Content Warning: This article mentions sexual assault which may be unsettling for some readers.
Sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, is not a contemporary concept. It has been in the lives of people for decades, but it has only become a dominant societal conversation in the past few years. This can be accredited to a five-letter hashtag and the power of social media. #MeToo has opened up a multitude of important conversations and pathways for advocacy that have grown greater movements to combat the issue of silencing victims of sexual assault.
“Me too” became a well-known statement that propelled into a globally-known movement. On Oct. 15, 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a photo saying, “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Just 10 days prior, The New York Times published an exposé on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, reporting that he had been confronted with many allegations of sexual assault. In the following months, over 80 women accused Weinstein of inappropriate sexual behavior, according to the BBC.
This highly prominent scandal diminishing the reputation of a well-respected figure helped propel the movement forward, starting with Milano’s viral tweet. #MeToo skyrocketed on social media, with CNN reporting one day after Milano’s tweet, that the statement had been posted over half a million times, describing that “Twitter was flooded with personal stories of assault.”
Personal stories became public as allegations against notable men in power came to light. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney spoke up in a tweet, highlighting the sexual abuse she faced by the National Medical Coordinator for USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar. A few days later, Today, NBC’s morning talk show, released a statement announcing that Co-Host Matt Lauer had been fired due to allegations of sexual assault. These highly publicized scandals were propelled forward in a wave of social media callouts— a foreign occurrence then, but one many may find normal today.
“[Me Too]” brings up both a ‘yay, I’m glad to hear that people are speaking up about their experiences […] in order to acknowledge them to get to the root of where the issue occurs,” says Shay Braden, the Social Justice Program Manager for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Greater Portland. “But then, it also brings a bit of sadness of sort— to see folks expose their most vulnerable experiences and leave them up for judgment upon others […] But that’s what it takes to cause such a massive movement.”
Marlene Howell, a recently retired faculty member in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Portland State University, had a conversation with me about her own reaction to the #MeToo movement. “I wasn’t really sure what it would evolve into. But I thought it held promise because finally, some important stories were seeing the light of day.”
Howell also emphasized the extreme importance of crediting Tarana Burke as the true creator of the Me Too movement saying, “[she] did it as a way to address the abuse that is often a part of being a domestic worker. The terms of the role of being a domestic worker includes being abused, and it’s very hidden […] She really understands the dynamic of movements.”
Tarana Burke initially started Me Too in 2005, centering it around the sexual abuse Black women and girls face, not intending for the movement to appear in the greater public sphere, at least not in the way it occurred. “I knew little of how the hashtag had started. I had no idea that the actress Alyssa Milano had sent out the first tweet,” said Burke, outlining the details in her memoir, “Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement,” published in late 2021.
In the introductory chapter of “Unbound,” Burke describes feeling “jarred” and “confused” when she first saw the mass accumulation of posts using #MeToo. “I had read the stories of the high-profile actresses who had courageously come forward to talk about the horrific things they had suffered at this man’s hands,” she writes, referring to the ever-growing number of whistleblowers on Harvey Weinstein. “Other than these women being survivors of sexual violence, none of what was happening in Hollywood felt related to the work I had been entrenched in within my own community for so many years.”
In December of 2017, TIME magazine named its person of the year as “The Silence Breakers,” representing individuals who stepped forward about sexual misconduct. High-profile names such as Taylor Swift, Terry Crews, Selma Blair, and Ashley Judd posed for the issue, accompanied by Burke, with TIME accrediting them as the “voices who launched a movement.”
Critiques were still prevalent about the initial act of leaving creator Tarana Burke uncredited for her work in starting the movement, and the lack of media covering the marginalized voices within #MeToo. Statistics taken from the Me Too movement show that people who are poor, disabled, LGBTQ+, and of color, are the people who are affected by sexual violence at an extremely high rate— the very voices who were initially left out of the conversation.
On Oct. 15, 2018, Tarana took to Twitter on the one-year anniversary of Milano’s tweet, outlining her true feelings on the matter. “A year ago today I thought my world was falling apart,” she writes. “I woke up to find that #MeToo had gone viral and I didn’t see any of the work I laid out over the previous decade attached to it. I thought for sure I would be erased from a thing I worked so hard to build.”
Howell did discuss the importance of distinguishing the point of separation between the initial intended audience, and the one that gained publicity through #MeToo. “It was so interesting to me that when wealthier women got involved it got a lot more attention, and when they were wealthy white women it especially did. I’m certainly not saying their pain is any less, I’m just saying that who gets attention and who doesn’t is important to make note of.”
However, marginalized communities did gain more access to support systems, as many organizations specifically expanded resources for underserved victims of sexual harassment, assault, and domestic violence in light of #MeToo.
One movement, Times Up, started in January of 2018 as a direct result of #MeToo. It was created to raise money for legal defense funds for victims of sexual assault. Times Up provides valuable support and resources for those needing aid, started and promoted by major Hollywood celebrities. Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, and Janelle Monae, are just a few of the many influential names that helped Times Up gain traction. However, not all movements get media coverage promoted by A-list celebrities, gaining support and wealthy donors from their millions of followers. “I have seen a lot more services starting to be offered,” says Braden, working alongside the YWCA. “But I have also seen more folks trying to seek services and then having a limited amount of resources that advocates are able to provide.” The majority of movements do not gain the same amount of media coverage or have the ability to provide personal funding as well as Times Up has.
Braden shares that it’s impactful to see the lack of ability to distribute resources while helping as many people as possible. “You can see it wears [people] down a bit because you are fighting a lot of oppressive systems.” He expresses that there’s a “thrilling” feeling of helping people, and also despair— “to turn around and see, I have so many other people that need this too.”
Looking back on the past five years, and the work that has stemmed from it— many questions and emotions still arise from those closely involved.
“I think it has reminded us the importance of taking the issue of sexual assault and domestic violence seriously […] We need to get to the heart of why, why this abuse, why sexual harassment? Why does it persist?,” says Howell. “Why are so many who are the target so often silenced? We still have a lot of work to do, but [the Me Too movement] opened up a greater opportunity for that work to be more solidified.”
“At first, it was hard to see myself as a part of [Me Too] because I didn’t want to acknowledge the things that I had been through […] But over time, as I have grown to get comfortable with the experiences that I’ve had,” says Braden, “the Me Too movement has impacted my healing journey overall. And there’s a tad bit of reassurance, seeing that there are other folks staying strong and saying ‘me too,’ and ‘us too,’ you know, it’s all of us. We’re all impacted by this type of violence in some way or another.”
History has been made in the strides to work against the dismissive culture around sexual harassment that society unfortunately uplifts. On Oct. 15, 2021, the four-year anniversary of #MeToo, the movement posed a question asking, “What does it mean to move beyond the hashtag as a community?” Community activists and advocates have responded by expanding education and resources to not only destigmatize the impact of sexual assault but to envision a world where a hashtag like MeToo doesn’t need to exist.