The True Meaning of the #METOO Movement

It has been over a year since Twitter users tweeted #METOO to share that they had experienced sexual harassment or assault at some point in their life.  The response has been powerful. According to recent PEW research, the #METOO hashtag has been used over 19 million times and, not unexpectedly, usage surges around key events such as Harvey Weinstein’s resignation from the board of his entertainment company or during the Brett Kavanagh Supreme Court hearings.  

What is striking, although probably not surprising to many women or indeed any victim, is how the #METOO movement crosses occupation, industry, education, sexuality and race.   The assaults and harassment experienced by countless women for centuries are real and their memories painful, yet most incidents are unreported or are not taken seriously.  According to the National Women’s Law Center, an estimated 87 to 94 percent of individuals who experience workplace sexual harassment, for example, never file a formal legal complaint. Similarly more than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses are not reporting their assaults.   

Over the past year, the #METOO movement has been successful in spreading awareness and education on sexual harassment and sexual assault.  Reporting has increased in the United States and in several other countries. The #METOO movement has brought the conversation out of the shadows and into the corporate boardrooms, academic classrooms, Congressional hearings and family dinner tables.  

But despite the clear impact of the #METOO movement (or may be because of) the movement itself is at considerable risk of being politically hijacked.  As Tarana Burke, the founder of the movement recently lamented, the public narrative surrounding the movement is too often focused on what powerful person will be taken down next; rather than the broader conversation regarding how to dismantle the systems that allow such behaviors to continue. We cannot have leaders who only support the movement when it is politically expedient.  One cannot pull a lever in a voting booth for Donald Trump and then denounce Phil Murphy for not taking immediate action in his office when an accusation is brought forward.  Likewise one cannot call for hearings to investigate the accusations against Brett Kavanagh and then not do the same when Al Franken is accused.  Regardless of party, industry, race or occupation, victims’ accusations need to be taken seriously and investigated judiciously.  Policy change at the workplace, community and governmental levels needs to be enacted so that those who report harassment or assault don’t fear retribution.  Education and training must be readily available for all workers in all industries and occupations.   

If the #METOO movement gets hijacked by politics and by those in positions of power and privilege it will represent yet another assault against women, where women’s experiences are weaponized solely for the purpose of political gain.  All sides must commit to an understanding that sexual harassment and sexual assault are above politics. We must work together with women, men, and victims to acknowledge, confront and eliminate these behaviors. Only these actions will demonstrate that the revelations brought forth by this movement are real and harmful and require our immediate attention – across lines of gender, race, education, class, and profession. It is then that we can look with confidence and know what “United States” really represents.

Dr. Mary Gatta is Professor of Sociology at CUNY. Her latest book is Waiting on Retirement: Aging and Economic Insecurity in Low-wage Work.

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