In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Alyssa Milano, of Who’s the Boss and Charmed fame, started a #MeToo, social media campaign that has flooded Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The campaign aims to illustrate the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and has clearly succeeded in the endeavour. Within just two days the campaign has successfully revealed the sheer magnitude of sexual violence. Milano’s campaign has received 80,000 responses, women, some men and members of the Trans community are participating in the campaign from all across the world.
The numbers are overwhelming, the stories are horrifying and the support is moving. But what else are we learning from this campaign?
Stories of sexual harassment and assault cut across industry, geographical locations, class, age, gender and marital status. The campaign may have started in response to predators in the U.S entertainment industry, but is definitely not restricted to it. In the local context, there are numerous stories surrounding the Lollywood industry and famous cricketers none of which have gained significant media attention nor inspired legal action. In the political realm, PTI leader Imran Khan has been accused of sexual harassment by Ayesha Gulalai Wazir and former PM Nawaz Sharif has been accused of sexual advances towards Kim Barker; both of which have been dismissed as ‘attention seeking’. Professors from LUMS, Karachi University and Punjab University have been accused sexual harassment, all of which have been settled within university affairs. The list goes on.
The volume of people participating in the campaign is large. The trend has caught fire because people feel empowered by sharing their stories. They have control over their narrative, they can choose to reveal as much or as little as they want, and are not forced to identify their abuser. People are allowed to define sexual assault in personal terms, and are not required to sanitize their language using legal or political jargon. As the assaults are not always directly described, mostly participants have been not gas-lighted nor trolled. There is a perceived safety in numbers, a common thread connecting all participants in solidarity. While all these conditions have contributed to the success of the social media campaign, it is depressing to realize that had all these conditions not be prevalent, the campaign would not have gained traction. In different circumstances participants of the campaign would have fallen prey to social media trolls and victim blamers.
However, the volume of people participating in the campaign can also be perceived as small. As with all cases of sexual violence there is a huge discrepancy between reported violence and actual violence. Revealing experiences of sexual assault and harassment on a public platform comes at a high price for many. Historically members of the LGBT community are less likely to report violence because it invites more violence, cyber bullying and therefore, psychological harm. Victims of sexual violence may be in intimate relationships with their abuser. Abusers may be in a position of power at home and in the workplace, and therefore in a position to punish the victim. Even well intentioned loved ones can add to the victims’ disempowerment but clumsily and persistently asking unwelcomed questions. In a hasty attempt to protect victims, near and dear could curtail the victim’s agency by imposing curfews, insisting that they quit their jobs and disallowing to independent access to public spaces. If one were to learn anything from this, is that participating in the #MeToo campaign is not case of jumping on the band wagon, but a deliberate and calculated move.
#MeToo is not the first of its kind. Other social media campaigns include #YesAllWomen and #EverydaySexism, both of which are run predominantly by women aiming to educate men about sexism and harassment. While acknowledging the power of social media campaigns, one can’t help but question the limits of its impact. It seems that women (and other victims) have to not only protect themselves, recover from abuse but also bear the burden of educating men. How many stories, how many campaigns will it take for men to believe us? Will the onus of preventing sexual harassment and assault ever fall on men?
I saw another Facebook post today, one that didn’t gain as much traction. It said “A heartfelt request to men: in the comments of this post please list one tangible action that you will take to end rape culture. (We know many of you are victims too, we believe you. But we still can’t solve this problem without you.)” – by Audra Williams.
Perhaps this should be the next social media campaign.