The dominoes fell one after another: rich and powerful men were all accused of sexual misconduct, from former Senator Al Franken to the comedian Louis C.K. to the actor Kevin Spacey. They all seemed to fall one after another from their pedestals of celebrity, prestige, and privilege. Over the course of a few months, seemingly untouchable men were being fired from their networks, having their book deals cancelled, getting pulled from TV shows and movies, and resigning from their seats of power.
In October 2017, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused by 84 women of sexual harassment and assault, became the first one to go. In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, on October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano shared this viral tweet: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
The hashtag #MeToo, often accompanied by personal accounts of sexual harassment and assault, spread rapidly throughout social media, prompting over 13 million Facebook and Twitter posts. Other high-profile women, from the actress Reese Witherspoon to Olympic champion Simone Biles, all participated in the #MeToo trend. The pervasiveness of rape culture became resoundingly clear, as multitudes of people—from close friends to prominent celebrities—all reiterated their experiences; the personal was universal.
This cascade of justice felt cathartic, unprecedented, and refreshing. I thought of countless survivors—Anita Hill, Dylan Farrow, the anonymous woman whose case against Brock Turner led to a woefully underwhelming penalty, and so many others—whose voices were delegitimized and left as uncomfortable afterthoughts in the trajectories of men with privilege. Now, it seemed, sexual misconduct without regard to the power of the perpetrator, or what the survivor was wearing or drinking, would finally be taken seriously.
Yet, I also hesitate to accept the successes of #MeToo in its entirety. While #MeToo seems recent, in actuality, activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase in 2006. Given the complex history of racial politics and gender violence (Emmett Till comes to mind here), as well as the disturbing trends within white feminist activism, I think it is necessary to point out the significance of inaccurately attributing #MeToo to Alyssa Milano, a wealthy white celebrity, over Tarana Burke, an African-American advocate who had used the phrase a decade beforehand for marginalized communities.
This begs the question of why #MeToo exploded the way it did. Was it accumulated frustration after years of survivors not finding justice? Or maybe it was a new social awareness burgeoning within the post-Trump world. Yet a simple fact remains: although Milano did credit Burke with #MeToo, it seemed that the rest of the world did not start saying #MeToo until affluent, white actresses spoke up.
In an interview with Ebony, Burke stated, “I think that many times when white women want our [women of color’s] support, they use an umbrella of ‘women supporting women’ and forget that they didn’t lend the same kind of support.”
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Burke also wrote, “What history has shown us time and again is that if marginalized voices — those of people of color, queer people, disabled people, poor people — aren’t centered in our movements then they tend to become no more than a footnote. I often say that sexual violence knows no race, class or gender, but the response to it does.” Burke was clear that the history of #MeToo could not divorce questions of race and gender, emphasizing that #MeToo was “created for black and brown women and girls” given the disproportionate rates of sexual violence faced by women of color.
Indeed, much of my discomfort with #MeToo stems from a simple question—who is #MeToo intended for? This hashtag seems to suggest it is for everyone, yet the vast majority of discussion seems to suggest a much narrower picture, that sexual misconduct is an issue of women’s oppression at the hands of men.
Milano’s original tweet is an explicit call to women, and subsequent discussions have centered on the way that rape culture affects women. This is not inherently wrong; statistically speaking, the chance that a woman will be sexually assaulted is substantially higher than the risk for men. Thus, conversations on sexual violence are, in many ways, also about gender violence.
Yet, this gendered framing of sexual violence feels exclusive. Positing sexual violence as a universal, monolithic experience of men taking advantage of women inevitably erases the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as male rape victims. It also prescribes women to a perpetual state of victimhood. (While I think there is some nuance required to enter any of these conversations, needless to say, most discussions of #MeToo seem to lack such nuance.)
Another criticism of #MeToo is that it conflates sexual assault and sexual harassment. Actor Liam Neeson recently defended two celebrities accused of sexual harassment, calling the #MeToo movement a “bit of a witch hunt.”
“There’s some people, famous people, being suddenly accused of touching some girl’s knee or something, and suddenly they’re being dropped from their program,” he said, specifically referring to the cases of Dustin Hoffman and radio personality Garrison Keillor.
While categorizing #MeToo as a “witch hunt” seems regressive, Neeson’s sentiment deserves some unpacking. The idea that unwanted touching, words, or sex are equivalent, or at least warrant an equivalent response, is complex. Certainly, Milano’s original tweet seems to suggest some kind of equivalency, seeing as she calls for any woman who has been “sexually harassed or assaulted” to write “Me too.”
To be clear, any unwanted action is unacceptable and antithetical to the principles of consent. In many ways, Neeson misses the point. His phrasing includes an unspoken “just”—“just touching a girl’s knee” shouldn’t warrant firing, he seems to say. He ignores the harm of unwanted touching, even if it is “just” touching a girl’s knee, to defend men who exhibited predatory behavior. To me, this seems like misplaced concern.
But there are distinctions (at least legally) between sexual assault and harassment. And to some survivors of sexual assault, these distinctions are also psychological, but undermined by the ambiguous phrasing of #MeToo. Many have argued that experiences of harassment and assault are fundamentally different and should not be placed in the same category. One survivor expressed fury at the conflation: “As a recent survivor of rape, I have felt infuriated and confused by the laziness in the language of the topic, all too often conflating the life-changing event of being raped with an unpleasant but largely forgettable event like being patted on the knee.”
Yet parsing these distinctions psychologically also involves an unhealthy amount of subjectivity; who is to say whether verbal assault is more or less traumatizing than sexual assault, for example? And undoubtedly, trying to quantify these differences comes at the risk of trivializing someone else’s experiences.
Recently, feminist magazine Babe published an exposé titled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” An anonymous woman, given the pseudonym Grace, recalls an uncomfortable night with Ansari where she was “not listened to and ignored.” Grace says she gave several non-verbal cues that she did not want to continue with Ansari’s advances, but felt coerced into sexual activity with him. “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” Grace said.
Reading the Babe piece reminded me of the popular New Yorker short story, “Cat Person.” Both demonstrate the complicated gray areas of consent, the uneasy ambiguity between an awkward, uncomfortable sexual encounter and assault, and the insidious ways power dynamics and modern dating norms can collide.
The Babe piece drew fiery criticisms, such as Bari Weiss’s New York Times article, “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” Weiss calls the article the “worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement,” arguing that categorizing “bad sex” as sexual assault is irresponsibly regressive for women’s empowerment. To Weiss, reading non-verbal cues to determine consent requires an unhealthy amount of interpretation and subjectivity.
Perhaps we will never objectively “know” whether Grace’s experience constitutes sexual assault. But we at least can recognize from the Babe piece, as well as other incidents like “just touching a girl’s knee,” that ignorance of consent is pervasive. This is not to say that harassment and assault are the same, but instead different manifestations of rape culture. And certainly these behaviors can reinforce one another. If rapists feel entitled to yell “Hey, sexy!” on the street, don’t they also feel entitled to sexual activity, even if it isn’t reciprocated?
The ambiguity of #MeToo also offers anonymity and agency. Survivors can choose what and how much they want to share. To express solidarity and raise awareness, they can say as little as “Me too” or can share their full stories.
However, this confessional culture of #MeToo also increases my reluctance. In many ways, posting #MeToo is an act of performing pain on the stage of social media. Some have expressed discomfort at the pressure they feel to post their #MeToo stories. As columnist Kate Maltby wrote, “Perversely, however, the #metoo hashtag also puts the onus on women to dispense with our own privacy.”
In the way that #MeToo has spread, it forces survivors, rather than oppressors, to perform the emotional labor in discussions of sexual violence. Although some men have shared new hashtags, such as #HowIWillChange, the vast majority of the burden is placed on survivors to publicize their pain.
These contradictions within #MeToo expose the inevitable flaws of a two-word hashtag. As Tarana Burke stated, “[#MeToo] wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow.” Two words on Twitter are not enough to express the nuance needed to discuss sexual violence, rape culture, and the necessity of consent. #MeToo has only begun to expose the violence embedded in society, but the discussion cannot end here.
So, I tentatively say #MeToo, but I also ask for more: we must empathize while understanding the limits of our empathy; we must understand the intersections across race, class, gender, and more; we must express our words without devaluing the agency of others; and we must stay vigilant, so that #MeToo is not simply another hashtag, but an act of permanence, casting rape culture to the annals of history to cultivate a shared, enduring pedagogy of consent.