Can #MeToo really change something?

Over the past few days, women have widely shared their experiences of sexual violence and harassment with the hashtag #MeToo. According to Marloes van Noorloos, associate professor in Criminal Law at Tilburg University, this movement spurs a wider social debate. “That’s important because criminal law is not equipped nor intended to deal with all forms of sexual harassment.”

#MeToo is the answer to a scandal involving Hollywood-producer Harvey Weinstein. Various actresses have recently accused him of sexual violence. The movement is being taken up worldwide, and in the Netherlands more and more women are coming out with their stories as well, including a university professor.

“Women often don’t report sexual harassment for fear of job security,” says Jing Geng, PhD student at Intervict. “In the late 1970s, feminists raised awareness of this problem. Despite significant progress, sometimes it feels like society moves two steps forward, and then five steps back”.

Judicial system

Van Noorloos also states that sexual harassment in unequal power relationships is a major problem, just as in the Weinstein scandal. “In the entertainment industry, powerful figures were able to have their way for years. That’s exactly why the issue will remain a taboo even longer: victims fear for their position and aren’t readily believed when they do tell.” In addition to the fact that victims rarely come forward at all, it is also difficult during criminal investigation to find out what really happened. According to Van Noorloos, this is because it’s painful for people to have to tell about their experience in detail over and over again. “Take into account that it’s often quite hard to get conclusive evidence in such cases. If our judicial system were to be satisfied with one testimony, there is a risk that it would become way too easy to convict someone on the basis of a false accusation.”

“Awareness and open dialogue are often the first steps toward seeking a solution”

Therefore, criminal law doesn’t have the capacity or the structure to tackle all forms of sexual harassment. Van Noorloos mentions the example of hissing at women on the streets: “Now how many women really do go to the police for something like that? In my opinion, criminal law also isn’t intended for this purpose. But that’s why this movement is a good thing: it spurs a wider social debate.” Jing Geng doesn’t doubt the relevance of #MeToo either. “Many people are sharing their experiences. Not for sympathy, but for solidarity and to shine a light on a widespread problem. Awareness and open dialogue are often the first steps toward seeking a solution”.

Social media 

Social media provide an excellent platform for combating sexual harassment: they’re easily accessible to share experiences through hashtags. Social media also give a good impression of the extent and scope of this problem. Inge van de Ven, a cultural scientist at Tilburg University, is impressed by the massive and cumulative nature of the reactions. “It’s difficult to deny that a structural problem has been exposed here and not just an accumulation of individual cases.” However, social media also cause a hardening of the debate, says Van de Ven: “There are women who oppose the movement with the hashtag #menot and use the slogan #stopglobalwhining. Some people say that, in many cases, it’s also a matter of attitude and that women need to toughen up or that they should just make a witty joke in reply. The visibility and accessibility of social media can therefore also be a disadvantage: it provides a platform for opinions that might actually discourage victims to come forward.”

Attack on men

This is not the only form of hardening and polarization that Van de Ven believes we should guard against. We shouldn’t by definition see men as perpetrators and women as victims. “On Twitter, you can see that men who speak out in support of the #MeToo movement are heavily criticized by some feminists. It’s a good thing, however, that celebrities such as Ryan Gosling speak out against the actions of Weinstein, and that men show solidarity with this problem, which obviously affects all of us. I don’t think it would be productive to portray every man as a potential sex offender; that doesn’t make anybody feel safer at all.”

Van Noorloos also warns that we shouldn’t label innocent compliments as harassment too quickly. “But if that compliment is accompanied by a tap on the butt, it becomes a whole other story of course.”

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