On Oct. 5, 2017, the New York Times released a report accusing Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein of sex crimes that spanned decades.
Five days later, the New Yorker dropped an expose that featured the testimony of Weinstein’s famous accusers including Mira Sorvino and Patricia Arquette.
Five days after that, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a simple request to her followers that went viral.
One tweet ignited a firestorm that galvanized millions of survivors worldwide to share their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault on social media. After Milano credited civil rights activist Tarana Burke for coining the term “Me Too” to center marginalized survivors, Burke and the #MeToo movement became media mainstays.
Since then, some of the nation’s most prominent sexual offenders in the world of entertainment have been expelled from their positions of power, and some of the most famous advocates for the #MeToo movement have fallen from grace. Weinstein was charged in May. Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004.
#MeToo organizers have distanced themselves from actress Rose McGowan after her public transphobic rant and one of Weinstein’s accusers, Italian actress Asia Argento, is facing sexual assault allegations of her own.
In politics and government, allegations of sexual assault continue to follow the sitting president. The Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, making him the second justice on the high court publicly accused of sexual assault. Millions watched as one of his accusers, Christine Ford, testified in a televised hearing that ultimately led to nothing.
It is hard to stay positive when political power plays undermine women’s rights and our government refuses to hold sexual predators accountable for their behavior.
It is easy to downplay the success of #MeToo in the aftermath of developments like this but the reality is social movements can take decades to create lasting change.
To gain a broader perspective, I asked six social activists what the best and worst developments of #MeToo have been and what to look for next.
Laura Dunn was amazed to receive an outpouring of love and concern from colleagues, friends and family following the Kavanaugh hearings. “I have been an activist for 15 years. This was the first time it dawned on them how much it may have affected me,” says Dunn. At 18, her life was changed forever when she was sexually assaulted after a college party.
Following a 10-month investigation, the district attorney declined to press charges.
“It is interesting to watch people push this narrative that Kavanaugh only did it once and he was young,” says Dunn, who vividly remembers fearing for her life while being attacked by two fellow students. “Despite #MeToo, these narratives are alive and well among those that are crafting model penal codes that affect society.”
Dunn says the best way to advance the #MeToo movement is to encourage more states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) so the constitution can be modified to give legal equality regardless of sex and prohibit discrimination based on sex.
“Brilliantly, the #MeToo movement empowered women to step from the shadows to report sexual violence and that is not something that will end soon,” says Dunn. “We have to grapple with issues before we can resolve them — that is part of the victory.”
Lola Mendez worked in women’s rights years before #MeToo provided the impetus to publicly share her stories of sexual assault. She was inspired by the disappearing stigma around sexual assault.
“Women have permission to talk about things that were once too taboo to discuss in an open forum,” says Mendez.
Yet during the height of #MeToo, after writing about being raped as a 15-year-old high school student during a hotel party and a more recent sexual assault while traveling in Morocco, she felt censored. “Editors wanted to take the word rape out of the narrative,” says Mendez. “To me, it de-emphasized the reality of what happened.”
“I don’t know how much we can change [Amercian culture] while we have a president in office that was accused of sexual assault,” says Mendez.
Despite her experiences, the #MeToo movement empowered Mendez to be even more fearless during her travels. Moving forward, she believes all women can benefit from regularly enforcing their boundaries. “We need to start saying you cannot come into my space, you cannot look at me that way and you cannot touch me.”
After working in criminal defense, Michele Sharpe finds it encouraging that #MeToo has helped survivors find their voice. “Women feel supported enough to tell their stories and help younger women become aware of the challenges they might face,” she says. Sharpe is also pleased to see men supporting anti-domestic violence organizations. “[Women] cannot do it all by ourselves, the whole population needs to get involved,” Sharpe says.
However, Sharpe remains frustrated by how the media treats survivors. “There is still a predisposition to single out victims of sexual assault differently than other victims of crime,” she says.
In some ways, Sharpe feels the #MeToo movement has also encouraged perpetrators to band together. “They feel emboldened by #MeToo. In a way, it has been a rallying cry for misogynists,” says Sharpe. “But it is right to out perps, like the Shitty Media Men List did, so we know what we are up against when entering the professional sphere.”
A year after #MeToo began, Sharpe hopes to see more emphasis on researching language and culture.
“Language is so powerful, it creates our values and reflects our values,” she says. Recently, Sharpe wrote about how language is used to reinforce patriarchy and harm victims.
“He said/she said means men are entitled to a presumption of innocence. That phrase needs to go away, it is another example of the depths of misogyny in our society.”
Jerin Arifa believes the #MeToo movement has played an important role in fostering communication “#MeToo is giving us the vocabulary to enact change where we are,” she says. “People are finally waking up to what feminists have been saying.”
After over a decade of doing anti-domestic violence work, helping to shape anti-stalking policy at the university level and training young activists, Arifa believes the #MeToo movement must be intersectional and inclusive to continue.
“Black women are not credited for setting up the infrastructure for this movement,” she says. “A lot of the backlash that is emblematic of #MeToo goes back to the erasure of black women.”
Formerly undocumented, she understands what it means to be an activist that operates from the margins and characterizes this moment as a dangerous time in history.
“We are in the process of decimating rape culture and predators know they are about to lose control,” says Arifa.
Moving forward, Arifa believes we need to shift the focus to enforcing the legal protections we have now. “The Violence Against Women Act is the most important piece of legislation for the #MeToo movement because it impacts funding for resources like domestic violence shelters and training for police officers,” she says.
“Vote out the people that support Kavanaugh and those who voted against the Violence Against Women Act.”
Wagatwe Wanjuki was thrust into activism in 2009, after her former university refused to respond to her report of sexual assault. “Before #MeToo, people were astounded I was willing to speak up publicly,” says Wanjuki. “More people are talking about consent and I hope it is a direction we continue to go in moving forward.”
One thing Wanjuki believes must change is the media’s focus on wealthy white women. “#MeToo going viral has allowed the media to get lazy and only focus on celebrities,” she says. “I would love to see a coalition of survivors centering the needs of the most vulnerable and more spaces created to talk about these things.”
Wanjuki also hopes survivors become more strategic during the next phase of the #MeToo movement. “We need to reclaim the narrative and stop telling our stories to the institutions that perpetuate rape myths. We also need trauma-informed media practices,” she says. “How do we incorporate facts into our story and place our stories inside the bigger picture?”
According to Wanjuki, learning the history of the anti-rape movement in the U.S. will help introduce diversity. “This is a very old movement. Black women started this work, but we did not know Rosa Parks for her anti-rape activism,” she says.
For Kelly Wilz, one of the best things to come from the #MeToo movement is that it normalized the discussion of sexual violence. “People who never had an interest in talking about rape culture are realizing how bad it is,” says Wilz. “#MeToo changed the way we talk about it and people have stepped up in terms of allyship.”
On her campus at the University of Wisconsin, Wilz has observed a clear generational gap in the way sexual violence is perceived. “My students are already coming into this with an awareness,” says Wilz. “They are better equipped to have these discussions and much more willing to challenge media perceptions and stereotypes.”
Since the #MeToo movement began, she believes it has already influenced the way we watch films and TV. “It is funny how people are watching films we loved in the ’80s and seeing how misogynistic and wrong they are,” says Wilz. “Now, there are shows like Season 2 of ’13 Reasons Why' that portray helpful discussions of consent. This makes me hopeful.”
The most disheartening part of this year for Wilz was witnessing the negative discourse surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings. “Politicians are only open to discussing rape culture if it aligns with their political views,” she says. “It is devastating that rape has become bipartisan.”
She credits #MeToo with challenging the culture of silence, which was desperately needed. “So many people are sharing their stories and that never would’ve happened without this movement.”