Home Ripple After #MeToo, the Ripple Effect

After #MeToo, the Ripple Effect

19 min read

After #MeToo, the Ripple Effect

CreditIllustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban/The New York Times; Photographs by Getty Images
  • June 28, 2018

They call themselves “the nine.” They are nine women, eight scattered around the United States and one in France, each with accusations of having been sexually harassed or assaulted by a former mentor, the playwright Israel Horovitz. Last fall, they chose to speak out publicly against him, adding their voices to the chorus of women proclaiming #MeToo.

None of these women had met one another before they told me their stories for an article published in The New York Times in November, detailing alleged misconduct spanning 30 years. Eight months later, they are in near-constant contact. They text, they call, they email, pulling someone out of a hole when one of them spirals. Recently, they coordinated a letter-writing campaign to have one of Mr. Horovitz’s plays stricken from the lineup of a repertory theater in Sharon, Mass. (Mr. Horovitz, in a statement to The Times, apologized to “any woman who has ever felt compromised by my actions.”)

[Read more: How saying #MeToo changed their lives.]

“This group of nine women ground me,” said Laura Crook, an actor who lives outside of Boston. She created small pendants — nine delicate stones and a pearl with “x9” engraved on a silver bead — for each of the women. “It’s like we have spun our individual pain into solidarity.”

It’s a strange sisterhood that perhaps could exist only in this particular moment. But these small networks are one of a number of ways that the conversation around #MeToo has shifted to: What’s next?

In the 1960s and ’70s, feminists had a saying: The personal is political. The idea was that when women shared their individual experiences, their struggles — the ones many believed they were alone in facing — suddenly became collective. A slight by a boss became about a system of slights; a problem that seemed insurmountable was less so with the power of the group behind it.

It’s difficult to assess a movement while it’s still happening. Yet nine months after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were first published and “#MeToo” became a rallying cry, one of the most sobering revelations — and one of the most powerful — has been the sheer universality of it.

There’s a range of statistics about rates of sexual harassment in the United States and the world over, some as high as 81 percent for women and 43 percent for men. But recorded or not, nearly every woman seems to have a #MeToo story. Harassment is pervasive in professions like finance and technology, as well as workplaces like restaurants, factories and hotels. It doesn’t spare you if you’re old, or rich, or privileged, or powerful.

And it is not just about an array of abusive men. There is a system that perpetuates it: an elaborate “machinery,” as Jodi Kantor, among The Times reporters honored with a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the subject, has put it.

It is a machinery that has long protected powerful men and prevented women from coming forward. It includes hefty payoffs and inept human-resources departments; complicit bystanders who include women and men; as well as a culture that, for a long time, simply did not accept that a woman coming forward to accuse a man could be telling the truth.

“If survivors of sexual violation were believed and valued, across culture, society, and law, that in itself would be a major transformation,” said Catharine A. MacKinnon, the legal scholar who, in 1979, first laid the groundwork for sexual harassment law and went on to argue it before the Supreme Court.

In a recent column in The Times, Ms. MacKinnon noted that #MeToo had done for society what the law could not — eroding one of the biggest barriers to prosecuting sexual harassment, which was “the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims.”

“Women have been saying these things forever,” she wrote. “It is the response to them that has changed.”

If there are phases to this movement, it feels like we’ve cycled through a number of them: First it was just a few women, then it was an army of them, followed by the collective recognition that perhaps those women should be believed. That was accompanied by — and still is — the staccato of men toppling, one after the next, and of proclamations of #MeToo around the world: #YoTambien in Spanish, #BalanceTonPorc (“expose your pig”) in French and #quellavoltache (“that time when”) in Italian. It was peppered by worries of a backlash.

Then, seven months in, the image of Harvey Weinstein in handcuffs — led, restrained, into his arraignment by a female detective — symbolized a new stage: the possibility of real, criminal consequences for alleged perpetrators, even the most powerful among them.

“I have to admit I didn’t think I would see the day that he would have handcuffs on him,” the actress Rose McGowan, one of the first women to speak out against Mr. Weinstein, said on “Good Morning America” on the day of his arrest.

But consequences are not prevention. And when it comes to preventing sexual harassment, there’s not a whole lot that has been proven to work.

Over and over again, all these reports say that the best predictor of sexual harassment is ‘culture,’” said Anita Hill, the law professor who famously testified during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s Senate confirmation hearings that he had harassed her. “So we’re working on things like bystander training, but also training for managers so that they understand that everyone has a role.”

“This is a long-term project,” she added. “There’s no magic one thing that’s going to change an entire industry, whether it’s Hollywood or Silicon Valley or the Ford Motor Company.”

There has been some progress. In recent months, state resolutions have been proposed in New Jersey and California — as well as one that will take effect this month in New York — making nondisclosure agreements and forced arbitration clauses, which often prevent employees from speaking out or filing legal action, unenforceable against victims of harassment and discrimination. Some companies, like Microsoft, have done the same — eliminating forced confidential arbitration for employees who make sexual harassment claims. (“The silencing of people’s voices has clearly had an impact in perpetuating sexual harassment,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said at the time.)

The European Parliament recently convened a special session on sexual violence, while France has made catcalling and other forms of public harassment a punishable offense. In May, Sweden became the 10th country in Western Europe to acknowledge, in the eyes of the law, that sex without explicit consent can be rape.

“These first nine months have allowed us to start seeing the magnitude of the issue,” said Tarana Burke, the activist who first coined the phrase “MeToo.” “Now, the months and years ahead have to be focused on solutions.”

Pockets of collective organizing are sprouting up. At Nike, a covert survey by female employees — inquiring whether their female peers had faced sexual harassment or gender discrimination at the company — recently found its way to the chief executive’s desk, leading to the resignation of a number of top executives.

And members of Time’s Up, the organization formed by Hollywood creatives and executives to combat harassment, which includes a multimillion dollar legal defense fund, recently wrote an open letter condemning years-old accusations of abuse against the pop star R. Kelly, prompting Spotify, the streaming behemoth, to stop promoting his music.

“This movement has galvanized people into a community,” said Ms. Hill, who now heads the entertainment industry’s Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace.

“I had the letters people wrote me, but there was no organizing around the letters. I think this is how social change occurs.”

The ripple effects have extended beyond sexual harassment.

In Hollywood, Frances McDormand’s call in her acceptance speech in March at the Academy Awards for “inclusion riders” has led at least one production company to adopt one.

There has been new attention on topics like wage equality and pregnancy discrimination, as well as a spirited national discussion about the treatment of N.F.L. cheerleaders. Even the Miss America pageant plans to remove the swimsuit portion of the competition.

In every walk of culture, it seems, #MeToo has made us question: How did we ever think this was O.K.?

“Cultural revolutions don’t happen quickly,” Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host who is now board chairwoman at Miss America, told me a few weeks ago. (She took over after the chief executive was forced to resign over lewd comments.) “The idea that we’re seeing so much happen in real time so quickly is really amazing. It’s my greatest hope that there’s no turning back.”

In her 2017 book, “Butterfly Politics,” Ms. MacKinnon, the legal scholar, delved into a concept from chaos theory in which a tiny motion of a butterfly’s wings can trigger a tornado half a world away. Under the right conditions, she argued, small actions can produce major social transformations.

So too, it seems, with the women who first spoke out against Mr. Weinstein — and a world that may be profoundly changed.

“When I embarked on this thing, when I decided to speak out, I was worried I was going to feel more alone than when I started,” said Ms. Crook, one of the Horovitz nine. “And to feel the opposite of that is pretty remarkable. We’re one cell of this new organism.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page F6 of the New York edition with the headline: The Ripple Effect. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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