A few years ago as I was walking down the hall after class, I passed a student from the previous semester. And rather than exchange the regular pleasantries, he looked me up, and looked me down – stopping just an extra second at my chest. He then winked at me. By the time I realized what had happened, he was gone and I, thankfully, didn’t have to interact with him again. This past weekend, I received an email from a former student, a woman, who was trying to determine if some odd comments her older male boss is making are harassment (they are) and what she should do. Many of us can recall stories like these, and in some cases more violent stories of sexual harassment and assault. If anyone thought they were alone in this, a scroll through social media this week and one can see millions of others declaring “me too”: it’s happened to me, too!
One would have to be completely tuned out to miss the “me too” campaign that took off on social media this week – or to miss the gravity of what women (and others) were declaring in those two little words. By many accounts, the social media campaign was spurred on by actress Alyssa Milano, who remarked on twitter that a friend gave her the idea in light of the allegations against mega-producer Harvey Weinstein that surfaced last week. Others have pointed out that the “Me Too” Movement has actually been around for the past decade, created by activist Tarana Burke. And we shouldn’t forget a similar social media campaign, #YesAllWomen, that sought to call attention to some of these issues a few years ago. This current iteration has certainly taken off, as twitter and FB feeds have been filled with the “me too” message – and sometimes with examples. Here are some things to consider.
For those of us in academia, this is particularly relevant. The rates of sexual assault on college campuses across the US are troubling, as are some of the administrative responses to these assaults (A recent lawsuit over how Columbia University handled assault reporting is one of many examples). It isn’t a scientific survey, but of those in my own social media feeds who have shared their experiences of assault or harassment, a significant majority were stories from college. The “me too” moment also comes less than a month after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ended Obama Era provisions that aimed to better protect victims of assault at colleges and universities, claiming the rules were not fair to the accused.
Those posting “me too” only represent a portion of those who have had these experiences. Others may choose to stay silent. We were quickly reminded by writer Alexis Benveniste on twitter, among others, that just because someone doesn’t post “me too,” doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced sexual violence or harassment, explaining that no one owes it to anyone else to share their story or even to say, “me too” if they don’t want to. This is a fair, and important, reminder.
Also: it isn’t just women! Yes, women are often the targets of sexual assault and harassment, but by no means does this just happen to women. This can and does happen to people of all sexes and genders. And while it is more pervasive for women, the stigmas associated with male victims of assault and harassment are damaging. And those in the LGBTQ community also face high rates of harassment and assault. While the earlier messages in the “me too” campaign were geared toward women specifically, later versions have been more open for all who have experienced this type of abuse and harassment.
Some – mainly men – who have not experienced this treatment have also responded in positive ways, many writing “I believe you” or another show of support. This is important, as we have seen repeatedly the vilification of those attacked or harassed. Yet, I have been more impressed with those who have responded to calls to make a change or to do something the next time they witness sexual harassment or assault.
There is one debate that this social media movement has sparked among some of my friends that I think might be worth hashing out a bit more, and that is the conflating of assault and harassment. While these are related in some ways, and with Weinstein there appears to be evidence of both, in many ways they are also very different. I have heard some criticize this social media movement because to suggest that rape and other forms of sexual attack are somehow akin to “cat calling” is unfair. Let’s be clear: there can be no doubt that the physical and mental scars of sexual assault are incredibly damaging. But others suggest that putting assault and harassment under the same umbrella may make those who have faced more violent attacks feel safer in stating “me too.” And others have added that what they do have in common is that they both highlight the pervasiveness of rape culture: a culture that accepts sexual harassment is giving the nod to other more serious forms of sexual violence.
What do you think about? Are you among the hundreds of thousands that can say, “me too”?