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POV: What Does It Mean When We Say #MeToo?

Race, class, gender intersect to make some people more vulnerable to sexual assault

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If your social media feeds look anything like mine, you haven’t been able to escape a barrage of “Me too” posts, pictures, and hashtags in recent days. Me too is a social media phenomenon, commonly attributed to actress Alyssa Milano, that asks women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault to use the phrase or hashtag to show the magnitude of sexual violence. As of October 15, Twitter documented nearly a million uses of Me too, while Facebook reports more than 45 percent of its two billion users have a friend who has posted a Me too status message.

Such stunningly high numbers still seem inadequate to capturing its prevalence in my own social networks: I would estimate that at the height of the meme’s popularity, 9 out of 10 posts in my Facebook feed were Me too declarations and/or commentary on the phenomenon. As a demonstration of the ubiquity of sexual violence, Me too seems to have been extraordinarily successful. Still, for a more well-rounded measure of its success, it’s worth paying attention not just to its frequency, but also to the meaning of the phrase in the larger context of contemporary protest movements.

As is often the case with social-media based activism, the campaign has been decontextualized by its rapid diffusion.

Many of those posting aren’t aware that the origins of the phrase are more than a decade old. The Me Too Movement started as a project specifically for young women of color, who are especially vulnerable to sexual violence. In 2006, activist Tarana Burke created the movement to empower young black and brown women who have endured such violence by showing them that they aren’t alone in their experiences. More recently, Burke broadened her focus beyond young cisgender women to explicitly include transgender and nonbinary young people as well.

Burke says she realized that such young people “are often left out of the conversations about survival and healing [and need] a place to process and find an entry point in the healing trajectory.” This same insight needs to be applied to the Me too meme, which assumes women as its only participants and may therefore feel exclusionary to cisgender and transgender men and to nonbinary people.

Transgender and nonbinary people experience sexual assault at a much higher rate than cisgender counterparts. Bringing that awareness to bear on the Me too campaign would be helpful for both nuancing and reinforcing the point that sexual harassment and assault are widespread social problems we must bring attention to.

Women of color like Burke have been the force behind a number of incredibly successful social media campaigns, including #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #YouOKSis, #WhatWereYouWearing, and others, yet these origins are often ignored or forgotten when such hashtags go high-profile. Honoring these and other women of color in the anti-violence movement is essential, and not just out of respect for the innovative, brilliant, and hard-won contributions they have made; it’s also important because their experiences as women of color inform their activism and improve our understanding of how such violence operates.

Although sexual assault and harassment can be experienced by anyone, it is crucial that we acknowledge how race and class intersect with gender to make some populations more vulnerable than others. Moreover, resources for those who experience sexual violence can be more difficult to access for young, economically disadvantaged women of color; it’s not just that race and class shape the likelihood of sexual harassment and assault, it’s that they also create barriers for survivors working to recover from the trauma of such experiences.

Additionally, some social critics worry that the current iteration of Me too puts the onus on survivors to put that trauma on display, where it will be subject to public scrutiny and possibly to further intensification. The success of the campaign is, in some ways, its downfall: the more popular it gets, the more survivors of harassment and assault feel pressured to participate.

And to what end? To quote a tweet from journalist and activist Lindy West: “I wish women didn’t have to rip our pasts open & show you everything & let you ogle our pain for you to believe us about predation & trauma.” (West left Twitter in January after years of abuse on the platform, which underscores my point regarding the vulnerability survivors may experience via the Me too campaign.) As a result, some have suggested we turn the tables and ask that those who have perpetrated, or been complicit in, acts of sexual violence be the ones to out their history to their social media followers, rather than the other way around.

Of course, getting people to participate in that kind of an exercise is complicated not only by their fears of stigma and reprisal, but also by the fact that many perpetrators of sexual violence do not understand their actions as such.

Thankfully, many are working tirelessly to change that, including BU’s Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center, which helps students, faculty, and staff better understand the contours of sexual violence and teaches bystanders to safely Step Up, Step In when they witness it. Still, as BU’s 2015 safety climate survey and this month’s Rally Against Sexual Harassment in Higher Education, held on the Metcalf Science Center Plaza, remind us, there is much more work to be done to eradicate sexual violence at BU.

My hope is that despite its limitations, the Me too campaign inspires us to unite and fight the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault on our campus and beyond.

Catherine Connell, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program, can be reached at cati@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

11 Comments

11 Comments on POV: What Does It Mean When We Say #MeToo?

  • Bruce on 10.24.2017 at 7:44 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful discussion of the history and context of the metoo movement.

  • Tom on 10.24.2017 at 8:34 am

    I’m not understanding what exactly a Twitter hashtag is all that useful for, other than jumping on the bandwagon and trying to draw attention to yourself without actually accomplishing anything. How about actually reporting sexual assault to the police when it happens so that rapists get arrested and have a criminal record. It seemed to have been an open secret in Hollywierd that Harvey Weinstein was a rapist, the same with Bill Cosby but no one comes forward and as a result more women are victimized, why?

    • Phyliss Flanagan-Cox on 10.24.2017 at 10:28 am

      There is a tremendous amount of shame and pain that accompanies being a victim of sexual violence. There is also a harsh cultural climate that tends to blame the victim and make excuses for the perpetrator. It is emotionally painful and socially dangerous to make a report because your are exposing yourself to harsh criticism regardless of the facts of the situation. So there is the original trauma of the violence that is difficult enough to deal with. Then there is the trauma of the reporting which forces you to re-live this experience. Then there are the threats and attacks to the victims character. And the conclusion is that many of the reports of sexual violence do not lead to a conviction because it is difficult to prove is most circumstances. There is power in numbers. It is not that these victims are jumping on the #metoo bandwagon. It’s that that they are finally feeling just safe enough to tell the truth.

    • Bri on 10.24.2017 at 10:50 am

      (http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/02/us/brock-turner-release-jail/index.html)

      This is why women aren’t apt to come forward. Because when we do – the rapist is highlighted as a “good swimmer” with a bright future who shouldn’t “pay for 20 minutes of action”. He left his victim beaten, raped, and unconscious behind a dumpster. Want to know the kicker? He served 3 months in jail. He is already free to roam and offend again.

      People don’t even think about how every single time a victim comes forward, they’re questioned, asked to relive their horrible experience, to then have to testify against the person who ruined their lives, live with the pain, the unrest, the terror, and fear. And in most cases then be blamed for what they were wearing, what their mental state was, if they provoked it, etc. Or, like in the case I provided above – go through all of that and see their attacker only serve 3 months out of a possible 14 year maximum.

      How many years do you think Weinstein will do? Or Bill Cosby as you mentioned? What about Jonny Depp or even Trump for that matter? What about the dozens of NFL players that abuse and assault women and don’t even receive so much as a suspension never mind sit in a court? These men have power. And they use their power and fame to oppress women. Watch this video – see and hear the way Weinstein manipulates these women, using his power in the industry to ruin their careers if they don’t do his sexual bidding (http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/entertainment/me-too-twitter-alyssa-milano/index.html). The most powerful thing about that video is that it’s clear he has an MO, and it is clear that he has done this many, many times before. As you mentioned, it was well known throughout Hollywood. Nobody did anything about it – because that is the society we live in. Where assault and rape culture are normal. Especially in the entertainment business where men are viewed as superior to women. People would rather shrug it off than risk their careers.

      I could go on – but I hope that this sheds some light on why women or men or victims of any kind are hesitant to come forward and why men like Weinstein and Cosby go uncontested for so long.

  • Phyliss Flanagan-Cox on 10.24.2017 at 10:12 am

    Thanks for the insight. I don’t spend much time on social media these days but still did not escape noticing the buzz around the Me Too hashtag. I feel much more informed. I am glad that sexual violence is being discussed on a broader scale. I hope more people find safe places to share because sharing can be very risky but very therapeutic.

    • Grad on 10.24.2017 at 12:01 pm

      “safe places to share” After the fact and after someone came forward. Time to jump on the bandwagon! Many of these women valued their show business careers more than stopping Weinstein and other Hollywood bigwigs.

      • Phyliss Flanagan-Cox on 10.24.2017 at 12:27 pm

        I am just glad that attention is being given to this wide spread problem. That is the first step to reducing incidents like this one. These women are brave despite knowing that people will be more critical of their character than the man that used his power to sexually exploit them.

      • Leanne D. on 10.25.2017 at 8:56 am

        It is not very nice to describe a person who admits to being raped or assaulted as jumping on a bandwagon.

        I might add that where many people are assaulted in their adolescence/early adulthood, they may require time to process and
        mature before they can fully articulate the event and decide on the best next step for themselves.

        There is no problem with strength in numbers to help people heal and to help this systemic issue evolve. Alternatively, those who choose to remain silent have the right to their privacy.

  • David on 10.24.2017 at 1:38 pm

    “…Many of these women valued their show business careers more than stopping Weinstein…” as stated earlier, blaming the victim.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 10.26.2017 at 12:07 pm

    #metoo? You betcha. All the women in my life agree it’s endemic, including my five daughters. For myself, I didn’t need Harvey Weinstein to see a rape culture in television and movies – it’s been there since the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally. So I support special protections for women because it seems they have distinct vulnerability with regard to men, and I think I agree black women are particularly vulnerable. However it is contingent on feminists to reconcile any need-based claim to special protection with feminism’s projection of sexual equality, which often insists women’s sexual proclivities must be the same (predatory rapacity) as men’s, and that women have no gender-based vulnerability impeding them from military combat roles.

    • Kelle Keyles on 12.03.2017 at 2:36 pm

      Special Protection? asking men not to rape and ceasing to perpetuate rape culture does not “special protection” make.
      Women have no gender-based vulnerability impeding them from military combat roles, everyone is vulnerable to rape regardless of gender, it is men’s inclination to rape and sexually assault that is the issue.

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