In the last two months, a dramatically pervasive issue has finally been exposed. This was due to the appearance of the MeToo movement, begun by activist Tarana Burke. The campaign gained traction on October 15th, when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all women to disclose their stories of sexual harassment via a simple “#MeToo” hashtag on twitter and other social media sites (her tweet can be seen here).
What Milano may not have expected was the amount of attention her tweet would gain in a very short time, as more and more women began sharing their stories (including dozens of incidents involving celebrities and men in positions of power). Numerous accusations surfaced and implicated well-known men ranging from actor Kevin Spacey to film producer Harvey Weinstein, and have resulted in significant consequences for the accused.
In the media, the accusations sparked a change in perception regarding sexual assault, as many outlets came to the support of women who had experienced assault or harassment. But as stories continue to emerge, some are asking: what can be considered sexual assault? Where do we draw the line?
A more personal example of the MeToo campaign involves British actor Ed Westwick, who was accused of rape by actress Kristina Cohen following an incident at his house. Cohen says she arrived at Westwick’s house together with her former boyfriend, but after a reported unsettling conversation with both men, she decided to take a nap upstairs. During this nap, she was awakened by Westwick on top of her, who Cohen says then proceeded to rape her.
Cohen’s story described a terrible ordeal, but also raised questions for some regarding her decision to take a nap upstairs (even though she felt unsafe after her strange conversation). Furthermore, Westwick himself denied the accusation, claiming that he did not even know Cohen. This example highlights the problematic nature of most sexual assault cases, as it quickly becomes a he-said she-said case if no hard evidence can be provided.
This may also be one of the main reasons many women do not come forward with their experiences of sexual assault, as only 6 out of every 1,000 rape accusations end in a conviction in the United States. Many women also feel ashamed to admit their experiences, as it is ingrained in many societies to blame the victim instead of the perpetrator. The survivors of sexual assault are often themselves criticized for wearing revealing clothing and drinking too much, and are often even told to just keep their knees closed. Society often fails to see that they are not at fault for someone else taking advantage of their body.
The MeToo campaign provides a low threshold for women to come forward, as they can choose to share via the hashtag without providing the story behind it — helping to show the pervasiveness of sexual assault, without having to deal with all the possible judgments attached to having experienced it.
So where should the line be drawn? Are women responsible for determining their own response to unwanted behaviour, if a repeated ‘no’ or other defence is not enough? Is all unwanted behaviour towards women immediately sexual assault? Careful consideration should be given to this global issue, as each case is different from the next. The wider implications of the MeToo campaign include the instilled sexism and disregard of women by men in society, which highlights the importance of a thorough investigation without judgment. Sexual assault and rape are old issues, but are still as important as ever in creating a safe environment for all.
The key to understanding the MeToo campaign and resolving unwanted sexual behaviour by men towards women, is in recognising the strength and courage it takes for a victim to come forward with an accusation. Sometimes it could be enough to just listen to what they have to say and to look at the bigger picture. If it is recognised by society as a severe problem that occurs in daily life, steps can be taken towards a more inclusive and judgment-free society.
Responsibility for correcting the issue, however, is not just in the hands of men and women. It lies with each nation’s media and justice systems — to review cases objectively and without bias, to discuss the issues sensitively, and to take action towards a safer environment for everyone.
by Janneke Kempen (Rotterdam, The Netherlands)