This end of year review is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team as they consider some of the themes that have dominated 2020. The views expressed in these reviews are those of the editors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the standpoint of Backbench as a whole.
This year has been a year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed events that otherwise would have dominated newsrooms across the world. For one, it has been over three years since the #MeToo movement exploded and exposed abuse that people from all ages, nationalities and backgrounds have suffered, and with it revealed the systemic failure to stop it.
At the start of the year, on the 24th February, before the pandemic took hold of the world, Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault – marking a huge milestone for the #MeToo movement.
Then, on the 11th March, less than two weeks before the UK went into lockdown, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison, which many of his accusers believed they would never see.
Although Weinstein was accused of assaulting multitudes of women, which led to the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, he was convicted of assaulting two women – a once-aspiring actress and a former TV and film production assistant.
Both women spoke in court before the sentence was announced, which helped to seal his conviction at what was labelled a ‘landmark #MeToo trial’. For the 68-year-old former film producer, the 23-year sentence will effectively be a life sentence.
Then, at the start of July, Weinstein and the board of his former studio reached a settlement of almost $19 million with ‘dozens of his sexual misconduct accusers’.
Weinstein was due to be extradited to California from New York where he will face charges involving five women which stem from alleged assaults between 2004 and 2013, but this has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hearing is now due to take place in April 2021.
In July, Me Too founder Tarana Burke, a civil rights campaigner and survivor of sexual assault, stated that the movement is far from over, and while “Harvey Weinstein is a symbolic case”, seeing what “celebrity goes to jail or not, is not sustainable as a movement”.
Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 but the phrase started to find global recognition in 2017 after Alyssa Milano, one of the women who accused Weinstein of sexual assault tweeted ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.’ The tweet currently has over 62,000 replies.
Me Too is about dismantling the misuse of privilege and power that can lead to sexism and racism, and this is something which Burke believes the Black Lives Matter protests this year have also been addressing. Burke argues that both movements have similarities: “They’re about fighting against injustice. Both movements are predicated on undoing systems of oppression.”
Burke argued that in order to move forward as a movement we need to be talking about the “everyday woman, man, trans person, child and disabled person. All the people who are not rich, white and famous, who deal with sexual violence”.
Something to remember is that the Me Too movement is not just about high-profile cases such as that which surround Harvey Weinstein, but also the everyday sexual harassment and violence which people face across the world.
In June, The New York Times reported that dozens of individuals had come forward, most of whom were women, about sexism and harassment they had faced in the gaming industry. Over 70 allegations were posted to Twitter, where individuals came forward with allegations of sexual assault, harassment and gender-based discrimination.
In the same month, Insider reported what they described as a ‘#MeToo moment’ in which hundreds of people came forward to share their experiences of alleged sexual harassment online against an array of celebrities.
The wave of accusations created somewhat of a storm online, where people became split between wanting to believe both the accuser and the accused. This created an alleged ‘false-accusation trend’ online as fans of the accused celebrities were torn between who to support.
In a big announcement in October, three years after “Me Too” erupted into a worldwide movement, the founder of #MeToo Tarana Burke introduced a new platform called ‘#ActToo’, encouraging people to ‘get active in the fight to end sexual violence’.
With it came a new website, serving as a checklist for individuals to mark off actions they have completed. Such actions consist of donating to organisations committed to helping survivors, volunteering, and signing petitions.
Act Too aims to highlight the importance of change that can happen when people come together and act. Burke reminded others in the launch video that “no matter who you are, you can act too.”
The Me Too movement is one that has helped survivors all over the world, yet it has been criticised by many people who argue it has divided women while the hashtag online has been focused around white women opposed to all victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
This key point was raised by the founder of Me Too, Tarana Burke, who brought up that if Alyssa Milano “didn’t say: ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t start this. This black woman named Tarana Burke started this’, people would not know my name.”
Besides, it’s not just social media where we hear criticisms of Me Too. In November, Jessica Butcher, a digital entrepreneur, was appointed as one of four new commissioners at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) by the minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, even though she has openly criticised feminism and the #MeToo movement.
At a TED talk in 2018, Butcher criticised what she described as “modern feminism” by arguing that it “disempowers” women and stated that “like other forms of identity politics, has become obsessed with female victimhood”.
She also stated that “womanhood is depressed” because there is “a narrative of disadvantage and social patriarchy that runs through #MeToo”.
Then, in an interview last year, Butcher argued that women who have faced discrimination should find a way to “circumvent the situation in some way” rather than complain because the “most productive reaction to that is not wounded insecurity”. She also argued that “it should be about resilience” in response to what she believes is a “narrative of discrimiation and victimhood”.
It should be the job of governments, not just in the UK but across the world, to lead the way in legislation and find a way to address and help those harassed, such as medical staff, service staff, and teachers.
According to a 2018 survey by The Teachers’ Union (NASUWT) in the UK, one in five members said they had faced sexual harassment at school since becoming a teacher. The harasser had been either a colleague, manager, parent or pupil – highlighting that safety at work is not just threatened by managers or colleagues, but by the people who we have no choice but to interact with for work.
Facing sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t inevitable, but it flourishes when those in charge fail to prevent it.
A World Bank report in 2018 found that 59 out of 189 economies had no specific legal provisions which prohibit sexual harassment in employment. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) found in 2016 that existing laws often exclude the workers exposed to violence most often, such as domestic workers and those in employment which is precarious.
The #MeToo movement is not slowing down anytime soon, as at the start of this month alone, a sexual harassment case began against prominent Chinese television host Zhu Jun in Beijing. Zhou Xiaoxuan, a screenwriter, known by her nickname Xianzi, accused Jun of forcibly kissing and groping her while she was an intern at CCTV in 2014.
This case is particularly significant because of China’s conservative society, where women are reluctant to speak out and can face a great deal of blame, and where it is rare for cases like this to make it to court. Xiaoxuan stated that experiences such as what she has faced “make you feel like your existence is very insignificant”.
This comes after new legislation was passed in May expanding the definition of sexual harassment. These protections in China’s civil code, which comes into force in January, follow a series of high-profile accusations. Xiaoxuan herself noted that “There have been far too few of these kinds of cases. There basically is no understanding of sexual assault within the national judicial organs or law enforcement.”
The case reached an impasse after Zhu failed to turn up to court, leaving the closed-door hearing to drag on for more than ten hours without a verdict. It’s now unclear when the trial will resume, but when it does, Xiaoxuan and her lawyers want an open-hearing in front of a jury.
Since #MeToo exploded across social media in 2017, the movement has broken barriers between the accuser and the accused. A simple trending hashtag that has turned into a worldwide movement has begun to hold powerful and influential individuals such as Weinstein to account. Some of his victims have, therefore, started to receive some justice.
To continue to gain traction, the movement needs to now transfer from the Hollywood circle and into the everyday, where the accused are not just powerful men while white women are not the only victims.
The Me Too movement now needs to be something we use to empower us, and it needs to provide support and a voice to any victim regardless of gender, race or sexuality moving forward into 2021 and beyond.