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Featured Article: “#MeToo: A Hashtag Worth a Thousand Words” by Amanda Smiley

October 15, 2017

Sarah’s cursor hovered over the blue “share” button at the bottom of the screen. These aren’t my words, she thought. But they exactly point out what I want to say. So, why am I nervous to share them?

She clicked it. She refreshed the page. Her Facebook profile listed the shared post front and center: “I won’t say ‘Me, too…’”

There. It was done. A paragraph of someone else’s couple dozen words summed up her own thoughts, her own opinion on a global social issue the world was talking about. She had shared with everyone why she would not say those two words, why she just could not rally behind the phrase that all of America was enthusiastically echoing in a fight against sexual assault. And she had good reasoning, too.

 

 

Now, people might see her as not one of them. Now, people might wonder why she’s not part of the #MeToo fight.

 

Summer 2007

Tarana Burke came home each night, exhausted. The numbers of women kept increasing – with every woman she shared her story with, another one showed up at her door. They were vulnerable, scared, and wanting to share scars on their bodies and minds.

Burke, a survivor of sexual violence herself, was aware that the women in her community in Selma, Alabama “had no safe outlet for sexual violence.” Burke found herself so affected by the reoccurring stories of sexual assault in her own community that she knew she made it her mission to do something. Burke ran a youth leadership organization called “Just Be” to address youth mental and physical health. The primarily black women who came to her came from historically black neighborhoods, like herself, with limited availability to health care and counseling facilities. They had no access to therapy services, no safe spaces to speak about their experiences, and no support system to keep them from slipping further and further under the rug of silence and fear.

In one of Burke’s own moments of vulnerability, someone had once said to her, “Me too.” It had stuck – she for once felt a little less isolated, a little less alone with the knowledge that someone else knew exactly what it felt like to receive unwanted sexual advances from a male friend, be physically and emotionally harmed by a male family member, and actually fear for your own life.

Burke began using the “Me too” phrase not as a hashtag, but as a survivor-to-survivor phrase of encouragement, of empathy. It says, “I understand. I hear you.”

She’d never intended, or imagined, the hashtag to become an explosive, national Internet phenomenon in the years to come. Not only would millions use her phrase, but the hashtag would also be overwhelmingly controversial in its intention, its effectiveness, and even its attention to individuals of some demographics and not others.

While Burke’s efforts in her community in Selma, Alabama helped women, particularly women of color, work through their experiences of sexual assault and violence, the “Me too” phrase remained primarily unknown to in the public waves of social media between 2006 and 2017. It was not until famous actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase in her Twitter post nearly eleven years later that the hashtag gained momentum.

Milano’s tweet read: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” and it was attached to it a friend’s post that read, “Me too. Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Milano’s tweet was in response to a popular and recent account of actress Ashley Judd’s accusations of sexual assault against popular film producer Harvey Weinstein.

 

 

These two words at the end of a twitter post sparked an explosion of accusations, allegations, and controversies regarding sexual harassment and assault. While Judd’s accusation against Weinstein and Milano’s tweet eventually encouraged dozens of women to come forward about their sexual encounters with Weinstein, the events also sparked momentum on the topic of sexual misconduct. And while Americans began to talk about the hashtag, it grew into a kind of movement the world had not seen before.

Burke’s phrase had caught fire on a global scale, but not without Milano’s help. Burke says with Democracy Now, “That’s the reality of social media.” With sexual crimes, “we don’t pay attention until it’s a big name.”

Soon after the Milano’s tweet sparked a nation-wide domino effect of #MeToo posts, Burke interviewed with Democracy Now in October of 2017. She wore a t-shirt that read her coined phrase without the hashtag: “Me too.” When asked about the impact of this lapse of time between her efforts and Milano’s tweet, Burke spoke in a conversational tone and without a waver in her voice. Burke claims that when she used the phrase, she had “tried to find a succinct way to show empathy… ‘Me too’ was about reaching the places that other people wouldn’t normally go, bringing messages and words and encouragement to survivors of sexual violence.”

 

October 12th 2017

Within 24 hours of Milano’s tweet, over 12 million posts regarding “Me too” appeared on the Internet. That’s 12 million human beings, women and sometimes men, who chose to share. And many more who chose not to. People were angry and even excited that the opportunity had finally come: the opportunity to show the world how prevalent sexual assault really had arrived full force with only two words.

But potentially most impactful in the minutes, hours, and days to follow was the American public’s general surprise. Many watched as their neighbors, bosses, students, friends, and family members pushed the “post” and the “tweet” buttons with the two words that exposed their most personal selves, words that told every reader “Yes. I, too, have been a victim of sexual assault like millions of others.”

Through the millions of media posts, select voices whispered that this problem was not new – not new to the 21st century, and not new to the history of human civilization. With this uproar came resurfaced, unacknowledged, and even new research on the topic of sexual harassment and assault.

According to Chantal da Silva’s article in Newsweek “#MeToo Study Finds Nearly All Women and Almost Half of Men in U.S. Have Faced Sexual Harassment or Assault,” up to 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment, assault, or misconduct. That is a staggeringly large volume. The article goes on to explain that in all of those cases of misconduct, anywhere between 20-31% of individuals experience feelings of anxiety and depression after the fact. Not only is sexual assault or misconduct a prevalent and common occurrence, but the repercussions of it can have lasting mental and physical damages.

Not only are celebrities using the hashtag to speak out, but these celebrities were (and are) also the faces of those accused of sexual harassment and assault. In addition to the many accusations against Harvey Weinstein, in the days after Milano’s tweet, other well-known celebrity names showed up on news outlets and social media platforms as accused perpetrators of sexual assault. Suddenly, the American public’s beloved faces of television were being accused of heinous acts that did not at all line up with their likable, attractive public personas. Among those accused were Larry Nassar, Olympic gymnast doctor; Kevin Spacey, television star; Matt Lauer, news anchor for The Today Show.

Suddenly, the hashtag had taken a less-enthusiastic turn, and more and more critics of the movement emerged. No longer was the movement’s energy entirely uplifting; celebrity faces long revered were now being questioned because of one person’s two-word post.

 

March 22nd, 2018

Dr. Theresa Gaul’s office desk twinkled under the scattered rays of afternoon sun through the windows, flourishing flower bulbs peppered the room with fragrance, and books piled the desk and shelves in stacks—a cluttered collection that seemed so intentionally arranged. The six-year director of Texas Christian University’s Women and Gender Studies program and professor of English sat with her hands carefully folded on her desk.

“Well I do know that the #MeToo movement is a means for survivors to express their experiences and stand in solidarity,” Gaul said.

Like many others, Gaul thinks that the movement’s effectiveness is its ability to unify communities and expose to the world the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, both in and out of the workplace. With millions of tweets and social media shares referencing #MeToo, many citizens of 2018 have at the very least heard of the hashtag. Although people like Sarah Frank and Dr. Gaul may differ on the means or success of the movement’s exposure of sexual assault, the movement’s widespread prevalence is undeniable.

“There is a necessity to bring visibility to this issue that has been so hidden, so intractable to change. With #MeToo, the silence gets broken,” said Gaul.

A slow smile bloomed across her face and she nodded. “So,” she continued, “I do support the movement.”

#MeToo has two crucial effects other than visibility, she explained. Not only has #MeToo’s popularity informed many people (men and women alike) about the varying and diverse ways sexual harassment can manifest itself through action and verbal communication, but it has also helped women re-evaluate their own experiences. A comment or experience a woman might not have thought much of before might now be re-evaluated with a new perspective with the recent surge of #MeToo posts and discussions. While this may or may not be a “good,” thing, the #MeToo movement has had undeniable effects on women as they reflect on their own experiences, their own stories.

Oprah Winfrey in her 2018 Golden Globes speech supported the #MeToo campaign on live television when she encouraged women to voice their experiences: “What I know for sure if that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room (actors and members of movie production) are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.”

As Oprah is a survivor of sexual assault herself, her overwhelming support for the movement gave the many grappling with sexual assault and abuse a loved TV star who, in this case, was “just like them.” With a face like Oprah Winfrey helping propel the #MeToo movement, there’s a chance the average citizen might have a new perspective on the hashtag movement. If Oprah supports the hashtag, should I? Does Oprah’s support merit mine? Many viewers of her speech might not have known Oprah was a survivor of sexual assault herself, and after hearing a celebrity like Oprah rally behind this virtual movement might prompt them to ask: What other people in my life – on or off the TV screen – are like her, waiting for an opportunity to share?

Within TCU’s Women and Gender Studies Program, one might be unsure of where the #MeToo discussion fits in such broad, expansive subjects like the female identity, gender, and sexuality. Dr. Gaul, however, easily pinpointed the movement as a crucial aspect of academic historical study, research, and community conversation.

“I study English literature with a particular focus on Women studies and female sexuality over the course of history,” she explained. “And in every Women and Genders study class, you’ll be talking about sexual violence.” Sexual violence and harassment is nothing new to history, to literature, or to women. It is, however, something new to media and the mass public since the unabashed and encouraged discussion of sexual misconduct is both a recent aspect of American culture and an explosive virtual movement unmatched by many others (with the exception of other movements like #BlackLivesMatter which I will not explore in this piece).

To her, the hashtag is both a topic of historical study within the realm of academia regarding gender and sexuality and a gateway to necessary conversation among colleagues, students, and friends on an issue often under-addressed. Gaul said, “Colleges create academic spaces for discussion based on what’s been researched. Informing students on real history and real facts make it so that students can be prepared to argue valuable points in the world.”

 

February 25th, 2018

“Men are afraid to talk about it with me,” Sarah Frank said. “It’s awkward for them. It’s awkward when your dominant group—males—are the subject of such a controversial, heavy topic.”

The phone static echoed as the assistant Sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison paused in silence on the other side.

People probably disagreed with her thoughts, she assumed, but oddly enough, she didn’t meet the kind of internet backlash political posts often do with her shared post about #MeToo. Frank’s uneasiness about the movement doesn’t stem from a lack of interest in women’s rights or the topic of sexual assault. In fact – quite the opposite. As a teaching assistant in Sociology, a self-proclaimed feminist, an annual participant in the American Women’s March, and a survivor of sexual harassment and assault herself, Frank invests herself fully in the fight for women’s equality; but the #MeToo movement, for her, is just not cutting it.

As is exemplified in the Facebook post Frank shared last October, her position on the hashtag is not a popular one of either enthusiastic support or unsure indifference.  Frank recognizes the “feasibility” of the movement: “It surely helps people realize the colossal issue of our society.”

The fact that most people support the movement does not surprise her, either. But given this popular support, many forget to consider the ways in which it needs improvement. “People are often quick to support #MeToo because everyone wants to show their support for other people. Most at least know someone who has been affected by sexual violence or harassment. And everyone wants to improve their workplace.”

Frank took a deep breath before she continued on the other phone line. She fears that some people show their verbal support of the movement because they want to “look good.” Many, she suggested, knew all along the extent of sexual harassment in our society, but it was not until the eruption of conversation on social media that people feel the need to prove their “goodness” in the accusations, to “prove” their innocence of the flying accusations about men or predators of sexual assault. According to Sarah, many (mostly men and some women) feel the need to showcase their encouragement of the movement so as to silence any doubts that they do not like the hashtag, or worse, that they commit sexual misconduct themselves.

A major point of contention Frank has with the movement is the movement’s consideration of racial relationships and widespread representation. Frank, along with many of her students and friends, thinks the hashtag has become a “white and heterosexual feminist” movement, failing to represent the sexual violence and strife women of color and members of the LGBTQ community experience. Now that the movement has spread across so many social media platforms, many people do not acknowledge the fact that a black woman started the phrase years ago.

While a whole other article could be devoted to the differences white versus non-white, heterosexual versus non-heterosexual individuals face when it comes to sexual violence and harassment, the hashtag has received much backlash for its growing “whitewashing” effects and “straight-ness.”  As Ana Valen’s article, “#MeToo Amplifies Sexual Assault Survivors’ experiences—but it’s not Enough,” claims in the The Daily, it took Milano (a white woman) to use the hashtag to get people listening, while many other sexual harassment hashtags by women of color or members of the LGBTQ community have gone unnoticed. Valen claims, “Various hashtags created by black women and women of color, such as #YouOKsis and #WhatWereYouWearing, were largely ignored by white women across the Internet before #MeToo came out. So now that #MeToo is trending, and white feminists might think it’s the first time women have collectively spoken out against sexual harassment, women of color’s hard work discussing sexual assault has been erased and whitewashed.”

The Facebook post Frank shared addresses many other popular disagreements with the movement including male responsibility, the assumed female responsibility of forwarding the movement, the possibility of collective, social denial, and the hashtag’s disregard for “due process” and the treatment of sexual violence perpetrators rather than victims. However, the aspects that most bother Frank, in addition to the hashtag’s white and heterosexual focuses, are society’s intense interest with celebrity drama as well as the hashtag’s call for a survivor’s self-victimization and relived trauma.

“We don’t recognize the issue unless it’s a movement,” Sarah says. It took celebrities in the 21st century like America Ferrera, Lady Gaga, Viola Davis, Sheryl Crow, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cara Delevingne, and dozens more to use the hashtag, to speak out during their Golden Globes speeches, and to accuse other big names for people to pay attention to an issue that has been happening for hundreds of years.

Furthermore, she continued, “In order to be a part of the movement you have to air your own trauma.” This concern for the wellbeing of survivors after the fact is also noted by Dr. Theresa Gaul from TCU. “I do know that some survivors feel triggered by the movement when asked to relive their experiences. In that case,” she said with a sigh, “this is a kind of violence for victims again.”

Most trauma specialists and psychologists could tell you the lasting effects of traumatic events and the difficulty that comes with an individual’s remembrance of harmful experiences. RAINN, a national anti-sexual violence organization, notes that the most common emotional and physical effects of sexually harmful experiences can include depression, intense flashbacks, and levels of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sexual assault is not only physical and unique to the moment. It is emotional, and it is a persistent reminder in a person’s life.

Since Frank’s sharing of the Facebook post in February of 2017, social media has remained an important forum for Frank as she expresses her political and social beliefs. Yet, while she used to utilize Facebook quite often to express her thoughts on social matters, Frank admits the “Share your thoughts” box of a blinking cursor has since lost some of its purpose.

“I’ve kind of stopped using social media as much to share my political thoughts,” she continued. The kind of pure nastiness and attack that evolves in the comments in politically-charged social media posts can be exhausting and too aggressive. “People commenting on the Internet usually are there looking for a fight.”

And even though Frank chose not to publically share her personal experiences with sexual assault or harassment using the #MeToo hashtag, she is not excluded from those affected. An older, male colleague’s unsolicited sexual comments about her body and behavior “as a woman” is just one of Frank’s personal accounts on the subject.

Through the static of the phone, Frank sought the best words to describe the kind of disgust she felt well up in her stomach when the male colleague encouraged his female colleagues to improve their behavior by acting less like “sluts.” Women, the man believed, had only themselves to blame as the perpetrators of their negative “slutty” reputations, not members of male-centered society as a whole.

“Women don’t realize,” the man had said to Frank’s face, “how slut activity affects their reputation.”

 

 

#MeToo has encouraged people like Emma Watson and others to address the topic of sexual assault in expanding ways, namely with the new hashtag called #TimesUp that aims to address female inequality in all realms of society. While many people, including Sarah Frank and Theresa Gaul, note that #MeToo is still too new of a movement to really study its societal effects as a “movement,” the hashtag has already had undeniable effects.

No longer does the word “share” pertain to a conversation of vulnerability or an exchange of experiences. With #MeToo, “share” means that and more. One can share his or her story of sexual assault or harassment, share a simple “me too” with someone who needs to hear it, or publically share the words of someone else with one blue Facebook button that connects to the rest of the world.

 


Amanda Smiley is a rising senior from Denver, Colorado. She plans to graduate in May of 2019 as an English and Spanish major and Writing minor. After graduation she hopes to pursue a career in book editing and publishing. In her free time she loves to read, write, play with her dogs, and spend time in the Colorado Rockies skiing and hiking.