When the New York Times first reported rape allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein on Oct. 5, 2017, many felt that a new era had begun. Then, on Oct. 15, actress Alyssa Milano wrote on Twitter, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within the first day of the tweet, over 200,000 people used the hashtag on Twitter, and over 12 million people posted, commented, or reacted to the campaign on Facebook. Within the first 48 hours, the number of tweets with #MeToo rose to nearly one million. By Oct. 24, the movement reached 85 countries. Spanish victims used #YoTambien. French victims used #balancetonporc. Victims in the Middle East and Africa used a direct Arabic translation of the words “Me Too.” Italian victims used #QuellaVoltaChe.
Long before the hashtags, however, the “Me Too” campaign itself started with one woman. Tarana Burke, founder of Just Be Inc., a youth organization concerned with the health and wellbeing of young women of color, created the grassroots movement in 2007 to aid survivors in unprivileged places that lacked adequate resources for victims of sexual assault. Burke was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year as part of a group called the “Silence Breakers” – men and women, from actresses to dishwashers, all of whom had experienced sexual harassment or assault.
Since Weinstein’s dismissal from the Weinstein Company, more than 50 high-profile men have been accused of sexual misconduct. In addition to producers, those accused include politicians, comedians, actors, executives, hosts, athletes, and chefs. Alabama judge Roy Moore lost his campaign for U.S. Senate after allegations of sexual assault. NBC’s Today Show morning host Matt Lauer was fired from NBC after multiple accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace.
“For someone like Matt Lauer to have to face the music, that’s huge,” said AP English teacher Kristin Hunter. “I mean those are really powerful men that you couldn’t really imagine in the past that you could bring down.”
Alongside English teacher Mary Heald, Hunter taught the JanTerm Women Writers: Creating a Woman’s Life.
Though many believe sexual harassment to be a common occurrence, the sheer number of participants in the #MeToo movement raises questions. Due to the sudden rise in cases of sexual assault, some doubt the legitimacy of the accusations. Nevertheless, says sophomore Payton Selby, one of the leaders of GEAR, the Gender Equality and Relations club, these cases should be taken with the utmost consideration.
“Whether or not it’s true, any time any claim of sexual assault is brought up, it should be seen to be true and investigated to the fullest extent, because at risk of it being true and someone not believing them – that is an immeasurable injustice – to have someone live with rape and not have been believed,” said Selby.
Selby, along with the other members and leaders of GEAR, has worked with victims of sex trafficking in collaboration with Atlanta-based nonprofit Wellspring Living. The members of GEAR made more than 50 bags with snacks, toiletries, journals, and handwritten letters for young women who survived or are at risk of sexual exploitation. For many of these women, says Selby, speaking up about their experiences alone is not an achievable reality.
“These women, we notice that they’re so scared to break out of this system because they’re scared they’re not going to be believed,” said Selby. “But imagine the impact they would have if all of them came together.”
In addition to victims of sex trafficking, other survivors of sexual abuse who do not have the visibility of Hollywood stars find it difficult to safely participate in the “Me Too” campaign. Some do not have access to the Internet. Many risk losing a job, a livelihood, especially if their abusers employed them.
“Why now? What do they have to gain from doing this now?” asks Spanish and French teacher Manuela Kelly, who is also advisor to the Young Conservative Leaders group at Westminster. “This has been going on in Hollywood for years and #theyallknew, there just was no profit, nothing to gain by courageously standing up and saying something against these predators. Where have the seasoned actresses been all these years?”
To name a few, she mentions actresses like Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ashley Judd.
Kelly has taught the Children’s Human Rights JanTerm this year and in the past. In camps set up in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Calais, and France, she says, refugee women fear for their safety.
“There are reported cases of women being raped and sexually abused in these camps. These women have no power. No voice. They rely only on the protection they can get from a male relative, or possibly from humanitarian organizations. There’s no justice for them,” said Kelly. “These women in Hollywood who have all the power and resources that a woman here in the United States could possibly have, for them to hold their tongue and only come out now, seems inconceivable and self-serving. I prefer to join Tarana Burke’s movement. Since 2007, she has courageously spoken out for women in vulnerable situations, yet only now do most of us hear her name.”
Most cases of sexual assault, such as Weinstein’s three rape allegations and dozens of harassment accusations, came as a result of multiple incidents. If the victims spoke up earlier, Kelly believes, these repeated offenses could have been prevented. According to a Cosmopolitan survey conducted in 2015, one in three women between the ages of 18 to 34 have experienced sexual harassment at work, but 71 percent of women did not report the incident.
“The reason [the abusers] go from Victim A to Victim B to Victim C is because they are allowed to do so. Who allows these known predators, especially in these inner circles, to continue doing what they do? The women who stand on the sidelines and choose to keep silent. It benefits them to keep quiet,” said Kelly.
But even for those with power, some believe, bringing to justice an abuser without the support of other women presents legal and social challenges. The results of a 2017 poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal show that nearly half of employed women in the U.S. have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. According to NPR, however, only 3 to 6 percent of sexual harassment cases go to trial in America. In addition to legal barriers, says Heald, social challenges limit women from speaking up publicly about their experiences.
“I mean there’s so many labels that can be slapped on women who stand up for themselves; you’re being difficult, you’re being angry, you’re being rigid, demanding, whiney,” said Heald.
Nevertheless, both Kelly and Selby point to an important factor: the viral online movement can very easily overlook the needs of less visible women. Laws prohibiting sexual harassment at work do not exist in over one-third of countries around the world, according to a report by the WORLD Policy Analysis Center.
In support of women and men who lack the means to speak up for themselves, a new movement – “Time’s Up” – emerged. The initiative’s Legal Defense Fund, administered by women’s rights legal organization National Women’s Law Center, has raised over $16 million out of its $17-million goal. The fund, meant to provide victims of sexual harassment and assault with subsidized legal support, will work in partnership with the center’s Legal Network for Gender Equity, a network of lawyers and public relations professionals around the country.
To bring awareness to the “Time’s Up” initiative, stars attending the 75th Golden Globes Awards on Jan. 7 wore all black, including Burke, the original founder of “Me Too.” Oprah Winfrey, during her acceptance of the Cecile B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, made a speech about the “Me Too” movement. Her speech moved some to urge her to run for the 2020 presidential election, while others remained skeptical of her motives due to her previous friendship with Weinstein. Among several other men, actor Aziz Ansari, winner of a Golden Globe award for his series Master of None, wore a “Time’s Up” pin on his lapel. On Jan. 13, however, the website Babe published an allegation of sexual harassment against the actor that described what the actor believed to have been a consensual situation.
“This creates a very damaging portrayal of these men who may not have done anything wrong, rather if the issues were addressed privately first, then they may be able to be resolved,” said senior Alex Cann, one of the leaders of the Young Conservatives club.
The allegation left a storm of controversy over the legal definition of sexual harassment. On the official site of “Time’s Up,” a posting called “Know Your Rights” gives examples of different levels of inappropriate behavior and gives advice for determining if a certain behavior warrants legal action. As Cann believes, a distinction between differing levels of inappropriate behavior needs to be made.
“By claiming victims of molestation have suffered the same or similarly to those who may have been the brunt of tasteless jokes, that claim creates a society in which women are seen as so sensitive and overwhelmed almost to a point of degradation,” said Cann. “All of these behaviors need to be eliminated, but equating all possibly offensive actions is not a healthy way to portray these issues to society.”
But the different perceptions of Ansari’s encounter, many believe, reveal certain established societal norms in our society that surround gender relations. Situations that muddle the boundary between harassment and plain discomfort, says GEAR faculty advisor Reanna Ursin, present an opportunity for men to reflect on how others perceive their actions and what appropriate behavior, at least in the workplace, should entail.
“I think we need to do some deep digging and searching about our gender norms, because these conversations about, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be angry at a guy for just trying to flirt or trying to steal a kiss or having flirtatious advances at work, and he shouldn’t be penalized for that,’ I think we really need to interrogate that, because that suggests that we think that’s what men need to be doing all the time, as opposed to, ‘How about you just go to work and do your job,’” said Ursin.
These gender norms, says Cann, come as a result of messages boys receive about the definition of manhood.
“Society today has created an expectation that men should always want and always have a sexual partner, and any lack thereof makes them less of a man,” said Cann. “This also creates an objectification of women, enabling an extension and affirmation of this kind of behavior.”
In addition, says Selby, we should reevaluate the role of dress codes in school and how they may contribute to the objectification of women.
“I think our dress code becomes more about female modesty and male professionalism, and I think if we looked at it as, ‘how to be professional within each space,’ that’s how we should be evaluating it, not necessarily if you show a certain portion of your knee, you’re no longer able to be respected in a space,” said Selby.
“Young adults at Westminster who will enter the workforce will inevitably encounter tension surrounding gender relations in various work environments,” says senior boys grade chair John Monahan. “Gender and its rights and responsibilities will make up a central component of the group. And when boys witness situations of harassment, it is their responsibility to speak up. I would like to flip the script and say they’re being more of a man when they stand up for a woman in circumstances like that.”
This spring, he will form a peer mentorship group for boys in the Upper School and rising freshmen. In addition to Monahan’s group and GEAR, Circle of Women provides support for girls who lack the means to an education. Hunter and Heald’s JanTerm, Creating a Woman’s Life, examines the stories and scripts that have shaped women’s lives over time, and the forces that silence or empower them. And it’s this support from men and women alike, says Selby, that propels any type of positive change.
“Maybe it’s a reality that in society, one single woman is not valid enough, right now, which is an issue,” said Selby. “But it needs to be heard, and if the way to do that is to have everyone come together, then that is what needs to be done.”