Women are no strangers to sexual harassment.
Women constantly dodge unwanted advances, touches and catcalls, often without ever confronting the men harassing them – and that harassment almost feels normal for many women.
But two weeks ago, actress Alyssa Milano called on survivors of sexual harassment and assault to share their stories through the hashtag “#MeToo,” and it became clear the problem was far more ubiquitous than we knew. #MeToo also came after many women shared their stories about sexual violence committed by Harvey Weinstein, a well-known film producer. Several weeks after the allegations against Weinstein came to light, California lawmakers wrote an open letter to call attention to the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in politics.
The #MeToo movement originally started with a woman named Tarana Burke, who began a nonprofit organization aimed toward helping survivors of sexual violence. She wanted to bring survivors together, particularly people of color. The movement has since found a wider audience through social media platforms, such as Twitter. Many people, including UCLA students, found the hashtag to be immensely influential in shaping conversations about sexual violence despite the sobering nature of the stories shared.
Many have criticized the hashtag, however. Some survivors are upset by the triggering nature of the content shared, and believe it puts pressure on survivors to share their stories when they don’t want to. There’s also a prevailing criticism in the media that the hashtag won’t be effective at creating change because it does not require interaction or political change. For example, WIRED recently published a piece criticizing the movement as aimlessly generating outrage about sexual violence without encouraging people to take action.
But the purpose of #MeToo isn’t to immediately create political change; it is to start a conversation and force people to recognize a major issue. Sexual violence is a large part of our society and it affects nearly everyone in some way, including students at college campuses such as UCLA. #MeToo has pushed the topic of sexual violence to center stage and is a starting point for students to not shy away from these conversations and to work against aspects of rape culture.
Many UCLA students and survivors said they want to migrate the conversations #MeToo has generated from the virtual landscapes of Twitter to campus.
“I would hope that it would get nonsurvivors and men to speak out and do more of those actions on the policy level,” said Aneri, a second-year human biology and society student and a survivor. “At the very least, (the campaign calls) out their fellow men on their problematic and sexist behavior.”
And the campaign seems to be effective in doing this. Several students said they noticed students are conversing more regularly about the severity and frequency of sexual violence on campus. Paulina Contreras, a third-year psychology and communications student, said she witnessed some of these conversations and thinks that it is a step in the right direction.
“I think the least it can do is create a community … and it shouldn’t be underestimated, because once you have that community, you can do even more with it,” Contreras said.
#MeToo has also provided survivors with a space where they can share their stories with a receptive and understanding audience – sometimes for the first time. Andrea Winslow, a third-year chemical engineering student who experienced stalking within her group of friends, said the hashtag gave her the support her friends didn’t.
“I told someone (about my experience) and not a lot happened – not a lot was done to rectify the situation,” Winslow said.
She added many of her friends continued to spend time with her stalker and prioritized their own comfort over her well-being.
“People would say, ‘She’s getting a restraining order. … I don’t know why she’s doing it, she’s crazy,’” Winslow said.
Kimberly, a fourth-year student and survivor, also found comfort in the #MeToo community.
“I guess it reminded me of group therapy,” Kimberly said. “I tried going to psychologists and it was one on one, and it felt like that was not helpful for me because I still felt alone.”
#MeToo has also normalized discussion of sexual violence and even provided greater access to resources. For example, Refinery29, an entertainment magazine, provided worthwhile commentary and guidance on how to be an effective ally to survivors. Some men have also responded online with their own hashtag #HowIWillChange and entities such as the California Senate are investigating sexual harassment claims with renewed vigor because of the movement.
Sure, the hashtag hasn’t driven specific legislative or political change, but that isn’t the point of the campaign. The hashtag’s popularity has made people more aware of the pervasiveness of sexual violence. This has allowed students to build off of these conversations and intervene in situations of sexual violence. And this awareness and normalization is what will eventually bring about tangible societal change.
Rather than criticizing a positive trend that has developed out of a desire to bring awareness to sexual violence, students and critics should focus on how awareness can create real change. Students have the capacity to mirror the inclusive and safe environment at UCLA that #MeToo has generated online.
Hopefully, this movement will eventually lead to a day when people no longer have to say, “Me too.” Students and administrators have the responsibility to see that through.