The accusations against Harvey Weinstein have catalyzed a seismic shift, prompting millions of women to come forward with their own stories of sexual assault and harassment under the #MeToo hashtag.
This is not the first time women have tried to awaken the world to reality and extent of male violence, but #MeToo does feel like the most impactful name-and-shame campaign to date.
It has extended far beyond Hollywood: here in Vancouver, women began circulating a list of names of local DJs of whom they allege sexual assault. In the U.S. and the U.K., a number of writers, editors and journalists have been fired or suspended due to sexual harassment allegations. In India, an activist put together a public list of men in academia accused of sexual harassment. There are many more examples.
While much of this action has arguably come far too late, it feels like maybe — just maybe — we are witnessing a turning point where perpetrators will be held to account for their behaviour (or, at very least, will fear being held to account). Perhaps the wall of silence that has kept many women vulnerable, ashamed and powerless is beginning to crumble.
A social media 'witch hunt'
But not everyone is thrilled to see these lists of names, and the swift fallout that has resulted. Indeed, many have argued this kind of social media call-out constitutes a "witch hunt" — a form of vigilantism that has potentially dangerous implications for men who might see their reputations ruined.
Those arguments were bolstered after the death of a Vancouver DJ whose name was on the social media list. (His cause of death has not been officially confirmed, but a few who knew him have said on Facebook that it was suicide.) In response, many blamed the women who had spoken out and questioned the righteousness of naming men publicly.
But the issue remains, if posting the names of perpetrators online is "wrong," what is the "right" way to hold men to account?
Common suggestions include community interventions, direct confrontation and filing reports with the police. The trouble is that few of these methods have ever worked in the past.
Many women recognize that police reports too often go nowhere, and that when they do, accusers are forced through traumatic and humiliating court processes, where their lives are picked apart, and where a majority of men are let off at the end of it all.
What's more, women who go to the police are sometimes accused of being traitors to the left or to their communities. In recent years, feminists who advocate for the justice system to hold men accountable for their violence, exploitation or rape have been labelled "carceral" — a dismissive term in this context, suggesting indifference on the part of women to the plight of over-incarcerated men. This accusation, however, doubly victimizes women who go to police: not only have they been subject to abuse, but now they're viewed as sellouts, too.
As for the suggestion that going to our communities and friends will result in protection and accountability: I can tell you how that goes. I've done it myself.
Lack of community support
After leaving an abusive relationship, I came out to my small community, where I was living at the time, on one of B.C.'s Gulf Islands — a community that claimed to protect their own, to hold one another to account and of course, to reject police intervention.
But after laying myself bare, I was confronted with sexist victim-blaming, disbelief and an outright smear campaign led by my abuser himself, aimed at tarnishing my reputation and credibility. I did dutifully go to the police after all that, although they didn't seem particularly interested in dealing with my abuser, and failed to follow up after numerous attempts on my part. I was then further punished for "bringing cops to the island."
It was a painful lesson to learn, but useful in terms of understanding why so many women choose to remain silent. Indeed, it seems unreasonably cruel to abandon and punish women when they speak out to those around them, but simultaneously demand women not make use of the criminal justice system.
A recent story in The New Yorker outlined further why women don't come forward. Actress Daryl Hannah, for example, said she "experienced instant repercussions," after rejecting Weinstein's advances and telling as many people as she could about what happened, hoping for support. Despite her star power, she got nowhere. And Asia Argento, one of the first actresses to speak out about Weinstein, was recently forced to leave her native Italy due to public shaming.
It seems that no matter what women do to deal with assault or harassment, it is wrong. If they don't speak out, they are criticized. If they speak out years after the fact — finally feeling brave enough to do so — they are asked what took so long. If they speak out online, they are said to be unethical and bullying.
The fact is that there is no perfect way to hold men to account. In the case of #MeToo, women have taken to social media because they feel they have no other recourse. And as the above examples demonstrate, it's not hard to see why. Until men's behaviour changes, women will continue to speak out in any way we can.