After dozens of women came forward with accusations of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, social media over the past few days has offered one cathartic release: sharing. In solidarity, survivors of sexual abuse and harassment have posted stories with the hashtag #MeToo. Or they just type the simple words, no explanation needed. Me too.
It can be a relief for participating survivors to say out loud that they too have been subjected to the abuse, the catcalls, the harassment, the violations small and large at the hands of people who are historically protected from consequences. If survivors speak openly, the thinking goes, they can build another network of support for one another to subvert injustice, and maybe, finally, there will be some.
The original incarnation of Me Too was created by activist Tarana Burke, who built an online support network of the same name; the phrase was amplified by (and occasionally misattributed to) actress Alyssa Milano on Sunday. Burke gave a statement to Ebony saying that Me Too wasn’t “built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow.”
“It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”
“What’s happening now is powerful and I salute it and the women who have disclosed but the power of using ‘me too’ has always been in the fact that it can be a conversation starter or the whole conversation – but it was us talking to us,” she continued.
Me Too is an old method applied to new media—still, the viral iteration sweeping Twitter looks familiar for other reasons.
In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed half a dozen people on his “Day of Retribution” and left behind a deeply disturbing manifesto about his hatred for women. Soon after, the hashtag #YesAllWomen flooded Twitter with everything from stories of horrific violence to the mundane misogyny experienced daily by women and non-binary people. It felt then, as it does now, like a desperate response to frustration, fear, and sadness in a world that is taking too long to change. For a second, it seemed like maybe people were listening, that the testimony was so undeniable that it was somehow enough. Obviously, it’s not.
Whisper networks, hashtags, and Excel spreadsheets of abusers are created when the proper channels for naming and shaming fail. The fact that some feel like social media is their only recourse is yet another injustice, and #MeToo is asking for more than it’s giving. Survivors are expected to offer up their most private traumas for public consumption. They’re asked to present a united front, despite their diversity of experiences, and the institutionally disproportionate support, at their disposal. While doing this, they must also bear witness to each other’s suffering. The implication of this demand is that if enough people share their grief (whether or not they’re ready/able/safe to), then abuse can no longer be denied—as though the sheer number of accusers against Weinstein, or Bill Cosby, or the death of six people didn’t present adequate evidence.
But what other options are there? The “proper channel” for reporting sexual harassment is theoretically a business’s human resources department. Assuming a person feels secure enough to go to HR (or that one has a job where HR even exists) harassment is largely treated as a hazard of the workplace. For example, Weinstein’s 2015 contract appears to have included his propensity for abusing women, with structured payments Weinstein would be obligated to pay out every time one of these cases attracted the company’s notice. And any woman who wanted to report him would be coming up against a powerful institution that had planned for this eventuality, treated it as not only natural, but inevitable.
Without a clear path forward, it is the abused who are being asked, yet again, to shoulder the responsibility of their own assaults. The #MeToo stories neatly excise the criminal who first burdened them. We see only the survivor carrying this pain, choosing to share it as an act of bravery, but the finger points nowhere. Sexual violence is largely treated as a problem that women have, not that men perpetrate. Abusers still aren’t being asked to come up with solutions to their issue.
There must be another option, yet it constantly seem to fall on those suffering the most from these violations to figure it out. But what is the alternative?