In 2006, well before hashtags, Tarana Burke, an organizer, activist, and a survivor of sexual assault, coined the phrase me too to raise awareness about sexual abuse and assault.
On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano read a friend’s message on Twitter: “If all the women and men who have been sexually harassed, assaulted or abused wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. #metoo.” Milano reposted the message, and added to it, “If you have been sexually harassed or assaulted, write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet."
In the next 24 hours, Milano’s post raged across social media, and was shared more than 12 million times, transforming #metoo from a hashtag to a movement.
Lilia Cortina, professor of psychology and women’s studies, has researched sexual harassment for 25 years. On the one-year anniversary of #metoo’s reignition, LSA asks her what #metoo now means.
LSA: One year out, what is the significance of the #metoo movement?
Lilia Cortina: The #metoo movement has done some great things. People are interested in sexual harassment like they haven’t been for decades. They aren’t asking what it is or if women are being too sensitive—questions that were common even five years ago. They immediately go to, “this is happening to so many women, this is so common, what can we do about this?” That’s been a really interesting shift.
I also see some unintended problems cropping up. Much of the focus has been on serial cases of sexual coercion and assault, and I worry people are starting to think of sexual harassment primarily in terms of violent, serial sexual assault. That is certainly a form of sexual harassment that is serious and should be prevented, but it only accounts for a tiny slice of the problem.
What’s much, much more common are gender-based verbal insults and sexually degrading commentary about women or other gender minorities. There has been so much focus on Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and other horrible cases that I worry it has narrowed people’s ideas of what counts as sexual harassment. And we know from the research record that more often than not, sexual harassment is a put down, not a come on.
LSA: Well, then what is sexual harassment?
LC: Sexual harassment is a big umbrella that encompasses various behaviors: sexual assault, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment.
As I said, I think #metoo has heightened people’s awareness of sexual assault, which is a range of criminal acts from groping to forcing someone to touch you in a sexual way to raping someone. And it has heightened awareness of sexual coercion; a perfect example of this is the classic “sleep with me or you’re fired” scenario. Unwanted sexual attention can be forcible kissing or hugging, or relentless requests for dates that are unwelcome and unpleasant.
Gender harassment is at the verbal put-down end of the spectrum, and it is the most common form that sexual harassment takes. It can include using crude sexual terms, making comments about bodies or sexual acts, or making contemptuous remarks that women can’t be leaders or men can’t work in childcare. These are sex-based acts of discrimination that don’t involve sexuality.
LSA: Okay, so #metoo has raised awareness of sexual harassment, but has it actually changed anything?
LC: Raising awareness is an important change. I also think institutions are reeling, trying to figure out how to respond to this change. Offices in organizations that are designated to be the place where you go to file a formal complaint often don’t have the staff and resources to handle the deluge of complaints coming in. I was a co-author on a report for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and we made various recommendations for federal agencies, such as treating sexual harassment as seriously as they do research misconduct. Some of the agencies said, “Oh, we don’t have the staff to do that, we don’t have enough people and they don’t have the right knowledge. We can’t possibly get into sexual harassment.” A lot of places are under-resourced and understaffed and aren’t used to dealing with the kind or the quantity of issues that are surfacing.
LSA: Your research has shown that even though more workplaces have ways to report sexual harassment, women don’t use them. Has that changed at all since the #metoo movement?
LC: For the last couple of decades, pretty much every large organization has put some kind of anti-harassment program in place. They have built up their reporting mechanisms, beefed up their anti-harassment policies, and instituted new training programs. Most of these resources very much revolve around reporting: If people would just report the harassment that they face, the company could remedy it, so let’s get more people to report.
But though companies have built up their policies over the last two decades, there has not been a huge surge in reporting. I’m pessimistic that that will change, and I very much believe that we should not continue to put all our resources into reactive reporting mechanisms.
That said, I have heard anecdotally more stories in the last year about people coming forward, filing more complaints, and so on. At the same time I would not be surprised if people now pause, again, after the Kavanaugh hearings. You can report in the biggest, most terrifying way imaginable and still nothing happens.
LSA: As a social scientist, how did you view what happened with the Kavanaugh hearings?
LC: I worry about the message that it sends to survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Why should they bother speaking out? People are still inclined to dismiss women who come forward and report men’s sexual violence. There are still so many myths out there about sexual harassment and assault. One of the biggest is about perpetrators, that you would know a sexual assailant if you met him because he’s this gross ogre, he’s obviously deviant, you could pick him out of a crowd. An assailant can’t be a guy who has been a good father and a good husband. People can’t quite mesh the idea that a good guy could have been the guy that sexually assaulted women long ago. There are still a lot of myths out there that are standing in the way of people believing women. We still have a lot of work to do.