Trauma in limbo

How the #MeToo movement fails to provide real help to victims

This essay was written in December of 2021 as my final project for the semester. I didn't have to chose a topic so close to home, but it felt right to do so. My hope in sharing this is to clarify why so many victims either choose to publicly speak out or don't speak out at all. When no other routes exist, we must make our own. - Bay Higginbotham

“#MeToo is useful, it puts the problem in the public domain. But a hashtag doesn’t solve the problem.” stated British historian and broadcaster, Mary Beard. In 2017 the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that although a high percentage of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, only 15 percent would ever file a report with police or an authority figure. Further data from the EEOC in 2017 showed that of the small percentage of victims who did come forward, about 75 percent of them faced some form of retaliation in response to them speaking out. As shocking and unsettling as this is, this is not a new problem. As far back as the roles of men in power over women go, so does the problem of workplace sexual harassment. The United Nations defines workplace sexual harassment as “such unwelcome sexually determined behavior as physical contact and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions.” (Sexual Harassment). This widely experienced abuse has long been continuously swept under the rug, not discussed in the same scope as it has been endured. Recently though, this has begun to change. In 2006, the phrase “Me Too” was created by Tarana Burke, an activist and an advocate for young sex workers. In 2017, actress Alyssa Miliano tweeted out the hashtag “MeToo” and asked other victims of sexual harassment to reply to her tweet. This created a massive response, generating over four million tweets from other victims of sexual harassment alone. Although the movement has been groundbreaking, monumental and necessary, it is still impossible for it to be the catalyst for the deep systemic change needed. The end to sexual harassment in the workplace comes with legislation, laws and mandatory guidelines put in place. While the #MeToo movement was started with the intention of inspiring deep systemic change, due to the focus on high profile offenders and lack of proposed policy changes, it remains unable to create the reformatory influence needed for ending workplace sexual harassment.

The #MeToo movement is a direct result of the endless decades that has seen mostly men in power abusing their positions to elicit sexual favors from their primarily female subordinates. These power positions could be an employer over an employee, a priest over a member of their congregation, a teacher over a student, or a celebrity over most people. These are only a few examples, as sexual harassment in the workplace takes countless forms. Tarana Burke’s initial intention for starting the MeToo movement was to show victims that they were never alone. Over a decade later when the phrase MeToo would be used again, it was chosen to show the public the tremendous scope of the problem. The phrase #MeToo erupted in 2017 among the graphic accusations against the then film producer, Harvey Weinstein. Among the media buzz, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted to her followers online asking them to reply with “#MeToo” if they had endured workplace sexual harassment. Within 24 hours thousands of people had replied with their stories, from big name celebrities to more community based individuals. The conversation on workplace sexual harassment exploded. Across the country victims began sharing their stories. Over the following months as more accusations would surface against Weinstein, he continued to lose more of his power. Although Weinstein wasn’t the only man in power to have accusations surface against him at this time, the accusations and his following descent served as a beacon of hope for victims. Here was this powerful man – who silenced women with non-disclosure agreements and threatened their careers – that was ultimately not able to outrun the karma he had collected. This public trial was coupled by other initiatives founded during these beginning stages. In January of 2018, four months after the first stories broke of Weinstein, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund was launched. Formed by 300 women across the entertainment industry, it’s purpose was to assist those in need of legal and financial assistance after experiencing sexual harassment. Within the first month of its opening, the foundation had raised over 21 million dollars. Almost immediately, Time’s Up began receiving inquiries from every state across the United States. They targeted their resources and assistance towards low-wage workers, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and employees of odd or non-traditional jobs. As of October 2019, they had connected over 3600 people with attorneys to pursue legal action. (North). Additionally, a direct result of these large shifts happening was how the conversations and attitudes around sexual harassment began to change across the board. Instead of being viewed as a few bad men, sexual harassment was being discussed more openly and honestly. For so long the silence has been the most harmful thing. Now equipped with new language and understanding to discuss these traumatic events, more people are comfortable with having these uncomfortable conversations. Following the lead set by the entertainment industry, many other industries began looking at their policies and practices. Although much more work still remains to be accomplished, the incredibly difficult part of bringing it to the public attention has been achieved.

The initial impact of the #MeToo moment bomb to society was impactful yet clear: the world was listening. Hundreds upon thousands of people were sharing their experiences and their trauma, finding strength in their shared pain. In a 2018 BBC news article, Sion Brook – a researcher of gender and sexism online at the Oxford Internet Institute – explains how even just the conversations started in light of the #MeToo movement were vital to the whole picture. “It’s brought the idea of sexual harassment and assault into the public consciousness,” Ms Brooke says. “Even if the discussion around the movement is criticism, you are still bringing about an awareness that this happens” (Seales). Starting the conversation has been a long and difficult road. Simply speaking about sexual trauma can be incredibly difficult for victims, which is why silence has been such a vital tool for abusers. One common strategy of abusers-in-power lies in non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. These agreements bar victims from speaking about their abuse, often in exchange for a sum of money. Such an agreement is what kept one victim of Harvey Weinstein silent for 20 years. After his arrest, several states began looking at their laws and regulations surrounding non-disclosure agreements. In September of 2018 California changed it’s laws to banning NDAs in cases of sexual misconduct, followed later by New York and New Jersey. (North). While these are encouraging steps forward, the normalization of discussing sexual harassment has ultimetely been the most impactful benefit  for all victims. This willingness to listen and believe victims has led to a new method for calling out abusers. Starting in the entertainment industry, victims of sexual harassment who saw no way of resolution began publicly calling out their abusers. They would begin talking openly about their abuse, often supported by a large group of people. Having their story amplified by so many others discourages fans from supporting the abuser, henceforth “canceling” the individual. Canceling an artist or individual is not only a complete boycott of supporting them and their work, but it additionally involves publicly speaking loudly about the harm they have caused. “Cancel culture is what happens when [victims] feel they don’t have power,” explained an expert in sexual violence with a focus on capus rape, Nicole Bedera.  “It’s what we are left with when our traditional institutions of accountability are not working.” (255). This lack of control and frustration about the absence of accountability is what drives victims to publicly “cancel” their abusers. Their intentions are to warn others, and to signal to the world that this individual is dangerous. Without a proper legal or civil course of action to take, victims are forced to either stay quiet or fix things themselves. Years after a movement was reignited to create change, victims are still desperately screaming for it. 

The #MeToo movement has had dramatic impacts and has widened the conversations around a systemic problem, yet still it falls embarrassingly short of what it has intended to accomplish. With only a few famous abusers being held accountable, the majority of victims have been forced to watch as their stories fade into the background and their abusers slowly recover. While cancel culture is a direct result of victims having no other recourse, that does not mean it works. Typically the perpetrators endure the initial onslaught of criticisms and they are forced to issue a public apology. They lose a job or two, possibly a publication contract or an interview if they were already lined up. Again, Bedera explains “We really are talking about outrage for a few months. Some people might boycott a particular entertainer. They might lose one job. But they come back so fast.” Bedera continues, “It’s really difficult to find an example of someone whose life was ruined, even if they deserved consequences for their actions. We mostly see injustice.” (255). A perfect example of this injustice would be the movie producer Woody Allen. When Allen’s daughter Dylan was 7 years old, he assaulted her. Never once choosing silence, Dylan told her mother what happened. For the next three decades, both Dylan and her mother Mia Farrow would openly speak about this. Although his actions did follow him, only in 2020 did it look like they might actually catch up to him. When a new documentary special focused on Allen’s abuse aired, the public conversation quickly turned sour. Amazon pulled the plug on a four part special they had contracted with Allen, and his publisher pulled his memoir deal. Actresses who had previously praised Allen publicly apologized to Dylan Farrow for not supporting her before, and more actors spoke out against Allen. While it is undeniable that Woody Allen’s reputation had been tarnished, he ultimately did not face any real consequences for his actions. Not only did he face zero legal recourse, he was able to find another publisher for his book and several more actors spoke highly of him in public. Even though there was substantial evidence showing Allen’s guilt, because of the lack of laws and regulations, no avenue for justice existed. Without these solid frameworks of accountability, we inherently enable abusers to climb their way out of hot water just like Allen did.  What made Allen’s case more notable was the level of publicity he enjoys. Instead of gearing the focus towards those in most dire need, the majority of the focus on sexual harassment has remained on those who are already high profile, celebrity status. Celebrity chefs, actors, comedians, athletes, politicians, show hosts and more have all been called out and faced some form of retribution. While these are important, what is lacking in that list are all of the local and community based positions of power. People such as restaurant managers, bosses and owners of local salons or car shops, teachers in small towns, preachers and so many more do not face the same level of scrutiny as those more well known offenders. Listening to victims can only do so much, especially when they are not being amplified enough. In order to truly make a difference more needs to be done than simply discussing the harm done. Laws, legislation and mandatory guidelines need to be written and enacted in order to hold all abusers accountable.

As it stands, the #MeToo movement is unable to be the catalyst for deep systemic change due to the inability not only to focus on those most in need, but additionally to invoke the radical solutions required to do so. California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonalaz explains “So much of the power of the #MeToo movement comes from… outing high-profile harassers. But there’s less interest when you have workers that… people don’t care as much about. [When they are] employers that nobody’s heard of, or supervisors and companies that nobody’s heard of. It just doesn’t have the same appeal for the broader media.” (226). Despite the wide media focus towards the entertainment industry, the large majority of sexual harassment assaults take place in lower paid work places such as food, hospitality and factories. When employees have little to no where to go for help, they can easily feel backed into a corner with no exit. For these individuals their next paycheck could be the difference between a roof for their family or none. When the stakes are that high and there is no safe way to help, the victim is far more vulnerable to any level of manipulation. At the same time the stakes can be equally as high – if not substantially higher – if the victim does manage to speak out. In the hospitality industry, stories of clients and coworkers alike taking advantage of the intimate setting are repulsively common. “I always reported. I wasn’t quiet at all, but I never got anywhere,” says Juana Melara, who has spent years in the hospitality industry. When she spoke with former coworkers, conditions seemed worse than she had remembered. “That’s why we fight so hard. They’re just trying to earn a living.” (226). In the hospitality industry, several of the large chains have worked to implement the use of personal alert devices to all employees. Nearly all industries across the board have been hosting seminars and training courses to both better educate their employees, and to listen to their concerns and complaints. Factories and restaurants alike have hosted employee driven conversations where they listen to their staff and make changes based on what was discussed. Ultimately though, the solutions needed to root out the systems of power and sexual abuse in the work place lie in conversations and ideas that have not yet formed. Without avenues for justice, victims have nowhere to go. The conversations and seminars can only go so far in creating systemic change. One way to begin creating these avenues would be through laws and guidelines on sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. A large majority of victims express the inability to come forward comes from having nowhere and no one to turn to. Additionally, victims express fear of retaliation for speaking up as another reason to not come forward. To begin easing these fears, lawmakers and politicians could partner with victims and advocates in order to draft bills that would not only create avenues for reporting abuses, but create safeguards to protect those who do come forward as well. Larger companies could turn to third parties in order to document and report on any sexual harassment claims, ensuring the victims felt no threat of retribution from within their place of work. Local officials could also create departments with local advocates in order to create another avenue for support and legal guidance. These are actions that seem basic, but they have not been reviewed or implemented by any majority of corporations or governments. In order to create real systemic changes, policy makers need to engage with their communities to create the avenues for justice needed with them and their wellbeing in mind. 

While the volume of the #MeToo movement has been unforgettable and unavoidable, the consequences the abusers face have been the opposite. When the movement was started, it was kicked off with the intention of creating sweeping change. This was unfortunately dead upon arrival. Regardless of how much the entertainment and media industries wanted to “fix” the sexual harassment problem, those with power in larger and less publicized industries remain unwilling to budge. Given no incentive to do otherwise, they will continue to remain rooted in their stance to refuse change. Politicians, lawmakers, and local leaders have a duty to victims to hold these powerful abusers accountable for the damage that is too easily covered up. The #MeToo movement has moved us a long way, and it likely will continue to do so. However, the radical and systemic change needed to truly help victims is not achievable in this current environment. While the #MeToo movement has been helpful in bringing the conversation around workplace sexual harassment to the public arena, it remains unable to generate the sweeping reforms needed to create real change for victims. 

Works Cited Accessed 8 Dec. 2021. Accessed 8 Dec. 2021. 

Seales, Rebecca. “What has #MeToo actually changed?” BBC News, 12 May 2018, Accessed 8 Dec. 2021. 

“Sexual Harassment” What is Sexual Harassment?, Accessed 8 Dec. 2021. 

North, Anna. “7 positive changes that have come from the #MeToo movement” 4 Oct. 2019, Accessed 8 Dec. 2021.