On Oct. 15, 44-year-old actress and activist Alyssa Milano took to Twitter with a prompt: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” As Milano said, a friend of hers had suggested that this “might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Days earlier, the New York Times and the New Yorker had detailed allegations of systematic sexual predation and violence by famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, reports that then incited an army of women in the entertainment industry to come forward and accuse him and other Hollywood figures of crimes including sexual assault, harassment, and rape.
#MeToo reverberated worldwide across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, marking a defining cultural moment of 2017 that took to task not only high-profile men but countless, nameless other men in everyday life as an outpouring of testimonies revealed a widespread epidemic of sexual harassment and assault. Women (and men) shared stories of a wide range of sexual crimes and misdeeds in their workplaces, classrooms, at massage parlors, in restaurants, and homes, and on the streets, by strangers and by men they knew. The avalanche of narratives revealed a societal ill that had previously been shrouded in silence and complicity: Until October 2017, generations of victims, including public figures, had stayed quiet for fear of marring their reputations, destroying their careers, or hurting their loved ones. While fear of retribution remained, strength in numbers built solidarity and camaraderie, and victims derived courage from the knowledge that experiences once treated as individual and private could be channeled into a disyllabic battle cry.
Award-winning actresses (including Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lawrence, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and Lupita Nyong’o) had come forward in the wake of the Weinstein report with their harrowing tales, but here was a path for all sorts of women, those without the pedestal of fame, to join a collective revolt.
“#MeToo And I was blamed for it. I was told not to talk about it. I was told that it wasn‘t that bad. I was told to get over it,” the poet Najwa Zebian wrote.
“When I declined a guy who hit on me so he followed with ‘you’re lucky I don’t knock you the fuck out’ #metoo,” one woman tweeted.
“I was 8. And I’m still not over it. You don’t need to get over your trauma to be valid. #MeToo,” tweeted another.
“For long sexual harassment was presented to me as part of the deal; I chose a field that was male-dominated, what did I expect? #MeToo,” yet another wrote.
Media outlets have kept publishing fresh, damning accounts that hold powerful men accountable. Accused lawmakers have stepped aside; actors have been kicked off multimillion-dollar projects; and executives and journalists have been fired. Some offenders have apologized but held on to their jobs: In November, four women accused Al Franken of groping them both before and during his time as a senator (one woman even came forth with photographic evidence), but he has shown no inclination to end his political career over behavior that he has not directly disputed. Others have issued outright denials. Roy Moore may still become an Alabama senator despite alleged sexual misconduct targeting underage girls. President Donald Trump still sits in the White House, though at least 16 women have accused him of sexual misconduct, allegedly spanning from the 1980s to 2013.
Some have raised the concern that the multipurpose hashtag #MeToo has led to blurred lines between criminality and sleaziness — a lack of distinction that may ultimately trivialize violence against women. “The conflation of women who have been ‘sexually harassed or assaulted’ in Milano’s post was meant as a way to capture the wide spectrum of harm perpetrated by men against women, everything from creepiness to criminality,” Ruth Graham wrote in Slate two days after Milano’s tweet. “But ‘harassment’ in the colloquial sense encompasses a vast range of misbehavior, and some of it is extremely far removed from the ‘assault’ that the #MeToo prompt lumped it in with. Is it really fair to talk about them in the same breath?”
But whatever the effectiveness of the #MeToo movement in terms of policy, justice, or national discourse, ordinary people have finally been emboldened to share their experiences and place the onus of shame on the perpetrators.
“The most important thing that it did was to shift the conversation away from the predator and to the victim,” Milano said on Oct. 16.
This reckoning, brought to light as more and more women become the agents of their own stories, is not with how many have been harassed or assaulted — but with how few have not.
Ruby Mellen is an editorial fellow for Foreign Policy.
House and Senate lawmakers have introduced a bill called the “Me Too” act, designed to improve the process of reporting sexual misconduct in Congress.
Twitter reports that the hashtag has been used in at least 85 countries.