#YouToo? The Challenges of #MeToo Activism in the Internet Age

The #MeToo movement is more than a hashtag. The preceding ‘Me Too’ grassroots movement started in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke (back when the hash sign was more commonly used as a form of punctuation) to empower women of colour who were survivors of assault. It evolved into the hashtag we know today in late 2017, allowing survivors of sexual harassment and assault to express solidarity with six simple characters. For the unaware or the sceptics, seeing #MeToo across their social media timelines emphasised the prevalence of sexual assault and violence. The movement has simultaneously created a defining social moment and set a dangerous precedent. For the sake of convincing others that sexual assault is a common experience, survivors are expected to relive and perform their trauma in public while the media spectates. Ultimately, high profile women in the entertainment industry are heard loud and clear, but ordinary women are left behind, craving tangible change, and asking, #youtoo?. The movement needs desperately to evolve beyond the Internet and the media and into the real world, so survivors will have viable, long-term solutions rather than a series of well intentioned but out of touch Hollywood gestures.

#MeToo has sort of devolved into a thing survivors must do just for the benefit of people who refuse to acknowledge what has been glaringly obvious for many women. By its nature as a social media movement fuelled by survivors’ testimonies, #MeToo demands more of the survivors than it does of perpetrators. Survivors are confronted with others’ stories, encouraged to relive their own trauma, and then peppered with probing questions, all to prove that sexual assault ‘exists’. Some people question survivors under the guise of ‘hearing both sides’, but essentially they are asking “really, you too?” Admitted wrongdoers can get away with vague statements and empty apologies; the onus is not on them to be open and honest. #MeToo promotes the importance of speaking out and against sexual assault, but the vitriolic internet commentary potentially sends the message that the returns of identifying oneself as a survivor are not always worth it.

Further, any survivor can speak out about his or her experiences with sexual assault, but so too are online commenters, journalists, and talk show hosts (ahem, Wendy Williams) free to assess, dissect and critique survivors’ stories. With Wendy Williams, it is hard to know if she seriously believes in the controversial statements she continues to make about sexual assault. The same Wendy ‘My Middle Name is Shade’ Williams who devoted several segments on her show to talking about how ‘wrong’ Hollywood age gaps in romantic relationships are made comments last month (https://youtu.be/H2C4UHGwvAw?t=4m2s) that suggested that R. Kelly was “not a #MeToo.” Williams argued that a boycott of Kelly was unnecessary, since the late singer Aaliyah “voluntarily” married him when she was fifteen, and the underage girl that he was shown urinating on in a sexually explicit video “let [the assault] go down.”

That’s right, even when the adult in the situation had a responsibility to, oh I don’t know, not be a sexual predator, R. Kelly’s victims were somehow assigned responsibility. When former gymnastic doctor Larry Nassar’s crimes became apparent, there was a scramble to figure out, “why didn’t the girls speak out sooner?” or “why didn’t they tell anyone?” Nassar manipulated his victims to convince them that they were receiving legitimate medical attention, yet people are more interested in why the girls believed him, ignoring that he took advantage of their trust in his expertise. Essentially, #MeToo empowers on one hand, but discourages at the same time. Bringing the movement to social media can certainly show that speaking out can reduce the incidence of sexual assault and initiate dialogue, policy change, and justice. Nassar was handed out what was effectively a life sentence for his crimes, thanks to both anonymous and public accusations made online and to the police. But even such a clear-cut, high profile case was not exempt from judgmental questions and ignorant disbelief. So does this flaw render #MeToo pointless?

#MeToo is without a doubt a necessary effort, its positive impact is clear. But if it doesn’t evolve beyond social media forums, it will not sufficient. Firstly, the aim is to give all survivors a voice, not just the white and privileged. Posturing statements and empty gestures made at Hollywood events is not the way to do it. When rapper Nelly’s accuser withdrew rape accusations due to the overwhelming public attention and animosity, Internet commentators took her recantation to mean she was lying the whole time. Nelly’s legal team allegedly sought to pursue legal action against her. The Hollywood leaders of #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements need to address the fact that ordinary women do not have the privilege of making extra-judicial accusations online without complications.

An added shortfall of #MeToo is that the practice of naming and shaming is in danger of going ‘too far’. Journalist Ashleigh Banfield was not alone in her recent criticism of comedian Aziz Ansari’s anonymous accuser ‘Grace’. Ansari admitted to engaging in behaviour that made his date uncomfortable, but there was passionate debate about whether Grace’s experience was one of sexual assault. So far, many of the famous men named as sexual predators have admitted their fault, so clearly there is a purpose to this whole movement. But where do we draw the lines between the downright criminal and the vaguely uncomfortable? For incidents that are inappropriate but not clearly crimes, it becomes up to the general public rather than the law to decide, but that is not an ideal state of affairs.

As an open forum, #MeToo encourages those who perpetuate denial of the very real existence of sexual assault, allowing them to dismiss the experiences of survivors. Survivors shouldn’t need to expose themselves to the public’s acceptance or rejection. Rather, it is time that more long-term solutions are implemented so that survivors never have to go public unnecessarily. The #TimesUp initiative launched in Hollywood seems to be on track to doing just that by making financial, legal and educational resources available to ordinary women who would otherwise be powerless against influential men or an unsympathetic legal system.

When survivors make public accusations through social media, the peanut gallery judges them. When they are given the resources to go through the legal system for justice, their experience is verified, validated and vindicated. Social media is a space for discussion and debate, but exposing sexual assault on social media potentially sends the incorrect message that Internet strangers have the power to assess personal and real experiences to determine if ‘you too’ are worthy. That isn’t right. #MeToo is no doubt powerful, but its power is not entirely realised in the present. Rather, the future actions that are taken on the heels of this initial movement will truly reveal its potential to be bigger than any individual Hollywood director, pervert doctor or orange man in power.

Written by Muriel Kadiango

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