Me Too movement’s where to moment
In the flood of disclosures that followed revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long abuse of women, there was hope for change and reform. Hope that individuals and institutions would finally be held accountable for their role in perpetuating sexual violence, and that attitudes and behaviours could genuinely be reformed. This week marks two years since the Me Too hashtag went viral on Twitter.
At first, things moved quickly. In Australia, journalist and author Tracey Spicer asked for women to share their stories of abuse and received some 2000 disclosures. There was an initial rush of reporting, which focused on TV personalities such as Don Burke and Craig McLachlan, and a flurry of anticipation built as powerful men began to topple.
But today much of that early momentum seems to have dissipated. Very few of the much-hyped disclosures ever broke in the media and there have been a number of legal setbacks to the Australian arm of the movement, notably Geoffrey Rush’s win in his landmark defamation case against The Daily Telegraph.
It also has been revealed that NOW Australia, an organisation set up by Spicer in the wake of Me Too that she is no longer involved with, has permanently canned its proposed sexual harassment victim “triage” service. This is despite more than $100,000 being donated by members of the public for its creation.
On Friday, BuzzFeed News published a substantial investigation into NOW Australia and Spicer's handling of the 2000 disclosures she received.
At a structural level, there have been no significant changes to Australian laws and, disturbingly, it remains a crime for sexual assault survivors in the Northern Territory and Tasmania to have their real identities published.
Through the #LetHerSpeak campaign, multiple sexual assault survivors in those jurisdictions, including paedophile abuse survivor Grace Tame, have taken their fights to be named to the Supreme Court, but the laws remain unaltered.
More broadly, other services for survivors continue to have funding slashed, including the national specialist sexual assault hotline for university students, which was abolished in late 2017. This was despite the findings of a survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2016 that 10 per cent of female university students were sexually assaulted in 2015 and 2016 alone.
Equally troubling, the AHRC has now also confirmed that not only have the numbers of people experiencing sexual harassment actually increased since Me Too, but, paradoxically, the rate of reporting has decreased from 32 per cent in 2013 to 17 per cent in 2018.
So, what is the enduring significance of Me Too in Australia? Moreover, where can the movement go to next and is it even possible for it to correct course?
According to Dr Bianca Fileborn, co-editor of the newly released anthology #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change, questions about the problematic elements of the movement extend well beyond media reporting.
“If we look at the tweet that started it all by Alyssa Milano, [based on the work of Tarana Burke] it was about sharing your story. It was about showing the magnitude of the problem and it did a good job of that, but it’s not clear how it progressed beyond that. It didn’t appear to have any clear goals,” says Fileborn.
“It’s both productive and problematic. I think it did provide a forum for some people to speak out and be believed and it also showed the full spectrum of sexual violence beyond the stereotype of strange men jumping out of bushes. But at the same time there were also really deeply troubling elements, including the idea that we can solve problems just through speaking out. That might be a starting point, but that doesn’t generate structural reform.”
Fileborn says the risk of “awareness-raising movements” – such as the recently liquidated White Ribbon organisation and Me Too – is that they can lead people to falsely believe action is being taken.
“That can produce apathy or a misplaced belief or impression that the problem is solved,” she says. “It becomes a smokescreen: a performative way of dealing with a problem without really doing anything; meanwhile the deeper-level, long-term, difficult structural changes which are needed are actually obscured.”
Beyond that, Fileborn says the movement has also given a platform to only certain types of voices and the incessant media focus on celebrities has alienated various groups of women, including working-class women, women of colour, Indigenous women, trans women and queer women.
“Women of colour have been subsumed into the movement and are used as accents to provide legitimacy or value to white feminists who then largely discard them,” says Dhanya Mani, an Indian–Australian woman who spoke out earlier this year about her experience of alleged sexual assault in the Liberal Party.
In August, it was reported that Mani was sexually assaulted by a New South Wales Liberal staffer when she worked for the party in 2015. Having pursued a complaint through internal processes, she eventually decided to blow the whistle on what she perceived to be a culture of cover-up in the party.
Reporter Eryk Bagshaw, who broke Mani’s story, agrees that the lack of diversity within newsrooms can make it especially difficult for victims from minority groups to find journalists to whom they can relate.
“There are a lot of journalists who look the same, who are from the same background, who exist in a media bubble,” says Bagshaw. “We need more diversity of voices telling these stories. That allows people to connect with journalists from their own cultural backgrounds or who come from similar areas.”
Political leanings and other cultural factors such as religion can also serve as a barrier to some survivors who wish to speak out. Mani says that, for her, being a member of the Liberal Party made her feel like an outsider to the Me Too movement.
“There are so many left-wing feminists on social media who say disparaging, hateful things about the Liberal Party, and it felt that as a Liberal Party member I was considered part of the enemy,” she says.
Another concern with the movement has been that its focus on high-profile individual men – rather than the drivers of gender-based violence – may be acting as a distraction.
In Mani’s case, the final article did not name her alleged abuser because she wanted to keep the focus on the culture that enabled and then protected offenders. Even without naming the alleged offender though, the story still took four months to research and get cleared by media lawyers.
Australia’s strict defamation laws often have been raised as a barrier to the Me Too movement having an impact here akin to what has happened in the United States. And it’s true that American law places less of a burden on survivors to prove the abuse they are alleging occurred or risk getting sued.
Just this week a new book from New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow detailing his experience breaking the Harvey Weinstein story was pulled from the shelves by some Australian retailers after a defamation threat was levelled by Dylan Howard, former editor of National Enquirer.
But these restrictions don’t automatically mean the end of Me Too reporting in Australia. As Bagshaw says, “Defamation law makes reporting challenging, not impossible.”
Similarly, when Chris Graham and I broke a series of sexual harassment allegations about barrister Charles Waterstreet for New Matilda, we required all lead witnesses to swear affidavits before lawyers and we collected dozens of exhibits of contemporaneous evidence – including a video of Waterstreet being masturbated by two women that we reported was shown to a young woman during a job interview.
“We exposed a criminal barrister and we didn’t get sued because the work was exhaustive,” says Graham. “It is very hard to get the stories up and it requires an enormous amount of energy, resources and focus, but if journalists can’t commit to that, they shouldn’t hawk for victim’s stories.”
Laura La Rosa, a feminist writer quoted in Fileborn’s book, says journalists also need to consider the cost to women of asking them to perform the emotional labour of telling and retelling their stories, particularly if it may not be possible to eventually publish.
“It’s not ethical to solicit information and then just sit on it,” La Rosa says. “Journalists should not allow women to put their trust in someone, revisit their trauma and offer up their stories for no outcome.”
When the Me Too hashtag first went viral, it was like lightning striking – everything appeared electrified and possible. Two years on, the movement finds itself facing tough questions about the way forward. In Australia, journalists and media outlets will need to learn from the lessons wrought by the movement’s setbacks. They will need to look beyond Hollywood and the Australian media, and broaden their focus from the individuals to the structures that allow these abuses to happen.
These structures have emerged from the first throes of Me Too largely unscathed, and there is so much work to be done. From implementing evidence-based primary prevention and consent education in schools and universities, to law reform and better resourcing of trauma specialist sexual assault services for survivors. Like all cultural change, this will take time. But there were already scores of people pushing for structural reform before that first #MeToo tweet, including Burke, and regardless of whether this particular movement ultimately succeeds or fails, they will keep going.
National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Line 1800 737 732
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Me Too movement’s where to moment". Subscribe here.