What’s next for #MeToo?

By Sayomi Ariyawansa | 13 Feb 18

Time’s Person of the Year 2017 was “The Silence Breakers”. In fewer than a dozen times in its 90-year history, Time magazine has selected a group – rather than an individual – as having “for better or worse … done most to influence the events of the year.” In many ways, this moment represented the height of the #MeToo movement. The #MeToo movement had, by this time, become a clarion call heard around the world – by people, mostly women, who chose to reveal on social media that they too had faced sexual harassment and abuse. For many, the surge of #MeToo (and #BalanceTonPorc, #YoTambien, #Ana_Kaman, etc.) conveyed an important message about the pervasive and endemic nature of sexual harassment and abuse, particularly in the workplace.

In a few short months, however, the backlash began.

It’s fair to say that #MeToo is the hashtag that has launched a thousand think-pieces. The backlash against the movement has largely centred on the ideas of overreach, paternalism and fairness: that the #MeToo movement has enabled people (again, women) to conflate less-than-perfect dating behaviour with sexual harassment and sexual assault; that the #MeToo movement overlooks a woman’s own agency; and finally, that the #MeToo movement encourages a type of vigilante justice without procedural fairness. As a side bar to all of this, Hollywood’s enthusiastic embrace of the #MeToo movement and campaigns such as #TimesUp is marred by its long-term embrace of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.

This backlash has forced a reckoning of what the #MeToo movement is about. And, like any complex social movement, the answers are far from clear. The #MeToo movement has been divisive amongst feminists and even, apparently, within the same individual: Daphne Merkin writes at length about feminists who publicly support the movement, but privately despair at “story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands.” And yet others speak about the need for a new sensibility around sexual interaction: as Osita Nwanevu observes, “[a] sexual culture in which it is deemed all right for women not to be affirmative and enthusiastic partners in sex is a culture that enables sexual coercion.”

The #MeToo movement has cut across difficult questions of existing social mores, criminal behaviour, and the very question of justice itself in a climate where public shaming has become an increasingly popular mechanism for the Twitterati to exact revenge.

At the very least, the #MeToo movement has exposed the difficulty of obtaining legal redress by traditional means in the face of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Indeed, the very first step – that of initially reporting sexual harassment or sexual assault – is often a step too far for people who may rely on their job or reputation to earn a living for their families. One of the most important messages to come from the #MeToo movement is the recognition that if relatively privileged women feel unable to speak out about their experience, what hope is there “[f]or the hotel housekeeper who never knows … if a guest is going to corner her in a room she can’t escape?

The flip-side is also worrying. Margaret Atwood wrote in some detail about how her colleague was dismissed from his employment after being the subject of allegations of sexual assault, notwithstanding a subsequent inquiry found that there had been no sexual assault. Atwood was subject to harsh criticism for her stance on this issue, with one commentator arguing “’unsubstantiated’ does not mean innocent. It means there was not enough evidence to convict.” The anger with what is seen to be a broken system is palpable – even somewhat understandable. And yet, “innocent until proven guilty” is surely a fundamental bulwark against arbitrary interference that cannot be dispensed with.

In many ways, frameworks are poorly-equipped to deal with sexual assault and sexual harassment and can certainly be improved. As this anonymous Australian woman describes, “the structure of the justice system and lengthy court processes are difficult for victims to endure” – if the conduct is in fact ever reported and proceeds to trial, which is rare. But it is essential that basic principles are protected. In the case of allegations of criminal conduct, requiring a standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt and maintaining innocence until proven guilty are essential features of our legal system. In the case of allegations of civil conduct, while the burden of proof may be different, procedural fairness still must be afforded to the defendant. These principles protect us all. The integrity of the very idea of the rule of law depends on them.

Rather than a wholesale rejection of existing legal frameworks, there is a clear need for reform. And, importantly, these reforms must be holistic. In addition to reforming legal processes we should consider, for example, the impact that a guaranteed living or universal basic income would make in the case of a hotel housekeeper who has been sexually harassed by her manager, and who otherwise would be worried about making ends meet in the event she lost her job for speaking out. Or consider, for example, the impact of properly-funded community legal centres in supporting those who wanted to bring a civil claim or understand their rights as a victim. Perhaps more radically, we could consider affirmative consent laws.

The #MeToo movement has shown us that the is broken. So let’s fix it. The proverbial baby need not be thrown out with the bathwater to make this happen.