), the increased demand brought about by #MeToo wasn’t met with a significant increase in funding for rape crisis centres. Nor with change at a legal level, with UK rape conviction rates currently at an all-time low.

Confronted with statistics about the prevalence of workplace harassment, university cover-ups and the ignorance of many judges in sexual violence trials, the movement, which seemed so full of vigour, can feel like it’s fallen flat. ”Me’ never became ‘We’ – so it spoke only to individual experiences rather than mass solutions,’ says Sophie Walker. ‘We haven’t come anywhere close to building structures in business, society, judiciary, arts and culture that create freedom for women from violence. And now we’re facing a backlash, which always happens, because progress is not linear, and the difficulty now is to keep momentum going.’

Ah yes, the backlash. ‘#MeToo was a social media spectacle, and like historical public executions the guilty were hanged in full view,’ explains Siân JM Brooke. ‘The problem with the presumption of guilt and the following public execution is that the target becomes a focus of sympathy. Blame is redistributed, and rather than paying attention to the survivors we are told that ‘men can’t do anything these days’.’

Backlash is, of course, a normal response to movements, and only to be expected in such a high profile one. Let’s not forget that it stems from powerful men wanting to protect themselves, so it’s arguably a sign that we’re getting closer to justice every day.

What’s next for campaigners?

Perhaps it’s unfair to look to the ‘legacy’ of a movement that’s still in its infancy. But what can we do to ensure the energy and verve of the initial campaign is channelled into lasting change?

‘What the movement needs to do now is organise,’ says Siân JM Brooke. ‘To effect institutional and legal change, capitalising on its momentum for progress and not letting the toxic, misogynistic retaliation take over and control the narrative.’

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‘The #MeToo movement has exposed an endemic problem and led to a culture shift in our awareness of sexual harassment,’ agrees Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society Chief Executive. ‘But we need to complete the transformation by changing how society and employers respond. This means we have to strengthen the law to require employers to prevent harassment and we have to provide and promote solutions to help them to own and change their own organisational culture.’

On a smaller scale, we also need to be mindful of keeping conversations around the topic flowing. ‘The problem is that we’re living in an instantaneous culture, and if something isn’t going to change overnight it’s often forgotten,’ says Winnie M Li. ‘It’s going to be a long process, and we have to keep reminding people about these issues.’

And there has already been a heartening change. A study by the Fawcett Society found that the younger generation has been positively affected by #MeToo, with more than half of 18-34-year-olds saying they are now more likely to speak out about sexual harassment. And ultimately, what could be a better result from a grassroots movement, than helping survivors to find and amplify their voices.

For help and advice please contact:
*Rape Crisis England and Wales
*Rape Crisis Scotland
*Rape Crisis Network Ireland

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