Bianca Fileborn and Rachel Loney-Howes
#MeToo exploded onto social media in October 2017, exposing and taking down some powerful men in the entertainment industry, and sparking conversations about the prevalence of sexual violence and what can be done in response. Two years on, however, what has the movement achieved? And what more needs to be done to address the cultural, political and legal dimensions that enable sexual violence to occur? In this blog, we address some of the key impacts of #MeToo two years on, and consider how we might go about the long, grinding process of change.
When the #MeToo movement emerged on social media in October 2017, it almost broke the internet. Within 24 hours, the hashtag had been used over 12 million times, with survivors of sexual harassment and assault from around the world speaking out about their experiences, while others used it to express their solidarity and support. As we pass the two-year anniversary of the hashtag, what, if anything, has the movement changed? And what still needs to be achieved?
In terms of the initial successes of the online version of #MeToo, in addition to the widespread use of the original hashtag, it was also translated into a variety of different languages, used in over 80 countries, and used a means for mobilising more specific local feminist agendas. In Argentina, for example, the #MeToo movement provided local activists with an opportunity to mobilise on the issue of abortion. The hashtag also generated some legal changes and investigations. Countries such as France, for example, made catcalling (street harassment) a crime in August 2018, with on-the-spot fines issued to offenders by police. The Australian Human Rights Commission also announced they would conduct an inquiry into workplace sexual harassment in June 2018.
One of the key successes of the movement was that it provided survivors with a new platform to speak out about their experiences of sexual violence. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media created new opportunities to collectively speak out about violence from multiple different geographic, political and cultural perspectives. It is well known that survivors’ experiences are routinely undermined or denied legitimacy in the criminal justice system, as well as by the general public. Too often, survivors are blamed for causing the violence, with many accused of lying or having ‘regretted’ consensual sex.
The sheer scale and response to #MeToo, however, gave survivors a powerful framework for speaking out, as well as offering recognition and validation in a way that official criminal justice mechanisms regularly fail to provide. While there are issues relating to whose experience is seen on social media and subsequently who is then recognised as a legitimate survivor, at a macro level the #MeToo movement provided survivors with an unprecedented opportunity to share their stories.
While the hashtag movement provided an important outlet to give voice to (some) survivor’s experiences, it is more difficult to know what has been achieved in terms of tangible structural and social change. Certainly, there were multiple public calls to address the structural causes of sexual harassment and violence, as well address the barriers for survivors accessing legal representation (for example, #TimesUp). However, in some instances, initiatives and organisations set up in response to #MeToo have come under scrutiny. Measuring social change is always difficult, and one of the key problems with the #MeToo movement is that it lacked (or lacks) clear goals, leadership, or indeed a united message.
Not long after the movement exploded online, it emerged that the term “Me Too” was in fact first coined by Tarana Burke, an African-American activist who has dedicated her life to supporting and advocating for sexual assault survivors. The revelation that #MeToo was in fact a movement spearheaded initially by a woman of colour generated a significant amount of backlash, and opened up a dialogue about the all-too-frequent erasure of the advocacy work of women of colour in the area of sexual violence, as well their experiences of gender-based violence.
From the outset, the movement was accused – as the feminist movement has been historically – of focusing too heavily on the experiences of young, cis-gendered, able bodied, white, middle class, heterosexual women. There were (and remain) serious questions as to whether and how women and survivors from marginalised groups might benefit from #MeToo. The oversight of the work of women of colour, such as Tarana Burke, and the plethora of women of colour around the world who have been working tirelessly supporting survivors and lobbying for funding increasing and social change, illustrates that the public face of anti-sexual harassment and violence remains that of privileged white women.
While creating space for survivors to speak out is undoubtedly important in many respects, it is less clear whether the widespread discussion generated by #MeToo has been fruitful in shifting attitudes and behaviours. Although this type of change is slow-burning – and it’s unlikely that any single activist movement will generate the social, cultural and structural shifts required to end sexual violence – the evidence so far suggests that #MeToo has had limited success in this regard. As Australian masculinities scholar Associate Professor Michael Flood notes, studies in the UK and the US were conducted in 2018 to capture the effect of the #MeToo movement on men’s knowledge about #MeToo, their attitudes towards gender inequality, inappropriate behaviours, and their willingness to listen to and believe women. Results were mixed, and inconclusive at best.
Concerningly, #MeToo was also subject to significant backlash and polarisation – something we’ve seen in response to second and third-wave feminism before. The movement was accused of going “too far” inciting a witch hunt against powerful men. Others have criticised the movement for placing experiences of sexual harassment on par with survivors experiences of sexual assault and rape. Canadian legal scholar Dr Heidi Matthews has further suggested that the movement has generated a sex panic – or at least lumped risky (but wanted and consensual) sexual practices in the realm of sexual violence.
We argue however that rather than buying into the backlash, we should take the opportunity #MeToo has generated to broaden our understanding of what sexual violence is, and to engage in more productive conversations about consent, pleasure and heteronormative masculine entitlement. Ultimately, this is what will help to drive change and work towards the prevention of sexual violence in all its forms.
Dr Bianca Fileborn is a Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social & Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. Her work examines the intersections of sexual violence, space/place, culture and identity. Bianca is the author of Reclaiming the Night-Time Economy: Unwanted Sexual Attention in Pubs and Clubs (Palgrave), and co-editor of #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change.
Dr Rachel Loney-Howes is a Lecturer in Criminology, School of Health and Society, University of Wollongong. Her work explores the use of digital media for anti-sexual violence activism. Rachel is the author of the forthcoming book Online Anti-Rape Activism: The Politics of the Personal in the Age of Digital Media, and co-editor of #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change.