The power of #MeToo

November 9, 2017

Leia Petty looks at what the #MeToo campaign has done to spotlight the discussion of sexual assault--and the opportunities for taking the struggle for justice forward.

I moved on her, actually. You know, she was down on Palm Beach. I moved on her, and I failed. I'll admit it. I did try and fuck her. She was married...I moved on her very heavily...I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn't get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she's now got the big phony tits and everything. She's totally changed her look...Yeah, that's her. With the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful--I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything...Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything.
-- Donald Trump

MANY OF us believed that these words, leaked one month before Election Day last year, would bring down Donald Trump. Instead, he won the presidency.

This belief of Trump and other privileged men like him that they can "do anything" to women--what Lindy West called in the New York Times "the smothering, delusional, galactic entitlement of powerful men"--has led to countless cases of sexual harassment, assault and rape, which have rarely been punished.

Marching against sexual violence in Seattle

The silence that women were forced into was deafening. But the rage produced by this injustice--a rage all women carry--cannot be buried forever. #MeToo is our latest eruption. And it won't be our last.

IN THE past few weeks, more than 30 high-profile men have been accused of sexual harassment and are finally facing real consequences. In many cases, the allegations are of a decades-long pattern of abuse--abuse that was known and encouraged in their inner circles--often in exchange for promised career advancement for the women who worked for them.

Men with privileged positions in the entertainment industry--movie producers, art magazine editors, well-known actors, photographers--have been the first to be scrutinized in the wake of media mogul Harvey Weinstein's sexual assault history coming to light.

Hollywood and the industries surrounding it are a collective institution where the objectification of women is built into the foundations of profit-making, producing a toxic mix of exploitation and sexism that has devastated women's lives.

But #MeToo has given women the confidence to tell their stories--because, for the first time in decades, they are being believed.

Recently, actor Kevin Spacey has been accused of sexual assault by multiple men, many of them teenagers at the time of the assaults--helping to initiate a much-needed conversation about the sexual abuse experienced by boys, which was also reflected in the #MeToo campaign.

#MeToo's impact has gone beyond Hollywood. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon was forced to quit after allegations of sexual harassment. Several members of parliament and more than 30 lawmakers from Theresa May's Conservative Party also face allegations. Three Dartmouth professors have been put on paid leave while a criminal investigation is carried out for "serious misconduct."

All signs point to this continuing. For those who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse, watching this unfold produces a combination of horror and vindication. Especially revealing is how many of the women speaking out now have come forward in the past, and been silenced, with many experiencing lifelong trauma as a result.

The confidence to continue speaking out, the confidence that comes from finally being believed, can only help the movement against sexual harassment and assault--and strengthen the wider struggle against all injustice.

THESE PAST few weeks have witnessed a national conversation about sexual harassment not seen since the 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas to become a Supreme Court justice.

At that time, Anita Hill, a law professor who had previously worked for Thomas, came forward and accused him of sexual harassment. But instead of taking on Thomas, then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joe Biden put Hill on trial and opted not to call on three other witnesses who would have echoed Hill's charges of sexual abuse. Thomas was later confirmed.

We are in debt to Anita Hill, and the hundreds of women coming forward now with their stories are walking in her footsteps.

#MeToo provided a means to break the silence and transform the injustices we experience into something "to be fought instead of endured," as Jen Roesch wrote at

In short, #MeToo has transformed victimhood--and that has political consequences. As James Baldwin wrote, "The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat." Coming forward with our individual stories is a necessary precondition to becoming a real threat.

The confidence of women to continue coming forward will depend on whether the men responsible face real consequences. So far, several dozen have been forced to resign or quit, or have lost contracts.

#MeToo has taken place largely through social media so far, but that is changing. The Feminist Majority Foundation, along with Civican and We for She, is sponsoring a march through Hollywood on November 12 called "Take Back the Workplace," which will end outside CNN headquarters.

The women who participated in the Miss Peru 2018 beauty pageant last week protested the prior requirement to announce their bust and waist measurements, and instead announced statistics on violence against women--part of a years-long campaign to increase awareness of the high rates of violence against women in Peru.

And most recently, the New York Police Department announced that it expected to have enough evidence to arrest Harvey Weinstein.

GIVEN THE sea change that has taken place in a matter of weeks, it's even more important for progressives and socialists to support the women and men coming forward, find ways to turn increased awareness into activism, and collaborate with fellow feminists on how to build a movement that can challenge sexism in all its forms.

Dismissiveness of the #MeToo campaign isn't a helpful way to start--and yet there are some who criticized it since the beginning. Megan Nolan does precisely this in an article for Vice titled "The Problem with the #MeToo Campaign."

"Awareness of the scale of abuse does not address these problems," writes Nolan. "The simple fact is, I have no idea how to address them. They are unimaginably ingrained in the foundations of our society. The condition of being sexually oppressed is the condition of womanhood itself."

Many women share a sense of powerlessness and impatience--which is understandable given the weight of oppression and objectification endured by women who, until recently, felt entirely ignored.

But we can't allow this to turn us into cynics. If we do, we miss an opportunity to collectively resist at precisely the time when it matters most to do so.

It's true that "awareness of the scale of the abuse" isn't the same as addressing the problem. But increased awareness does produce a more fertile ground for activism. And dozens of men who abuse women are facing criminal investigation or being forced to resign positions of power, which is a good starting point.

Actor Jane Fonda and writer Jamilah Lemieux gave voice to another strand of skepticism when they argued that awareness of sexual harassment and assault is only happening now because most of the victims speaking out are white.

Lemieux goes further than Fonda in an article titled "Weinstein, White Tears and the Boundaries of Black Women's Empathy," stating that there are limits to the level of empathy that Black women can muster in response to the sexual harassment experienced by white women because such empathy, historically, hasn't been returned.

It is absolutely true that Black women have faced a distinct experience of being victimized and even criminalized when they come forward or confront their abusers. The #SurvivedAndPunished project that documents the re-victimization of those who challenge sexual abuse and violence overwhelmingly features stories of women of color.

Everyone who has been touched by the #MeToo phenomenon needs to know--if they don't already--this special oppression faced by women of color. But this is precisely the moment when empathy for the distinct experiences of women of color can develop and spread--precisely because a national conversation has begun.

Feminists must bring these stories to the forefront, not chastise or minimize how difficult it was for so many women to come forward in the first place. The reality is that even privileged white women, such as actress Rose McGowan, were forced into silence for decades before they were finally able to break the silence about the abuse they faced.

The fact that the floodgates have been opened to talk about sexual abuse and harassment gives feminists the opportunity to raise the voices of the most oppressed among us.

Tarana Burke, the originator of #MeToo a decade ago, started the campaign to bring forward the stories of sexual assault experienced by Black women and connect women with one another. As Burke stated in a series of tweets in response to the resurgence of the #MeToo campaign:

The point of the work we've done over the last decade with the "me too movement" is to let women, particularly young women of color, know that they are not alone--it's a movement...It's beyond a hashtag. It's the start of a larger conversation and a movement for radical community healing.

WHERE THAT "larger conversation and movement" can go next should be the topic of discussion on the left. As Alex Press writes in an article for Jacobin titled "The Union Option":

In an era when so many of us know how widespread workplace sexual harassment is, it's important to take in the details of a rare case of a harasser being publicly accused. This is the exception to the rule, which is that powerful men like Weinstein get to harass and assault women until they die, no matter how many people in their industries know about it.

But having digested these details, we--or at least those of us concerned with fighting these injustices--arrive at a question: What do we do about it?

It's significant that the exposure of Weinstein and the #MeToo resurgence spurred on by it has had tangible results in bringing down some vile sexists--and doing more to put men in positions of power on notice than all the fake corporate "sensitivity" trainings.

But Press points to a further step: translate increased awareness into "formal collective action. When it comes to the workplace, the most common vehicle for this step is a union. Any of us who want to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace should be fighting for those protections too."

This is a valuable contribution to the conversation: Increasing protections for women and others who experience sexual harassment and creating the mechanisms to address it within our unions is a critical component of the larger fight.

But given that union density is at a low point in modern U.S. history, unions can only be a part of the solution.

And what's more, the confidence required for women to address sexual harassment in the workplace is directly linked to how widespread the feminist movement is outside the workplace.

WHAT WOULD it take for the heightened awareness of sexual abuse and the confidence to confront it to translate into a more combative and organized feminist movement?

Activism around sexual harassment and assault were cornerstones of prior feminist movements, most notably in the women's liberation movement of the 1970s.

And with the Trump administration, there is no shortage of attacks on women's rights that we need to confront. As the #MeToo eruption was taking place, the House voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Trump issued an executive order allowing employers to deny birth control coverage to women, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gutted Title IX measures around campus sexual assault, and multiple attempts have been made to defund Planned Parenthood.

The conditions that have produced an emboldened right have also created the possibility of an emboldened resistance--and there are no shortage of battlegrounds on which a new feminist movement can fight.

The link between a fight against sexual harassment and reproductive justice is a demand for full control over our bodies and self-determination in our lives.

Let all of the sexual harassers in positions of power continue to fall. But long-term justice cannot be served without socialists and feminists building resistance organizations to continue the fight beyond social media.

We need to build resistance organizations that can defend abortion clinics, demand campus administrations reinstitute Title IX protections, mobilize thousands against the sexual harassment--and, in the process, give women and men who want to stamp out sexism a place to come together to build the struggle.

#MeToo isn't a spectator sport to either be supported or dismissed. It's a moment that we can transform into a movement that takes the struggle against sexual harassment and all forms of oppression forward.

Further Reading

From the archives