Saturday, November 04, 2017

#MeToo - why now?

I have been trying to figure out, to my own satisfaction, just why the outpouring of #MeToo allegations of sexual harassment and rape has taken so long to come about.
Because outpouring it most definitely is: women are contributing to the hashtag by the thousands, and there are now numerous equivalents in other languages. The problem is a well-know and well-documented one. An Abacus Data survey released just this week suggests that 53% of Canadian women have experienced "unwanted sexual pressure" in the workplace, and about 12% (10% of men and 14% of women) say that sexual harassment in their workplace is "really quite common".  Perhaps even worse, nearly three-quarters (63% of men and 77% of women) felt that harassers would face no repercussions. These figures tally quite closely with other studies from the UK and elsewhere.
So why, then, all these #MeToos all of a sudden? It took the Harvey Weinstein allegations to galvanize women into action, and then it took celebrities to give those allegations teeth. It took Tarana Burke to come up with the #MeToo Twitter campaign in the first place, and Alyssa Milano to popularize it. But then - it's sad but true - it took the attentions of people in power (the Angelina Jolie's, the Gwyneth Paltrow's, the Rose McGowan's) to attract serious media attention to the reported abuses of those other people in power.
After that, it was just the power of a successful social media viral campaign that carried it along, and the feeling that, "well, if so-and-so is willing to go public, then maybe so can I", a feeling sufficient to overcome any residual shame or legal/financial intimidation the survivors may feel. Clearly, the need to speak out is juxtaposed with the career challenges it could create, whether it be in show business, politics, professional sports, firefighting, or just in an office cleaning job
Now, though, there is a palpable feeling of solidarity, of the-time-is-come-the-time-is-now. For example, there has been a spike in women seeking legal advice about pursuing sexual harassment claims since the #MeToo campaign. Although the show business cases have received the majority of the media attention, predictably enough, sexual harassment is probably even more rife in male-dominated fields like engineering, construction, the military, finance and transport, as well as in minimum wage work, like care-workers, cleaning staff, bar staff, shop assistants, etc, and these often-overlooked victims are also taking to #MeToo and making their voices heard.
Another question that occurs top me is: what is the the value of airing allegations that go back 20 years or more? Well, sometimes it's hard to see, but things have changed, certainly since the 1970s, when sexual harassment was a widely tolerated part of working life, a kind of "occupational hazard" for women. In those days, women were very reticent to report sexual abuse, and those that did often ended up regretting the ridicule, retaliation and discrimination that resulted (this also persists today, but to a lesser degree). Someone who might not have felt comfortable admitting or calling out an impropriety 20 or 30 years ago, may feel able do so now, particularly as part of a groundswell like we are currently experiencing . Also, some of these encounters can take a long time to work through psychologically.
There is a force in numbers, and (at least in theory) the more perpetrators that are called out for abusing their power, the less likely it should become in the future. Yes, there are still risks to pursuing a case, and the process can be protracted, expensive and unpleasant: it is probably not for everyone. And yes, the onus should be on men to improve and to make amends (hopefully, that is happening too). But the more the issue hits the mainstream media - whether it relates to something 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago - the more likelihood there is that change will actually occur. This is not just about individuals like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey - attitudes across the board need to change.
As Montreal writer Toula Drimonis puts it, the "culture of silence and complicity" has been shattered. And that's just as it should be.

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