Investigating the popular and polarizing social discourse of #MeToo

Investigating the popular and polarizing social discourse of #MeToo

Christine Beyleveldt // News Editor
Illustrations by Cynthia Vo

TW: This story includes discussion of sexual assault and rape. It also includes opinions gathered from an anonymous student survey. Some discussion and language may be triggering for some readers.  

While #MeToo that started off as a medium for victims of violence and sexual abuse to find their voice continues to gain momentum, it has also been gaining its fair share of sceptics. Now, many young people active in the dating world are trying to navigate relationships in its aftermath. “I think it [the hashtag] illustrates the power of social media, but also the caution with that of the cult of celebrity, because it’s been around for a while and it didn’t really catch on until a beautiful white celebrity tweeted it out,” said Capilano University Women and Gender Studies instructor Dr. Devon Greyson.

Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano popularized the two words in one tweet. “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.” Online, the trend took off and was retweeted over a million times in its first 48 hours. However, the idea of sharing the words “me too” to showcase the prevalence of sexual assault was started over a decade ago by American civil rights activist Tarana Burke. After the discussions under the MeToo hashtag began to steer towards who is the rightful credit holder of the term, both Burke and Milano stepped in to remind everyone what it was actually all about. “I think it is selfish for me to try to frame Me Too as something that I own,” Burke said in an interview with the New York Times after her contribution to what became a much bigger trend was noted. “It is bigger than me and bigger than Alyssa Milano. Neither one of us should be centered in this work. This is about survivors.” Greyson hesitates to call the hashtag a movement, instead referring to it as a trend that could become a movement. Using the hashtag, Greyson explained, is a tool that can be used to further the goals of a larger social movement towards consensual interactions, and that #MeToo may not last in its current form.

“I think it’s bringing more awareness, but for someone that has been put through that, I feel like there’s an unwanted spotlight on me and it makes me want to hide from anyone knowing,” one respondent to a survey put out by the Courier shared, which is telling of one of the attitudes toward the trend. At least a quarter of the responses we received were openly hostile towards the direction #MeToo has taken. “It is trivializing sexual assault. It is turning strong women into victims. It is demonizing men. It has made public flirtation impossible because men are too afraid they’ll be accused of sexual assault,” wrote another respondent. “I think this is taking the whole movement in an immature direction and it’s doing far more damage than good.” Others went so far as to call it a  “witch hunt” out to get men for purportedly bad behaviour by putting rape and catcalling into the same category.

When #MeToo began dominating social media threads last fall, at first it was recognized as a powerful tool that outed Hollywood elites like producer Harvey Weinstein and put the shocking prevalence of sexual assault on public display. “I think the #MeToo movement has allowed women to establish a new kind of power, being able to stand up and talk. At the same time, many men that I know seem [to] feel uneasy for the movement has required everyone to understand the role they play in these issues — it is important that we continue to create safe spaces for discussion and activism,” a respondent told us.

Barely more than a couple of weeks ago the trend took a very different direction when allegations against actor Aziz Ansari surfaced. Public response was swift and condemning of the accuser, calling the whole affair a bad date. “The threshold has been broken, and individuals are using the movement as a scapegoat for a bad date,” one of our respondents stated referencing Ansari.

Greyson thought differently, while acknowledging that the situation was a complicated one and that no one is clear on whether the events that transpired between the actor and his accuser, who used the alias Grace, was assault or harassment or simply misjudgement between both parties. “It wasn’t a good night for anybody involved and I think we can all agree that having clear understanding of consent would improve interactions, even interactions that are not criminal in nature.”

CapU Communications student Dini Stamatopulos works for the violence prevention program Safeteen as a workshop facilitator for students in primary and secondary school. She focuses largely on consent and boundaries in situations where people are trying to assert power – be it physically, emotionally or sexually, but also touches on body image and bullying. “Being assertive, it can be such a simple word, but it’s about speaking your truth and holding your power and there are so many instances where people are left feeling like [other] people have taken their power,” she said. “For girls for example, how many times – how many conversations have I had with friends and loved ones, with students at the workshops – about how they’ve done something they didn’t want to do or they didn’t feel safe or stick up for themselves, that they didn’t feel comfortable or they didn’t know what to do after a situation had happened?” For her, silence and insecurity have always been closely tied to assault and harassment, but #MeToo has started to peel back the layers of stigma and expose societal ills.

“The expectation that one will share one’s own experiences is quite a burden that should not be bandied about lightly,” said Greyson. “I think it can be so powerful but should be treated with caution that we’re not excessively burdening the people who are being marginalized.” This is especially true with stories of sexual violence dominating headlines and vexing opinions trailing not far behind.

A quarter of respondents said that the #MeToo trend had positively impacted their dating experiences while just over two-thirds said it had had no effect at all. That didn’t stop several from stating that the trend was serving as a way to make men feel paranoid about anything they did as being misconstrued as sexual harassment. Several respondents feared that with such a high rate of reported sexual harassment or abuse on social media, its effects are being diluted, and the public were becoming numb to the severity of the issue.

In a passionate take on the current direction of #MeToo, one respondent wrote to us, “It’s minimizing the seriousness of actual sexual assault cases. I also think it’s sending the wrong message to young girls. Men [and] boys are not scary, and not out to get you. Yes, some are assholes that do horrible things to people, but telling girls that they should be wary of all males is beyond stupid.”

It’s a time of reckoning. Greyson recalls swift condemnation of the first sexual consent policy to be introduced on an American university campus at Antioch in 1991. “One of the things that was really made fun of about this policy was that every sort of increase in sexual intimacy required its own consent process and people just thought that was ridiculous,” said Greyson. “‘Oh, can I kiss you? Now, can I touch your whatever? Really? That’s ridiculous’ – is what the pundits were saying, and that didn’t sound ridiculous to me growing up as a girl in society and kind of wishing that people had respected [those] kind of boundaries.” The school was accused of legislating sex, in a similar fashion to how sceptics view the #MeToo trend today as demonizing an entire gender.

The self-styled Womyn of Antioch who pushed this policy into the forefront of everyone’s minds impassioned Greyson who, as an undergrad, worked with other students on her own campus to push for the school to switch to a consent-based policy. Greyson’s background is in the non-profit sector, which she got into as an undergrad student and where she worked answering hotlines and volunteering her time at domestic violence shelters for women and children. The Antioch controversy was a watershed moment for Greyson.

But discussions of boundaries and consent aren’t exclusive to dating. The conversations need to be continued even into established long-term relationships,“So now that [idea that rape can’t occur within marriage] is almost unfathomable to many young people and certainly I think the idea that just cause you’re married that is blanket consent to do whatever sexually is not generally an accepted opinion today. A generation after that we introduced consent, that was really ridiculed at the time the same way it was 20 years before. So now I think consent is really becoming ingrained,” said Greyson. Just over two decades after the Antioch controversy, a string of assaults allegedly mishandled by the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria prompted then BC Premier Christy Clark to enforce mandatory sexual consent policies at post-secondary institutions. In May 2017, CapU introduced its own sexual violence and misconduct policy, which clearly defines both assault and consent.

“My impression is that there’s a lot more support for people socially coming out as someone who’s had negative experiences, on both sides – ‘I’ve done something that I’m not proud of in the past’ and ‘this thing happened to me and it’s not okay’,” said Greyson. For instance, when #MeToo went viral last fall, TEDx reposted one of their most frequently viewed talks by Icelandic journalist and author Thordis Elva and Australian youth worker Tom Stranger that had captured the world’s attention earlier that year. In February 2017, the pair gave a gut-wrenching speech about how they came together on a journey of healing 20 years after Stranger, who was an 18-year-old exchange student at the time, raped a then 16-year-old Elva the night of their high school’s Christmas dance in December 1996. Their account, as they themselves described it, gave Elva a voice to speak about her own experience, which she was too ashamed to do as a teenager, and transferred the blame squarely to Stranger, where it belonged and which he accepted.

“We see celebrities trying out different models, trying to either take accountability or evade accountability in ways that range from really sincere seeming to completely self-serving,” said Greyson. Response to Elva and Stranger’s story ranged from admiration to outrage, because at the core of their experience, Stranger essentially got off with a slap on the wrist.

Greyson noted that in sexual assault cases in particular there’s a push towards restorative justice, giving a nod to Elva and Stranger’s case as one very public instance where victim and perpetrator came together in order to heal past wounds. Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitating offenders into society by having them reconcile with their victims, often involving the community at large. It’s thought to help perpetrators of crimes to realize the extent of the damages caused by their actions and prevent them from reoffending.

“However, [restorative] justice places a large burden on the victims of the situation, and it tends to be disproportionately suggested in cases like sexual assault, which are really traumatic crimes to survive and also disproportionately place the burden on women to do the emotional work of participating in [restorative] justice with their perpetrator, which is not necessarily appropriate. So with this particular situation it’s amazing and powerful to watch but I don’t know that it can be a template for everybody,” said Greyson.

#MeToo has made a real impact on Stamatopulos’ life, both in how she sees herself and in the discussions she has with the young girls she teaches. “When we’re having those discussions in the workshop, I have girls bringing this up and I have girls talking about situations that made them upset or what they’d done since then,” she said. “The skills I teach and the conversation around body language and communication changed my life and the way I feel confidence-wise and also how I interact with other people.” Whether #MeToo has had a positive or a negative influence in our respondents’ lives, it’s opened a dialogue about the pervasiveness of sexual assault and the power of social media.

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