WOULD YOU LIKE A LAWSUIT WITH THAT?
Lizzie Marvelly looks at social media and sexual harassment
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