‘She Said’: Have We Really Changed the International Conversation on Sexual Harassment?

In September this year ‘She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement’ was published, a meticulous exposé written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the reporters who investigated the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Just a few weeks ago Weinstein made headlines yet again having attended an event for up-and-coming female comedians. Several comedians were heckled and booed after protesting against his presence at the event in their sets, and consequently two women were kicked out of the event. Have we really achieved as much as we thought post-Me Too?

#MeToo went viral in early October 2017 following the release of Twohey and Kantor’s first article exposing longstanding sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein. The case sparked an explosive international debate that has had a profound impact on attitudes towards workplace harassment and sexual abuse in general, but reactions at events such as this standup show suggest that post-Me Too there is still campaigning to be done. In the words of journalist Nesrine Malik (on the topic of the myth of gender equality), we must not become complacent and point to such victories as ‘the proof of “progress”, as if any progress is all progress. And as if progress in certain clearly improved areas means that misogyny and sexism are not continuously reborn in new and ever more sophisticated ways.’ 

What I think is largely unexamined is the role of language in enabling or hindering social progression. We often use the term harassment in a casual sense, making its meaning hard to pin down. In everyday parlance, harassment functions both as a term for pestering or badgering someone, whilst also meaning ‘aggressive pressure or intimidation’ towards an individual; in other words, assault. The word itself is associated with trivial connotations that serve to downplay the gravity of its second definition. I find it hard to believe that this would not have contributed to the rhetoric that defends workplace harassment, fobbing it off as ‘horseplay’.  

In the end, more than 80 women came forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct. The book and the movement is undeniably triumphant in this regard, shifting the former status quo where victims were routinely blamed and shamed. It served to show that speaking up about sexual harassment was courageous, not to mention essential, if it was not to continue to be normalised. The fantastic, tireless reporting that is recounted in She Said is totally inspiring. It comprehensively details the myriad of people and systems that went into protecting Weinstein, including the famed celebrity feminist lawyer Lisa Bloom, that allowed an ongoing narrative where he was perceived as the victim. It would be hard to argue that the movement has not been groundbreakingly successful on the whole; as stated in the book, ‘the key to change was a new sense of accountability’, and the global conversation around sexual violence has seen clear positive changes. 

Beyond just improvements in attitudes around the issue, a large portion of the book is dedicated to the financial settlements that Weinstein used to silence victims, and how laws have since been introduced to resolve the inherently biased nature of these ‘gagging’ clauses. The book proudly announces that in light of the Weinstein scandal, California was among one of the first states to lift secrecy among sexual harassment settlements. This is undoubtedly a triumph for victims who formerly would have been breaking the law if they ever spoke of the abuse they endured, and marks a step in disallowing perpetrators to use wealth to silence individuals.    

Despite the victories that are recounted in the book, however, it also speaks of the reactionary backlash to the movement. During Me Too, many described the journalists’ work as ‘exaggerated claims’ and representing ‘a moral panic’. The journalists point out the irony that even ostensibly liberal individuals who would strongly denounce rape were sometimes also of the opinion that for more minor cases it was 'political correctness gone mad’. They highlight the futility of ‘zero tolerance policies’ that companies began boasting of having. Ultimately, opposers or lukewarm supporters of the movement fail to realise that it is the normalisation of these issues, regardless of their perceived extremity, that is what continues to let abuse go unnoticed.

Despite all Me Too’s victories, it is important to remember that there is still more to be done. In 2017, the World Economic Forum released their 11th Global Gender Gap Report (a report that measures four areas of inequality between men and women: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival). The report showed that the global gender gap has narrowed since 2006, but it is doing so glacially. If it were to continue at current rates, it is estimated to take another 100 years for the world’s women to be equal to men. The report is seemingly unrelated to sexual assault. Except that issues of gender equality and sexual violence are inextricably intertwined. This is highlighted by actress Marisa Tomei in She Said: “actresses in the public were stuck in a cycle of mutual misperception. From very young ages, girls were taught to admire and model themselves on the fantasy women on-screen. That made many of them want to become actresses themselves. The lucky ones who made it could never really describe the harassment or the punishing physical standards, that would be self-sabotage. So the cycle continued”. Ultimately, fair treatment in the justice system can never be found if injustice operates on every level of daily life outside of it.   

It is great to see shifting social dynamics in a post-Me Too era. But to really fix the problem of sexual harassment we must acknowledge that progress is tentative, and for this reason needs to be maintained with continuous activism. Political quietism only serves to halt progress.