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A Professor and a Student Talk About the #MeToo Campaign

 

About a week ago, I gave a mini-sermon at Williams College Jewish Center weekly Shabbat dinner about the story of Noah’s Ark. In it, I mentioned how our world seems to be asking for a massive flood that would act as a huge ‘refresh’ button for humankind and help us start from scratch. We could repopulate the world starting with virtuous Noah and his wife. How crazy convenient would that be.

Alas, we don’t have that option, considering it would be scientifically impossible, and building a boat big enough for a zoo would make for a ridiculous loan from the bank and get high enough to rival my college tuition!

Instead, I said we have to make do with the humankind that we have now. We must all be the modern Noah’s of today to fight against the wrongs in the world.

Throughout the month of October, around 60 notable actors, including Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, accused well-known and powerful movie producer, Harvey Weinstein for sexually assaulting them. This sparked one actress, Alyssa Milano, to post on her twitter account a hashtag that would be tweeted half a million times overnight.

 

In this interview, I asked a professor, at another institution, and a student about their thoughts on the campaign.

A: Professor

B: Williams Student

 

1. How did you hear about the #metoo campaign?

A: I saw friends on social media beginning to post and followed up. This is not the first wave of the #metoo campaign, as you probably know, so it wasn't hard to learn more about it.

B: I saw a Facebook post by my mother that just said “Me too.” I was a little confused and wondered if she’d meant that as a comment on a post or something, so I asked her about it, and she told me that women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted in their lives are posting the words “me too” to show how widespread sexual harassment and assault is. A few hours later, my timeline was full of “me too” after “me too” after “me too” from women I know from all different contexts with all different backgrounds, from high school friends to family members and from college classmates to older women I look up to. It’s not just for women, either--harassment and assault are a problem for men and nonbinary people as well. It’s both shocking and completely unsurprising how many people I know have been harassed or assaulted.

 

2. Why do you think woman are standing in solidarity about sexual harassment now?

A: There are probably a lot of reasons. A big one for many women of my generation is the sense that this all has just gone too far and too long. When the man elected to lead the country openly admits to--and by doing so tacitly sanctions--behaviors that we all know are unacceptable, we have nothing left but to stand up to it. I think there is also a more general sense that persistent harassment and assault express a kind of pushback by people who feel threatened by gains in gender equality, and that too requires a response. And of course access to social media finally gives victims a sense that they're not alone in this fight--it erases the silence that for years was the norm for many people my age. We had very little idea how pervasive the problem was, and it's even more than we imagined.

B: I don’t think this is the first time we’ve stood in solidarity, but in this instance, I think it was because we got the push we needed. I think that especially in today’s political and social climate, women have become increasingly not okay with the way things are, and the #metoo campaign was the impetus we needed to speak out on a subject that society normally tells us to keep quiet. On a more cynical note, using a hashtag is much easier than demonstrating, calling representatives, or doing activist work, so I think the fact that this could be considered a form of slacktivism contributed to the huge response.

 

3. There have been controversial critics about who should post #metoo. Some say sexual harassment, which generally involves verbal contact, and sexual assault, which involves physical contact, are two very different things and should affect who is "allowed" to post "me too" as their status. What do you think about this issue?

A: I think that getting selective about who has suffered what risks undermining the problem we're trying to address: that we live in a world where many men are still raised to think that women (and sometimes men, nonbinary people, and children) are secondary beings who can be pursued, controlled, and even injured as they please. Most women whose #metoo stories I know suffered far worse handling than I ever did; I respect their survival very deeply, and I believe we owe them all the support, love, and healing that they need. In fact, I think that to put their very serious traumas within the wider context of daily, systemic abuses actually emphasizes both the magnitude of those traumas and the importance of fighting to make change.

B: I’ve been both harassed and assaulted. I am also a survivor of rape. The first time I was assaulted, I was at a party, and a guy groped me several times on the dance floor. I didn’t report it because of internalized beliefs that “oh it was just groping, it doesn’t really count” (it does) and “I wasn't raped so it’s not really worth making a big deal about it, because in the grand scheme of things it’s not that bad”. The idea that my assault wasn’t worth reporting because it wasn’t as serious as rape comes from the same place as the idea that people who have been harassed but not assaulted don’t have the same right to talk about their experiences and seek support by using the #metoo hashtag as people who have been assaulted. This gatekeeping about who can and can’t post #metoo is divisive and harmful, and my experience is just one example of the reason why. People who have been harassed have experienced trauma, and they shouldn’t be told to keep quiet, which implies that their experiences are not valid, just because people who have been assaulted have experienced worse trauma. We should be supporting each other, invalidating other people’s experiences and silencing them just because their experience was “not as bad/serious.” Someone whose worst experience with harassment and assault is being catcalled deserves to use the #metoo hashtag just as much as I do as a survivor of rape.

 

4. What do you think of men confessing to their previous acts of sexual assault?

A: I suppose it depends on the reason for the confession. Are they ready to make things right? Are they going to help us make real change? If confession helps them do that, then I'd welcome them to the fight. If not, I don't have time for that stuff.

B: I think that it’s good that they’re acknowledging their wrongdoing, but that’s only the first step. They should also apologize to the people they’ve assaulted and do two things going forward. First, they should stay aware of their own actions and thoughts, in order to never harass or assault another person. Second, they should become an ally by being an active bystander. When they see other men saying or doing things that are objectifying, predatory, or count as harassment or assault, they should confront them, tell them that what they are doing is wrong, and if applicable, help get the person who is being harassed or assaulted out of that unsafe situation. In fact, everyone should do this. The world would be a much safer place if we all looked out for each other and if we confronted rape culture whenever we saw it.

5. What kind of change would you like to see come out of this campaign?

A: I would like to see both men and women realize how deeply we've normalized harassment and assault in our society and to become self-reflective about how they might ignore or even promote it in daily life. When they see a woman harassed or attacked, do they recognize what they're seeing? Do they intervene? The culture of silence around these things has been broken by social media, and I would like to see this encourage more people take an active stand against harassment and assault. I would also like to see more people stand up to the problem systemically by making changes at school, work, and in law that prevent harassment and assault. Above all, I would like to see more victims feel able to speak up safely and in expectation of the support that they deserve.

6. Have you received support from others after you posted?

 

B: I got a couple love reactions, one sad reaction, and one like on my Facebook post, but most of the support I got was communal support in the comments of my mother’s post. Also, just seeing other people’s #metoo posts was a source of support, in a sad kind of way. Knowing that so many other people have gone through the same things I have is both upsetting (because it’s upsetting to know that your friends and family have suffered) and comforting (because I know I’m not alone).

 

7. Do you have any other thoughts/ideas/opinions?

A: Sometimes I feel like the old lady holding the sign that says, "I can't believe I'm still protesting this shit." And in a way I can't believe it, but at the same time I can, because I myself did not speak up when I was harassed many years ago. Like many women, I was young and thought I had no power, so I focused on escaping the situation as best I could. But fearing to speak up simply helped maintain the system: now young women are coming to me with the same problems my generation faced thirty years ago. I know that not everyone is ready to speak up, and I respect that. But those of us who CAN do speak up should. We must, or we will never make this better.

 

8. What kind of change would you like to see come out of this campaign?

B: I want to see more people feeling safe and supported enough to come forward when they’ve been harassed or assaulted. I want to see people recognizing harassment and assault, as well as the kind of speech and actions that contribute to it, and shutting it down and protecting others. I want to see harassers and assailants realize that what they are doing is harassment/assault and wrong, and I want to see them stop doing it. I want to see sexual harassment and assault become less of a taboo subject, because while it’s swept under the rug, it will continue to happen. These are big ambitions for a hashtag campaign, but I think that continued and increased action on this front will bring these visions closer to reality.

At the end of the day, we need to be the modern Noah’s of today. We need to take a step away from our computer screens and be the difference that will make our world a better place for victims of sexual assault.

Nica is a Senior at Williams College majoring in Biology and taking pre-medical courses. She is a member of Ritmo Latino and GQ A cappella. Her passions include public health, reading, and yoga.
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