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#MeToo: Survivors Stand up to be Counted

The #MeToo campaign brings attention to the prevalence of sexual violence, particularly perpetrated by wealthy and powerful men. What does this mean for working class women?

Francesca Gomes

October 22, 2017
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Image from NL Cafe

Few who have used social media over the past few days can possibly have missed the #metoo media campaign. With nearly one million uses on Twitter alone – which doesn’t include occurrences on Facebook, Instagram, or any other platform – the hashtag has been prevalent throughout the feeds of both women and men since Sunday.

Perhaps the reason the #metoo campaign is so widespread is its inclusivity. Social media users can simply tweet “#metoo” without explanation. The post being used on Facebook invites users to copy and paste the status: “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.”

But on Facebook, where posts can be of an almost unlimited length and are not confined to the 140 characters of Twitter, empowered women have been posting detailed stories of their own experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault. Some men, as well as non-binary people have posted stories of harassment and assault. Other men have posted words of support for the women in their social media networks or have made pledges to stand up to other men when they see toxic behavior. According to Facebook statistics, “in less than 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world have engaged in the ‘Me too’ conversation, with more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions.”

The Beginnings of “Me Too”

The “me too” concept originated with Brooklyn-based activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago. Burke created “Girls for Gender Equity” to empower young women of color and to begin conversations between sexual assault survivors who live in underserved communities where there are not enough counselors or services to help them. Burke says she created “Me Too” in order to “to create an entry point to healing for other survivors.” While she is impressed by the reach of the social media campaign, she has some misgivings about its simplicity of the social media campaign. She feels it’s important to have discussions around the healing process and to “[use] the power of empathy to stomp out shame.” She also points out that it’s a problem that we as a society tend not to pay attention to this pervasive and destructive issue until someone famous is involved.

The current incarnation of the campaign was kicked off by actress Alyssa Milano on Twitter. Her “Charmed” co-star Rose McGowan is one of the more than 40 women who have come forward after being sexually assaulted by media mogul Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein has been exposed as a serial rapist and perpetrator of sexual harassment and assault and was subsequently fired by the film company he co-founded as well as expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

This comes at a moment when discussions around rape and sexual harassment have become more present in political discourse. This is largely a result of the recordings of President Trump’s remarks bragging about sexually assaulting women and the fact that several women have come forward with their own accounts of how Trump sexually assaulted them.

The Culture of Victim-Blaming

Rape and sexual assault are prevalent in our society. In the U.S. alone, one out of every six women has experienced an attempted or completed rape according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Although the network obtains its statistics from The National Crime Victimization Survey, which attempts to use an interview process to include assaults not reported to police, rape and sexual harassment have always been underreported at every level, so the real number is likely much higher.

Women who report rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment are still viewed suspiciously by our society. The mainstream response to such a report is skepticism. Women who report rape to the police are usually subject to invasive and accusatory questioning in the “justice” system. The general narrative is that either the abuse didn’t happen and the woman is somehow hoping to use the story to her advantage – ludicrous given the way reports are treated – or that the abuse did happen, but that the women themselves must have done something to “deserve” it. Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project pointed out on Democracy Now that: “It takes a tremendous outpouring of – really trauma from women working together in a campaign like “me too” to make people sit up and pay attention, but what we’re really talking about is making people believe what we’re talking about because we have a very deep-seated distrust of what women say… [the media decides] whose voice matters and whose experience matters… this, I think, is really common. It’s not rare. It’s just that we’re seeing it on a very high level.”

Some women even encourage this narrative of other women as responsible parties in their own assaults. In an interview with the Daily Mail famous fashion designer Donna Karan praised Weinstein and his wife. She went on to say: “You look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and what they are asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.” Though Karan later stated that these comments were taken out of context, the full video depicts the all-too-common excuses for men who attack and assault women out of a sense of entitlement to their bodies.

Mayim Bialik, in a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times put forth the case that the reason she herself had not been sexually assaulted was her lack of adherence to societal standard of beauty and her “conservative choices.” Calling it “the upside of not being a ‘perfect ten,’” she claims that “As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms.” She then proudly states: “I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

The social media and internet backlash against this assessment was predictable and sharp. Numerous pieces have been published in response to Bialik’s insinuations that anything about women’s dress or behavior is the cause of sexual assault or that conservative clothing choices or behavior can insulate or protect women from the danger of sexual violence. The scale of the #metoo campaign alone reveals the commonality of experiences of sexual harassment and assault among women of every different kind of appearance, behavior, and status.

Hollywood: Where Capitalism and Sexism Intersect

The Weinstein case is a clear depiction of the ways in which capitalism creates, encourages, and defends sexism and misogyny. Several prominent actresses drew attention to what this reveals about Hollywood culture and the fact that “casting couch” methods – a colloquial term for the practice of directors selecting actors or actresses based on their willingness to have sex with them in a sick quid-pro-quo – are still in play. In Hollywood, the practice of demanding sex for jobs has always been present.

But beyond Hollywood culture, the Weinstein case highlights one of the many ways in which women face distinct oppression under capitalism. The power dynamic between those with the power to control the livelihoods of others and those in desperate need of work, as well as the prevalence of sexist attitudes and sexist violence, is starkly reflected in the number of stories from those whom Weinstein assaulted and the culture of silence that allowed him to continue. As an incredibly wealthy and powerful top executive in one of the most cutthroat and competitive industries in the world, his behavior is a clear example of power run amok. But the power he exercised over the women he assaulted was, in addition to the power given to him by a sexist society, a huge amount of economic control over the financial futures of women he harmed, and they in turn were rightfully terrified for their future in the industry should they step forward and accuse him.

Finances played a prominent and even more direct role in Weinstein’s ability to continue assaulting women with impunity. When Weinstein was caught by the police admitting to the sexual assault of model Ambra Battilana-Gutierrez, District Attorney Cyrus K. Vance Jr. declined to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence. Just a few days later, one of Weinstein’s attorney’s made a sizeable contribution to Vance’s reelection campaign. Over the course of 30 years, Weinstein also paid for settlements with at least eight women for between $80,000 and $150,000 each.

The practice of wealthy and powerful men buying the silence of women has long been a way to avoid any type of backlash against their sexually violent behavior. Bill O’Reilly (and Fox News on his behalf) paid out $13 million in settlements, exchanging money for nondisclosure agreements that would legally prevent women he had sexually harassed from being able to talk about it. A dean at USC Medical School, Dr. Rohit Varma, narrowly avoided being reported for the sexual harassment of a researcher when the university paid $100,000 in a settlement. The school then promoted Varma until the media was ready to report on it, and only then was he fired. While it’s often insinuated that the acceptance of these agreements should cast doubt on the accounts of the women involved, this intimation ignores the financial struggles to which women are subjected.

Sexism’s Hold Over Working-Class Women

One of the ways Weinstein finally lost the ability to victimize young, struggling women was the specific cultural and political moment characterized by a backlash against the misogyny of President Donald Trump and shows of solidarity like the Million Woman March. While it is still by no means easy for any survivor of sexual assault to come forward, there have been recent political shifts in some sectors and communities that allow for women to network with each other and act more fully in solidarity.

Because of this shift in tone, women are coming forward despite the sexism that exists against all women in all classes. Even wealthy women are victims of sexist violence, especially at the hands of men who are able to cover it up using that wealth and power. Working class women, however, have even less access to be seen, to be heard, to be believed.

And what of those women? What of the women who never show up in the news? What about women for whom the stakes are so high, because they are supporting children and trying desperately to keep a roof over their head, that they would be putting their survival on the line by speaking up against a boss who sexually assaulted them?

In the U.S., working women have almost no access to free healthcare, reproductive health rights, or affordable housing. Planned Parenthood is constantly in danger of losing all federal funding. Two thirds of those being paid the nation’s shocking low federal minimum wage are women. 13% of all women in the United States are single mothers. Under these financial conditions and in a culture in which survivors of sexual assault are rarely believed, women are silenced in every way possible.

Sexual harassment, assault, rape, and even femicide rears its head at every socioeconomic level. Sometimes it is wealthier bosses who are able to indefinitely silence women due to their control over their economic livelihoods. Other times, the pattern of misogyny is reproduced across classes. The culture of sexism inherent in capitalist exploitation seeps into, imprints upon, and reproduces itself within the working class in a way that keeps women from being able to speak out against aggressors and rapists.

Obviously, many women who have experienced harassment or assault have not made #metoo social media postings– the shame, the fear of not being believed, wanting to avoid reliving the trauma of an assault and the fear of one’s assailant are just some of the few reasons some women have chosen not to participate in #MeToo. And yet, our facebook and twitter feeds are swamped with stories. This reveals the scope of the problem. #MeToo breaks with the silence around sexual violence, demonstrating the prevalence of the problem– a good first step towards the healing process for survivors and towards fighting this epidemic through struggle.

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Francesca Gomes

Francesca is a teacher from Brooklyn.

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