The underside of the viral #MeToo campaign

Survivors' stories matter. But awareness is not enough.

Alyssa Milano arrives at the The NHL100 Gala held at the Microsoft Theater on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, in Los Angeles. CREDIT: AP/Richard Shotwell/Invision
Alyssa Milano arrives at the The NHL100 Gala held at the Microsoft Theater on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, in Los Angeles. CREDIT: AP/Richard Shotwell/Invision

Using the hashtag #MeToo, women, men, and nonbinary people are sharing their stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment on Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness of how common it is.

The social media campaign made popular by actor Alyssa Milano has gone viral, but some journalists and activists have tweeted their skepticism of the idea that survivors must share their story. Why should people, mostly women, have to share their stories of harassment and rape, and lay bare their personal trauma for men’s consumption? Why must we place the onus on survivors to do the work of educating a presumably mostly male audience not to sexually assault people or participate in rape culture? Of course, for many survivors, sharing these stories is important. There is no right or wrong way for a survivor to respond to the major news event that is the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault story. But, for many survivors of sexual violence, it is retraumatizing.

There is also the question of whether the #MeToo campaign is effective in drawing attention to the complexities of the issue. When it comes to sexual assault, the problem may be less with men’s awareness of how common rape is, but with how men perceive some sexual assaults as permissible. This is exacerbated by a culture that excuses rapists based on actions or behavior of the victim. People who are not men are also complicit in rape culture and subscribe to common rape myths that determine how sympathetic they should be to a victim.

A 2015 paper published in the journal Violence and Gender found that 32 percent of study participants said they had intentions to “force a woman into sexual intercourse” if there were no consequences and no one would find out. Only 13.6 percent admitted to having “intentions to rape a woman.”

The researchers found that men who said they had intentions to rape women tended to have hostile feelings about women — one example is the belief that women are deceitful. Men who admitted to their intention to force a woman into sexual intercourse tended to have beliefs more in line with benevolent sexism, which frames sexist ideas in a way that may seem innocuous, but are actually harmful to those who defy gender norms. Benevolent sexism suggests women are fragile and need protection from men and also implies that women who do not fit standard expectations of femininity — dressing modestly but femininely, not being perceived as “too” sexually available — should not be respected and do not deserve protection.
The researchers found that the attitudes of men who admitted to their “intention to use force” tended to have callous attitudes toward women and believed men should exhibit sexual dominance, according to Newsweek.

In a 2014 study on men’s attitudes on acquaintance rape, adversarial sex beliefs (ideas that men are justified in dominating women) and sexist hostile attitudes were associated with perceiving victims as less credible, seeing victims as less traumatized, and viewing perpetrators as less culpable. Such beliefs and attitudes were also associated with a shorter recommended prison sentence, as well as the perception of greater victim culpability and pleasure.

In terms of attitudes about what would prevent sexual assault, both men and women can hold sexist, victim-blaming attitudes about rape. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45 percent of college men and 35 percent of college women believed an effective form of sexual assault prevention is the woman’s decision to wear modest clothing. A 2015 paper on the justifications sexual assault perpetrators use for their actions found that perpetrators pointed to consensual activities prior to unwanted sex, victims’ alcohol consumption, expectations for having sex, and attempts to be alone with the woman to justify sexual violence. The study also found that a significant predictor of sexual aggression over a one-year follow-up period was a greater use of justifications following the sexual violence.

It is likely that men with such beliefs will view #MeToo through the lens of sexism and wonder about the details of the incident and whether the woman did something to deserve it. They may consider the man in the story to be “sexually aggressive,” but not a rapist. The problem isn’t that men — and women like Mayim Bialik who think modest clothing offers protection from rape — don’t know that people are being raped and harassed on a regular basis. The problem is that our culture blames those survivors for their own rapes. Rape culture refuses to acknowledge that people on the feminine spectrum make decisions about sex. It refuses to acknowledge that sex is not something that is done to them, but is something that requires consent. If people refuse to examine the roots of attitudes that allow people to excuse rape, it’s hard to make any progress on the issue of sexual violence.

But that doesn’t mean #MeToo is not important for survivors of sexual assault. Social media campaigns don’t have to change everyone’s mind to be successful. Some may be moved to action as a result. Survivors of sexual assault may also find support in seeing one other and building a movement.

The act of sharing an experience and showing someone that they know a rape survivor is visually and socially powerful. But the matter of dismantling rape culture is far more complicated and demands everyone’s participation.