The Metoo movement is useful

Anna Réz
#MeToo - How can we talk about sexual abuse?

A large number of women shared their experiences of sexual harassment under the hashtag #MeToo. This social media campaign triggered a social dialogue in which many different views of sexual harassment clashed: from the boulevard sensation to victim blaming to a broader social interpretation of the phenomenon - the personal stories, the telling of which costs quite a bit to overcome, received a wide variety of interpretive frames.

By Anna Réz

On October 7, 2017, the New York Times an investigative report in which the authors Jodi Kantor and Megan Twoley - based on interviews and legal documents - uncovered sexual abuse committed by Harvey Weinstein, the director of the Miramax film studio, since 1990. In the weeks that followed, more than a hundred women reported to the press that Weinstein had made them unsolicited sexual offers, forced unwanted sexual contact, or otherwise harassed them. On October 15, eight days after the outbreak of the scandal, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted women who had already been victims of sexual violence or harassment to do so under the hashtag #MeToo (“me too”, “me / to me too ”). It was the hour of birth of a campaign in which women affected worldwide - primarily via social media - reported millions of times about sexual abuse.

Framing sexual harassment

The term framing describes the way in which the media interprets a particular message or story and puts it into context. Whether consciously or unconsciously - with every “retelling” of a message, journalists make a decision as to which existing social discussions, terms, pairs of opposites and meanings they relate to the story Recipients interpret the story and think further. The title “Thanks to government measures, the willingness to have children is increasing” above an article on a sociological study, directs the reader's attention in a completely different direction than the title “More and more unskilled young mothers in the country”. While the focus of the first heading is a success of the government and the population growth is concealed as a positive phenomenon, the second heading focuses on different life strategies of different social groups.
 
Although #MeToo is often referred to as a movement, there was and is no unified community behind the social dialogue that #MeToo initiated that would define the goals and framework of this dialogue. The meaning of the hashtag #MeToo was shaped by how and for what purpose the opinion leaders on social media, journalists and decision-makers from the institutional environment and politics have used it and still use it today.

Rule or exception?

The most direct message from #MeToo is that women face sexual harassment and abuse on a daily basis. The campaign was so successful because enough women shared their experiences to show those around them that this is a mass phenomenon and that many more men are committed sexual abuse than we want to believe. Feminist movements see the importance of the #MeToo campaign in the fact that it finally became clear: Sexual abuse is not an individual slip by particularly unscrupulous men, but a systemic phenomenon.

Asymmetrical relationships

Instead of sharing new information in front of a broader public, the #MeToo campaign put existing knowledge in a new light. Even before that, it was no secret that influential men from the film and theater world (directors, producers, leading actors) often link the career progress of actresses or their cast to their willingness to have sexual contact - the term “cast couch” is well known. #MeToo has shown, however, that these are not "business transactions" on an equal footing (sex for work), but that there are unequal power relationships in which only one side sets the framework for cooperation and thus forces the other side into a predicament. This knowledge could be gained by the fact that the perspective of the victims became part of the public discourse and even dominated it. This enabled empathy with the women concerned, their feelings and dilemmas, and it drew attention to the long-lasting psychological wounds that such an experience leaves behind. Access to the subject from the victim's perspective also revealed that previously abuses by influential men were often accepted as “normal business practice”, an unchangeable natural fact.

The effects of #MeToo

The Weinstein revelations and the hashtag #MeToo received special media attention until the end of 2017, which helped the uncovering of numerous other scandals. More cases of harassment in the film industry came to light not only in the United States - similar allegations were also made public in other countries. In Hungary, for example, the actress Lilla Sárosdi publicly broke her silence about the fact that at a young age the director László Marton had made her an unsolicited sexual offer in a car (later another seven women reported similar experiences with Marton).
 
Many attempts have been made to examine the phenomenon of sexual abuse from a broader perspective. Already in the early phase of the campaign, the objection arose that the issue of sexual abuse should not be viewed as a special problem in the art and acting world, after all, the core of the problem is present in any workplace. At the end of 2017, however, the impression was solidified that the media's interest in the #MeToo phenomenon mainly concerned concrete stories, and even more: only the stories of well-known personalities made it into the news stream in the long term - #MeToo was also picked up by the tabloid media. The endeavor to start a far-reaching dialogue about the responsibility of employers with regard to the prevention and sanctioning of sexual abuse remained equally unsuccessful.

criticism

In connection with #MeToo, critical voices were heard from the start. In the early stages of the campaign, on the one hand, they questioned the credibility of the reports and, on the other hand, pointed to the victims' alleged responsibility for the harassment they experienced. Victim blaming or victim accusation is problematic (primarily from a moral point of view) because it suggests that the victim and not the perpetrator behaved wrongly. Although Victim blaming is present in many areas of life (for example, the question is often raised of the extent to which the homeless are responsible for their own fate), it occurs most frequently in the case of sexual violence against women: for example, when asked whether the victims are not dressed too provocatively or why they went into the perpetrator's home.
 
In the later phase of the campaign, the criticism of #MeToo was based on the question of whether such framing of sexual abuse would not fundamentally rewrite the previously accepted rules regarding the relationship between men and women. In January 2018, one hundred French women from the arts, media and academia (including Catherine Deneuve) wrote an open letter. In it, they expressed their concern that the #MeToo campaign, on the one hand, pillories and publicly condemns men themselves for minor moral offenses and, on the other hand, stigmatizes everyday behaviors such as flirting and thus endangers sexual freedom and self-expression. The first objection shows that #MeToo has brought about an irreversible change in the media - and especially in the social media - also with regard to their function: The public now no longer only reveals individual violations of the norm, but is able - with the help of the commentators - also to immediately impose a "penalty".

Conclusion

#MeToo has been instrumental in making a widespread experience of many women nameable and pronounceable. The hashtag #MeToo has brought together many different forms and grades of the phenomenon - from whistling on the street to harassment in the workplace to physical sexual violence. It has become clear that these gradations cannot be viewed independently of one another. Thanks to #MeToo, sexual abuse is no longer hidden in the shadows of privacy. When is it useful to bring these cases to the public? How should journalists and media consumers deal with these stories? So far there are no clear answers to these questions.

author

Anna Réz

Translation: Sandra Rétháti
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Budapest
February 2019

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