The shadowy world of sexual harassment has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks.
What began with the outing of Harvey Weinstein as a Hollywood sexual predator turned into a wider conversation about sexual abuse in all walks of life. As more disclosures of sexual impropriety have been made, however, what they have led to is not clarity but more murky confusion.
As the roll call of Weinstein’s alleged victims went on, the actress Alyssa Milano suggested on Twitter that all women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted should tweet their experiences using the hashtag #MeToo, to give people “a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. It went viral. #MeToo was everywhere. Stories tumbled out from normal women, every voice making the last feel less alone.
Initially, I found #MeToo moving. Some of the things friends shared were more upsetting because I had never heard them. It prompted me to look back in anger at my own uncomfortable encounters. I thought about the editor who drunkenly shoved a clammy hand on my thigh, lunging at me in a cab, when I was a cub reporter; about the married lech who hassles me so aggressively at industry parties that I’ve avoided them, and warned other women about him.
I understand why #MeToo feels empowering to women whose sexual boundaries have been trampled, but I also feel cynical about it. Like the slogan “Je Suis Charlie”, which became the hashtag for comments on the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, #MeToo risks reducing a serious issue to a social media trend. I worry, too, that while the case against Weinstein seems black and white, in the tsunami of sexual experiences now being shared online things have become a grey swash.
The #MeToo hashtag has been used both by women telling stories about serial and serious sexual abuse, and about what might sound to some like ham-fisted passes or dysfunctional dates.