BY LILY REAVIS ’21
Campaigns aimed at raising awareness of the common female experience of sexual harassment and assault have become increasingly visible in the past 30 years. Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas originally opened the floor for survivors to speak out, and that sentiment has been growing since. The #YesAllWomen and #WhatWereYouWearing hashtags trended on Twitter in the past few years, along with many others. Most recently, the #MeToo campaign has gone viral in response to allegations, with CBS News reporting 1.7 million retweets as of Tuesday.
The #YesAllWomen hashtag trend began in 2014 as a response to “not all men,” an argument that claims all men are not guilty of violence and sexism, but misses the point that some are. “Not all men” takes away the traumatic experiences women endure by defending themselves and their actions instead of recognizing a larger societal issue. The #YesAllWomen trend aimed to prove that, while all men obviously aren’t sexually aggressive, all women have experienced some sort of gendered violence.
The #MeToo campaign, on the other hand, aimed to raise awareness surrounding the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault.
#WhatWereYouWearing also went viral in 2014, after the original poster (@steenfox) took part in the New York City “SlutWalk.” The walk supported survivor visibility by encouraging participants to wear promiscuous clothing while marching through the city. It aimed to raise awareness of victim-blaming and to prove that a victim’s clothing never excuses the actions of an assailant. #WhatWereYouWearing was inspired by the event, and went viral as survivors shared the outfits they were wearing when they were assaulted.
Just Be is a youth organization “focused on the health, well being and wholeness of young women of color,” according to the program’s website. Ten years before its founding, Burke was the youth camp director at Girls for Gender Equity, a program aimed to empower young women of color. It was at this camp that Burke learned of the sexual assault a young girl had endured. She credits the founding of the #MeToo campaign to her desire, but inability, to tell the young girl she, too, had experienced assault. The campaign started over 10 years ago to help young women of color who had experienced sexual exploitation of any sort.
Actress Alyssa Milano reignited the now viral campaign by retweeting the original #MeToo post last weekend. She asked her followers to respond with “me too” if they had ever experienced sexual assault or harassment. The Harvey Weinstein inspired wave of #MeToo posts was the first time many people had heard of the campaign. In reality, it was started over 10 years ago by activist and founder of JustBe, Inc., Tarana Burke.
Having a stage to speak is important for many survivors, and the solidarity created by mass participation is eye-opening. However, the focus of these recurring campaigns needs to shift from recounting trauma, to stopping future trauma.
The statistics on sexual assault are staggering. On college campuses, 11.2% of all students experience some form of sexual assault. More terrifyingly, 23.1.% of female undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation, according to the Department of Justice. However, only 20% of female victims and 32% of non-female victims report their assaults. This lack of reporting comes from deeply-rooted patriarchal beliefs that are still reflected in these viral campaigns. However, more survivors would report their assaults if the focus was shifted to the actions of the perpetrators. Sexual assault needs to be seen as a violent act committed by an offender, rather than a cause for emotional and physical turmoil on the side of the victim.
The purpose of #MeToo is to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” according to the Tweet made viral by Milano. By this point, however, people would have had to actively ignore the problem to be blind to it. The occurrence of sexual harassment is universal. Survivors shouldn’t feel as though raising awareness is their responsibility.
As a mechanism for showing how common sexual assault and harassment are, the #MeToo campaign succeeded. For many, participating was a cathartic experience, and the solidarity created was sincere and emotional. Moving forward, however, the question needs to be: “how can we stop this from happening,” rather than: “how many people are affected by this.” Acknowledging the trauma created by these actions is an important step in creating change, but there has not yet been a campaign that followed through to create actual change. If a campaign ends after only creating survivor solidarity, then no progress is actually made. Survivors should be recognized, but perpetrators need to be held accountable.
Sexual assault and harassment, as actions, are being robbed of their inherent violence by focusing primarily on the healing that comes after.
The #MeToo campaign, like many before it, succeeded in creating a space for survivors to share their stories. Moving forward, the conversation around sexual misconduct needs to be aggressively offensive.