When the media began covering the #MeToo moment, I gave it a week, maybe two, before the window would slam shut. That’s how stories of sexual abuse have played out in the court of public opinion over the years I’ve been following them as a scholar. I hoped a couple of weeks would be long enough to raise new awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual violence in women’s lives. Instead, after two months of intensive coverage, not only are people still talking about Harvey Weinstein, but revelations about other powerful men are happening almost daily. From Hollywood to Washington to Silicon Valley and beyond, men are losing prestige and jobs, along with the air of impunity that had previously encircled them.
How did a hashtag catalyze what looks like a cultural reckoning with sexual harassment when previous exposes failed? Why were Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, and other actresses who spoke out received sympathetically, when it took decades for Bill Cosby’s accusers to be taken seriously?
Full-blown social movements achieve their power by staying in the public eye, and the current revelation-a-day has done that. Since news and entertainment media have become thoroughly blended, the same channels that deliver celebrity gossip now carry the raw testimony of sexual assault victims, who happen to be the actresses usually glamorized by our media.
And of course millions of women have amplified the high-profile revelations with stories of their own experience, using social media to bring new visibility to a longstanding issue. Although hashtag clicktivism has rightly been scrutinized as armchair politics, the collective voices of women using the #MeToo tag have exposed the scale of the problem, and turned social media into a testimonial tool instead of a platform for doubting women.
Men have long been able to deploy the “he said/she said’’ tactic when accused of sexual abuse or harassment, turning doubt into a legal weapon wielded against women. Doubt is complicated by race, but it has been reliably used to discredit any particular woman, giving men an outsized ability to damage their accuser’s credibility. Doubt, a systemic feature of legal and everyday ways of thinking about sexual assault allegations, represents a cultural bias against women’s reliability as witnesses. This bias allows male violence to be tolerated.
He said/she said thrives in the presence of unequal power, unequal credibility, and unequal doubt. But the #MeToo movement has clearly neutralized its effect, at least for a certain group of women.
Accumulated, ongoing pain is one reason so many women began to speak up. A few days after Alyssa Milano’s October 15 #MeToo tweet, I was invited onto On Point with Tom Ashbrook to discuss sexual harassment. As women called in with their stories, I was struck by how many of them began: “The first time I was sexually abused . . .” From youth to maturity, from school to work and home, from entry-level to high-level management jobs, on swim teams, at church, and just walking home, women’s lives are marked by the persistent threat of sexual abuse, as well as retaliation or disbelief if they come forward. Abuse interrupts women’s careers, harms our health, and shatters our faith in institutions.
Ultimately, women are angry. Remember the women who poured into the streets of many cities after Donald Trump was elected president, and assembled in record numbers for the march on Washington after his inauguration? They had no explicit agenda at the time. They wanted just to show their resistance to this particular president, elected despite bragging that he enjoys sexually assaulting women, who happily incited crowds to harass America’s first major-party female presidential candidate with jeers of “Lock her up!” When Trump stalked Hillary Clinton on the debate stage and sneered “nasty woman” into the microphone, many women were viscerally shaken and reminded of their own experiences of harassment and intimidation.
A few months ago, the dynamic remained unchanged. Abusers and harassers were availing themselves of settlements and non-disclosure agreements. They were denying charges, accusing women of lying, and redirecting blame. Now they are losing their jobs.
I’m glad I was wrong about how long this story would last. But there is much more to do. Though most of the people we are hearing about, both abusers and victims, have been white celebrities or public figures, “Me Too” was coined by an African-American activist, Tarana Burke, in 2007. Its new life on social media reminds us that girls and women in communities of color disproportionately suffer sexual abuse. He said/she said cannot be allowed to cling to women who are not in the spotlight. Feminist organizations and the media must continue to play watchdog, to ensure that women don’t have to be famous to be heard.
That would make #MeToo not just a movement, but something of a revolution for women.Leigh Gilmore is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. Her new book is “Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.