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Noted gender equality activist Anita Hill told Wellesley College graduates: “We cannot squander the powerful voices” of the #metoo movement during the commencement ceremony Friday. (May 31)
AP

When #MeToo exploded in the fall of 2017, its most optimistic promise was that it would become more than a hashtag, more than a brief interruption in America’s regularly scheduled sexism, more than a reckoning for famous men who had abused wealthy, white women.

There were front-page headlines, explosions of long-stifled rage and examinations of collective complicity. There was hope those two small words signaled the beginning of meaningful change and, eventually, healing –  a belief the silence was finally broken. 

Has #MeToo delivered? 

“People are paying more attention, but I’m not convinced that we’re able or ready to behave differently about it as a nation,” said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

#MeToo’s progress paints a murky picture. 

Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, ascended to the Supreme Court. President Donald Trump, who has been accused by 19 women of sexual misconduct, was recently accused of rape by prominent writer E. Jean Carroll, and public reaction was muted. While Congress has overhauled the process for handling sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill, it has not passed any legislation in the past two years to address sexual harassment in America’s workplaces. Thousands of migrant children who crossed the southern border into the U.S. have reported they were sexually assaulted while in government custody. 

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But Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually assaulted hundreds of girls and young women throughout his career, was given prison sentences in 2017 and 2018 that ensure he will die behind bars, and more than a hundred of his victims were permitted to address him directly in court. Bill Cosby, who for years dodged allegations that he had preyed on women since the 1960s, was incarcerated last year for sexual assault. After decades of the music industry turning a blind eye to allegations R. Kelly physically and sexually abused scores of girls and women, the singer and songwriter has been charged with federal sex crimes.

In the past two years, state legislators introduced approximately 200 bills to address workplace harassment, according to an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center. More than 5,000 people have requested help from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, and the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network says calls to its hotlines have increased more than 60%.

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#MeToo has affirmed for survivors they are not alone, sexual violence experts say – that they are part of something bigger than their individual traumas. It’s led to the downfall of some men and to sporadic pockets of progress in some states and industries.

But experts say widespread justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators is still far off. Notably, #MeToo’s progress has lagged among working-class Americans and women of color.

What #MeToo has changed

Houser, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said the biggest impact of #MeToo is decreased stigma and increased awareness.

“After 27 years of working in the sexual assault arena, things now just feel different,” she said. “Neighbors, family, friends, not just colleagues, are interested in this and they have the ability to ask more educated questions. They are slightly better informed.”

Nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime, according to a 2019 study produced by the University of California, San Diego, and the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment. 

Leontyne Evans, a survivor of childhood molestation, rape and domestic violence, says #MeToo has cleared the way for countless survivors like herself to speak openly about that trauma. 

“It’s the secrets that burden you. It’s the hiding that burdens you,” she said.

Abra Poindexter, a rape survivor and psychotherapist in Omaha, Nebraska, says after #MeToo she became more open about her own survivorship. But the bigger impact, she says, has been on her caseload. Poindexter says #MeToo has empowered many of her patients, who see news stories of victims holding their abusers accountable, to come forward after years of silence.

“I have three cases right now in which folks … are directly confronting perpetrators in their families, and it’s having a profound ripple effect,” she said. “In one family, two other survivors came forward.”

Crime data from a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report indicates police reports of sexual assault nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017. 

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Who’s been left out by #MeToo 

When #MeToo entered the national consciousness, there were questions about whom the movement was really for. Headlines were largely dominated by stories of white, wealthy, straight, cisgender women, even though rates of sexual violence are disproportionally higher for poor women, women of color and LGBTQ people.

While actor Alyssa Milano is credited with helping #MeToo go viral, the hashtag was first used more than 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke to help poor young women of color who have been sexually abused, assaulted, exploited or harassed. 

Many of these women didn’t see themselves in the 2017 movement. Several of the men brought down in the initial wave were high-powered players in Hollywood, media and politics. But an analysis of data from the left-leaning Center for American Progress shows more than a quarter of sexual harassment charges are filed in industries with large numbers of low-wage service-sector workers – industries dominated by women, particularly women of color. 

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Look at the fast-food industry. In September 2018, just shy of #MeToo’s one-year anniversary, McDonald’s workers in 10 cities across the U.S. went on a strike to protest sexual harassment. In May, more than two dozen women filed lawsuits against the company or filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying they were sexually harassed while working for the fast-food chain.

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The charges – 25 filings in all – involve alleged incidents at McDonald’s restaurants and corporate offices in 20 cities across the U.S. in which workers as young as 16 faced harassing behavior that included groping, indecent exposure, propositions for sex and lewd comments by supervisors.

“It’s unacceptable that as the second-largest employer in the world, McDonald’s (doesn’t keep) workers like me safe, ” said Jamelia Fairley of Sanford, Florida, who says she dealt with a coworker’s unwanted touching and sexually explicit comments. Fairley says her harassment included asking her how much it would cost to have sex with her then-1-year-old daughter. 

If the #MeToo movement’s ultimate demand is gender equality, activists agree, it must extend to industries not often in the spotlight, to communities where abuse often goes unchecked. 

What hasn’t changed

Experts say while victims feel more comfortable speaking openly about their experiences, not enough attention is paid to perpetrators – why they commit violence and why they continue to get away with it. 

“You can increase your compassion for victims and survivorship, but paying attention to how perpetrators set things up and get away with it is a ledge we haven’t yet crossed,” Houser said.

#MeToo also hasn’t done a good job connecting sexual assault to other toxic beliefs, Poindexter says.

“If you were in the middle of the country and you were sitting in on a batterers’ treatment group working with perps, the first element of working with them is looking at how white supremacy and racism and how misogyny and homophobia and transphobia are the elements that support ongoing sexual assault,” she said.

Too political?

Much to the dismay of sexual assault advocates, #MeToo has become politicized, and hyper-partisanship may explain why there hasn’t been more progress. 

Party divisions are extreme. Three-quarters of Republicans believe the movement has gone too far, while only a fifth of Democrats say the same, according to a 2018 Ipsos/NPR study. 

“I would love somebody to tell me what that means,” Houser said. “Is there a certain amount of sexual harassment and assault that we should tolerate?” 

Democrats have championed the most comprehensive attempts to overhaul federal law post-#MeToo – but their minority status in the Senate and the Trump’s Administration’s prior work to roll back harassment victims’ rights may doom its passage anytime soon (the White House slashed an Obama-era rule that prevented companies from forcing employees into arbitration when they’re sexually harassed or assaulted at work).

The Be Heard in the Workplace Act does the most to “address that power imbalance” between employees and their bosses, according to Jennifer Klein, chief strategy and policy officer at Time’s Up. 

Be Heard would extend Civil Rights protections to millions more Americans by providing protections to those who don’t fall under the category of “employee,” including independent contractors, volunteers, interns, fellows, and trainees, regardless of the size of the business they work for. It would also provide LGBTQ workers with protection from employment discrimination, end mandatory arbitration and pre-employment nondisclosure agreements, give workers more time to report harassment and eliminate the tipped minimum wage.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and four other Democrats, all of whom are women.

What’s next? 

When #MeToo exploded, Burke said it affirmed the power of those two words, though she wasn’t sure where it would all lead.

“There’s this moment that is happening that is wonderful and it’s viral, but there’s no discussion about what you do with this now,” she said. “What do you do with those feelings?” 

Houser says she hopes people will channel them into efforts to change the structures in society that perpetuate sexism – from police departments and courtrooms to workplaces and college campuses. 

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#MeToo began with a tweet. For advocates and survivors, it will end when we live in a nation where safety and equity are the norms – whoever you are, wherever you work, no matter where you live.

“I sure hope when we have this phone call in 10 years, that we have obvious, measurable change,” Houser said. “I’m optimistic it will be a different conversation.”

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org/online and receive confidential support.