Lizzie Marvelly looks at so­cial me­dia and sex­ual ha­rass­ment

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Me too. Two lit­tle words loaded with the weight of one of society’s dark­est prob­lems. Over the past few weeks they’ve be­come some­thing of a bat­tle cry. For vic­tims of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault, they have made pos­si­ble a con­ver­sa­tion that has been un­think­able un­til now.

It’s hard to imag­ine, in the time be­fore so­cial me­dia, mil­lions of peo­ple com­ing for­ward in the space of a week to share the in­tensely per­sonal rev­e­la­tion that they had been sex­u­ally ha­rassed or as­saulted. Such a thing, pre-Twit­ter and Face­book, would sim­ply never have hap­pened.

And yet, in our hyper-con­nected age, it did. Thanks — back­hand­edly — to Har­vey We­in­stein.

Al­le­ga­tions of abu­sive be­hav­iour by the pow­er­ful Hol­ly­wood mogul re­ported pri­mar­ily by the New York Times and the New Yorker gave rise to a global out­pour­ing of sol­i­dar­ity. The idea that We­in­stein could al­legedly ha­rass and sex­u­ally as­sault dozens of women over the course of decades — and get away with it — caused shock­waves to re­ver­ber­ate around the planet. That some of his al­leged vic­tims, such as An­gelina Jolie and Gwyneth Pal­trow, were fa­mous and pow­er­ful them­selves made the case even more as­tound­ing.

Al­though, of course, nei­ther Jolie nor Pal­trow sat any­where near the top of the food chain when We­in­stein tar­geted them.

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing as­pect of the We­in­stein scan­dal hap­pened out­side of Hol­ly­wood, how­ever, when or­di­nary peo­ple took to so­cial me­dia to say “me too”. To date, more than 4.7 mil­lion peo­ple have en­gaged with the #MeToo con­ver­sa­tion on Face­book alone. The trend, orig­i­nally started by Amer­i­can women’s ad­vo­cate Tarana Burke in 2006, and pro­pelled into the global spot­light by ac­tor Alyssa Mi­lano, has al­lowed sur­vivors to find strength in num­bers.

It has also pro­vided an in­sight into what many women par­tic­u­larly al­ready knew in­ti­mately: that sex­ual abuse is still an enor­mous prob­lem.

It is a prob­lem that has re­mained stub­bornly hid­den. Dr Jackie Blue, the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­ni­ties Com­mis­sioner, says that sex­ual ha­rass­ment is a prob­lem in New Zealand, and that there are many rea­sons why vic­tims don’t come for­ward. “Fear of re­tal­i­a­tion, a lack of sup­port in their work­place, self-min­imi­sa­tion of the ha­rass­ment or con­cern that they will not be be­lieved if they speak up,” all play a role, she says. “Sadly, these fac­tors con­trib­ute to sex­ual ha­rass­ment in New Zealand go­ing largely un­re­ported.”

The Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion is one of the or­gan­i­sa­tions in New Zealand that han­dles sex­ual ha­rass­ment claims. It deals with be­tween 60 and 70 cases na­tion­ally per year. That num­ber likely should be much higher. The #MeToo hash­tag is “a firm re­minder that we all need to do more to en­sure that any­one, in any en­vi­ron­ment, will be safe and sup­ported if they re­port sex­ual ha­rass­ment,” Blue says.

That we’re talk­ing about the is­sue at all re­flects an im­por­tant mo­ment of so­cial awak­en­ing. Al­though #MeToo may en­cour­age more vic­tims/sur­vivors of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence to come for­ward, it may also have the ef­fect of en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to con­sider their own be­hav­iour. Dr Pani Farvid, a se­nior lec­turer in Psy­chol­ogy at AUT thinks that the im­pact of #MeToo will be multi-faceted.

“I think [the #MeToo movement] gives sur­vivors a voice, and a space to cre­ate sol­i­dar­ity and/or fa­cil­i­tate so­cial change. It can al­low per­pe­tra­tors to see how their ac­tions might af­fect oth­ers and re­think their be­hav­iour. In ad­di­tion, it might of­fer a chance for peo­ple who may have ‘un­know­ingly’ en­gaged in co­er­cive, sex­ist or ha­rass­ment type be­hav­iour to ques­tion the so­cial norms that al­low such treat­ment of women and other sex­ual or gen­der mi­nori­ties.”

Blue agrees. “Per­pe­tra­tors need to know their be­hav­iour won’t be ac­cepted or ig­nored.”

When it comes to inap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour in the work­place, lewd com­ments and inap­pro­pri­ate re­quests are just the tip of the ice­berg. As the We­in­stein al­le­ga­tions demon­strated, sex­ual ha­rass­ment ranges from ver­bal vile­ness to sex­ual as­sault. Al­though ha­rass­ment may be dealt with by the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (and the Min­istry of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion and En­ter­prise, which also han­dles sex­ual ha­rass­ment cases), be­hav­iour that goes be­yond inap­pro­pri­ate com­ments may also carry crim­i­nal charges.

If re­port­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment is dif­fi­cult for vic­tims, how­ever, re­port­ing sex­ual as­sault brings with it a whole new level of chal­lenges.

Might the #MeToo trend sig­nify some kind of fail­ure of our jus­tice sys­tem? Maybe.

The po­lice take sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions very se­ri­ously, De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Dave Kirby, man­ager of the Adult Sex­ual As­sault and Child Pro­tec­tion team, says. Yet the Min­istry of Jus­tice

That We­in­stein could al­legedly ha­rass and sex­u­ally as­sault dozens of women over decades — and get away with it — caused shock­waves around the planet.

Dis­graced Har­vey We­in­stein with Madonna, left, and Gwyneth Pal­trow

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