What We Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo
Since news broke in October of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged rampant sexual violence and assault, women have come out in force to tell their stories of being on the receiving end of unwanted sexual behavior.
As the Weinstein effect has taken down journalist Mark Halperin, former Amazon executive Roy Price, Oscar-nominated writer-director James Toback, and public intellectual Leon Wieseltier, social media has become the site of confessionals.
Nearly 2 million posts have appeared with the hashtag #MeToo in response to a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano asking those who had been “harassed or assaulted” to speak out.
The five-letter hashtag collapsed everything — from rape to crude humor to being stared at on a train — into a single, powerful catch-all category. Any stripe of sexual misdeed was recognized as part of a mass culture of violence by men against women.
Then an Australian journalist named Benjamin Law launched another campaign, #HowIWillChange, with men confessing their deeds and promising to change their ways.
“Facebook’s algorithm are not the way to combat the plague of abuse.” – Sivan Rahav Meir
Law wrote in a series of tweets that men need to recognize they “don’t need to be a perpetrator to be a bad guy.” Questioning allegations, Law wrote, is the equivalent of being a quiet bystander while watching an offense take place.
Men’s #HowIWillChange vows included promising to not interrupt a woman speaking or ask at a job interview how many female executives are with the company, and to shut down catcalls.
Perceived improprieties are now immediately taken up by Twitter. Recently, appearing on a British talk show, actor Adam Sandler touched English actress Claire Foy’s knee.
In the social media whirl that followed, some called Sandler’s act inappropriate and asked whether he would have touched the knee of a man in the same setting. (He had, in a recent interview with Dustin Hoffman). Sandler’s spokesperson said it was a “friendly gesture” that was “blown out of proportion.” A representative for Foy said the actress took no offense.
Sivan Rahav Meir, an Israeli journalist and popular Torah lecturer, characterized the social media approach to addressing sexual assault as dangerously unhealthy.
“Facebook’s algorithms are not the way to combat the plague of abuse sweeping through society, and they may possibly be harmful,” she wrote on her blog.
Rahav Meir cautioned that the indiscriminate outpouring of personal anecdotes may unintentionally normalize sexual assault, giving the mistaken impression that all women have been or will at some point be abused.
“The nonstop flood of heartbreaking stories with the accompanying violence is exaggerated and too intimate,” continued Rahav Meir. “There is a total mishmash of posts between the serious cases of abuse and those of mild harassment as if they are all equally offensive. However, the story of a woman who once had an unpleasant or unwelcome comment directed at her is not in any way connected to a woman who is the victim of a violent assault who requires professional therapy.”
While online indictments of nameless alleged perpetrators may raise awareness, they hold no guilty parties to account and contribute to a “sensationalis[t] and gossipy” exercise, she wrote.
Instead, Rahav Meir encouraged women to work the legal system to crush sexual violence.
Trading sober assessment, exacting definitions and legal action for frenzied narrative and confused terminology can have disturbing consequences. It’s a trend that has been playing out on America’s college campuses.
Shortly before the media were consumed with Weinstein and company, the country’s institutions of higher learning released campus security reports containing three years’ worth of data, as universities that participate in federal financial aid programs are required to do annually under a policy known as the Clery Act.
The reports lack clarity. “Consent,” a word that sits at the core of the conversation about sexual violence, especially on campuses, has no uniform definition in Clery Act reporting. An offense classified as “dating violence” must have occurred while the victim and alleged offender were in a relationship, yet there are no clear parameters for what constitutes a “relationship” — and college students often aren’t engaged in relationships in any traditional sense. “Stalking” is defined as causing “substantial emotional distress” on at least two occasions, but the report offers no specific measure of what that looks like.
Federal reporting that most people don’t look at may not have direct impact on this national conversation but may signal the rabbit hole we have headed down: victims left to navigate a confusing landscape, alleged offenders robbed of their legal right to know what they have been accused of and adjudicators who are unqualified to handle the psychological or legal elements of sexual offenses.
Campuses again offer a useful corollary when considering the numbers. The hundreds of thousands of posts in recent weeks suggest that every woman is the victim of a sexual offense and every man an offender.
As Law, the journalist, wrote, he had to “acknowledge that if all women I know has [sic] been sexually harassed, abused or assaulted, then I know perpetrators. Or am one.”
On campus, an oft-cited claim is that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during her time in a U.S. college. The statistic originated in a widely disputed 10-year-old survey, but its results have been replicated in surveys by individual universities and in a larger report published by The Washington Post.
Critics cite overly broad definitions and concerns with the reports’ methodologies when disputing the horrifying statistic.
A similar argument already has begun to take hold over #MeToo.
Washington Post writer Lisa Bonos asked those who might be shocked at the number of posts to “consider this: There are far more stories of #MeToos than the number of posts on Facebook.”
Women may be holding back because they don’t think their stories rise to the level of #MeToo, or they may not be ready to share them on such a public forum, Bonos posited. But many more stories are out there, she assured her readers.
Meanwhile, an anonymous writer at the free speech-promoting site Quillette offered a hypothetical breakdown in which he attempted to demonstrate that the internet “can cause an awareness campaign to go viral with millions of posts even if it is raising awareness of something that affects only a small percentage of the population.” In his experiment, 812,500 #MeToo posts were quickly generated if 5 percent of Milano’s 3.25 million Twitter followers participated, and then each of those followers in turn had five friends who posted.
“Of course, this analysis does not prove that abuse is rare; it only shows that the success of #MeToo does not prove the contrary,” according to the author, a software engineer.
Each day, women continue to reveal painful stories of personal and professional lives derailed by influential men who systematically violated them. We easily can be transfixed in disgust and communal shame. But for the national conversation to move forward and force away the lies and grime that have hid sexual assault, it cannot stay boxed into hashtags and tweets.
Rachel Frommer is a reporter with the Washington Free Beacon.