Social media and news outlets have been dominated over the past few months with stories of sexual harassment and assault. The pervasive scandal involving the alleged sexual assault and rape committed by Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood tipped the scales and started a movement amongst women and men to come forward with their own stories of sexual assault.
This wave of sexual assault awareness involved a hash tag: #MeToo. Most people think that this #MeToo movement was started by a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano. In that tweet Milano said, “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.”
However, #MeToo has a far longer history and is rooted in not just in spreading awareness, but in strengthening empathy and understanding amongst survivors of sexual assault.
History of #MeToo
The #MeToo movement was started over 10 years ago by black activist Tarana Burke, but the idea for the movement was planted much longer ago during an experience that Burke had while working as a youth camp director.
After an all-girl bonding session at the camp, one young girl asked Tarana Burke if she could speak with her privately. Burke describes the event as the following:
“For the next several minutes this child … struggled to tell me about her ‘stepdaddy’ or rather her mother’s boyfriend who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body. … I was horrified by her words, the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut, and I listened until I literally could not take it anymore … which turned out to be less than five minutes. Then, right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and immediately directed her to another female counselor who could ‘help her better.’ ”
The look on the girl’s face was something that Burke would never forget and would go on to haunt her.
“The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed again — it was all on her face,” she explained.
“I couldn’t help her release her shame, or impress upon her that nothing that happened to her was her fault. I could not find the strength to say out loud the words that were ringing in my head over and over again as she tried to tell me what she had endured. I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper … me too.”
Since that momentous event in Burke’s life, she has committed herself to removing the stigma around sexual assault and, instead, establishing a saying that encompasses the empathy that survivors need: Me Too.
Burke launched this “Me Too” movement in order to empower women through empathy. She targeted this grassroots movement in underprivileged communities where survivors of sexual abuse, assault, rape, and exploitation often do not have access to rape crisis centers, counselors or support.
Since young women of color are more likely to experience sexual assault, Burke also created a nonprofit organization called Just Be Inc. in 2006 that “focused on the health, well-being, and wholeness of young women of color.”
The Impact of #MeToo
The #MeToo has been used nearly one million times on Twitter and has 4.7 people engaged on Facebook with over 12 million posts. In fact, CNN reported that 45% of Facebook users in the United States are friends with someone who posted a #MeToo message.
Eventually, Alyssa Milano credited Burke and her nonprofit Just Be Inc. for launching the initial #MeToo movement. In a tweet, Milano shared the link to the Just Be Inc. website and wrote, “I was just made aware of an earlier #MeToo movement, and the origin story is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.”
Burke was in no ways defensive and upset that people were taking her movement and running with it. Instead, she seemed incredibly supportive and excited that her hash tag was making major inroads in building awareness. Burke tweeted, “It made my heart swell to see women using this idea – one that we call ‘empowerment through empathy’ #metoo.”
Commentary Surrounding #MeToo
However, some commentary around the #MeToo movement has highlighted that this issue only made headlines when it affected famous, wealthy white women like Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Reese Witherspoon.
As Ashley C. Ford wrote in Refinery29, “Where was the boycott for ESPN sports journalist Jemele Hill when her employer suspended her from her job citing a vague social media policy? Where was the boycott when actress and comedian Leslie Jones was harassed by trolls to the point of deleting her account for months?”
This commentary created a different hashtag to address this specific problem: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.
Other commentary surrounding the movement has expressed the dismay that the burden of responsibility for change once again falls on the victim instead of the perpetrators. As Angelina Chapin wrote in The Huffington Post, “Women can turn the whole internet into a list of “Me toos,” but it won’t make a difference until men ― all men ― acknowledge how they perpetuate misogyny and commit to making a change.”
Some men have stepped up to the challenge. Hash tags like #IWill or #HowIWillChange have been started by men to try and ameliorate this shortcoming.
Other commentary surrounds the fear that the prevalence of sexual assault has turned into a trend that will disappear as quickly as it rose into the collective consciousness. However, as more and more men such as Kevin Spacey and NPR’s Vice President, Michael Oreskes, are fired from powerful positions after repeated allegations of sexual harassment or assault, hope is building that this is not simply a hash tag, but a social movement just beginning to grow its legs.