“Two decades ago, the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein invited Ashley Judd to the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel for what the young actress expected to be a business breakfast meeting. Instead, he had her sent up to his room, where he appeared in a bathrobe and asked if he could give her a massage or she could watch him shower, she recalled in an interview.”
It was this sentence, published in The New York Times article “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades,” on Thursday, October 5, that ignited an international movement against sexual harassment and assault. The #MeToo movement has empowered countless women and men to come forward with their stories of abuse and emotional distress at the hands of powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere. Since April 2017, 211 people, a mixture of celebrities, CEOs, university professors and others, have been accused of sexual misconduct largely as a result of the #MeToo movement. Many have hailed these various allegations as progress. Medium even published an article that proclaimed, “What a difference a year can make for women.”
However, although many of these accused individuals have faced public shaming and lost their careers, few have faced permanent or serious consequences. Recently, Spotify took a lone stance against sexual abuse, removing all R. Kelly and XXXTentacion songs due to accusations of assault and harassment against both of these artists, but the majority of radio stations and streaming services continue to promote R. Kelly and XXXTentacion’s songs without second thought. Matt Lauer, accused by eight women of harassment and abuse, spent four months of his public exile in a $33 million Hamptons home. Charlie Rose, accused of sexual harassment by over 25 women, has retreated to a large home outside of New York City that enjoys views of the water and Fire Island. In fact, of the various individuals who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault thus far, only one, Bill Cosby, will face time in jail.
In addition to the failings of the movement to place individuals behind bars, due to the activists’ focus on publicly shaming individuals as opposed to supporting more legal strategies, there is also an issue of scale. #MeToo, although it seems to have resulted in many accusations, has actually only brought a handful of women and men to justice. In the same timeframe that it took to publicly accuse 211 individuals of sexual misconduct, over 30,000,000 Americans have been the victims of sexual assault. The majority of these individuals will never see any form of justice.
The problem with #MeToo is that, although it has been able to take advantage of the power of media, it has failed to evolve to ensure that individuals who experience assault and harassment at the hands of abusers whose titles, net worths and names don’t merit a headline also have an opportunity to experience justice. Furthermore, although it has succeeded in ensuring accusers are not shamed into silence, which is of importance, its adhoc method of dealing with accusations means the movement has no system of ensuring false accusations are kept at a minimum, endangering the American ideal that individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Although studies suggest only between 2 and 8 percent of sexual assault complaints are false, ensuring the potency and continued power of the movement means protecting against these few fabricated accusations.
The harsh realities of the limits of the #MeToo movement bring one central fact into perspective. In order for this movement to result in any real change, drastic improvements must be made to the components of the American justice system that are responsible for handling cases of sexual harrassment and assault. The #MeToo movement, and the activists that lead it, must pivot towards lobbying for institutional change in the American justice system. They must shift their methods away from relying exclusively on the media for coverage and action and evolve towards pressuring Washington staffers and legislatures.
Understanding what reform is necessary requires first understanding the many ways the system is currently broken. According to a 2007 study funded by the US Department of Justice, only 2 percent of sexual assault victims who are, at the time of the assault, incapacitated by drugs or alcohol report the incident to law enforcement officials. Furthermore, only 13 percent of assaults victims who are physically forced during the assault report the incident to law enforcement officials.
Those who do take steps to report the abuse are often failed by the system regardless. Collections of DNA and images evidence collected off a victim’s body following a rape can be used effectively in court to accuse or acquit suspected rapists. Performing a rape kit can be extremely compromising and traumatic for victims, especially because they must undergo testing often mere hours after an incident to ensure accurate and comprehensive results. However, currently, about 400,000 untested rape kits are sitting in evidence rooms across the country untested due to a lack of resources and manpower.
In addition to the handling of the physical evidence of the incidents, there are infinite ways that Title IX is failing students. Rarely, if ever, are college students accused of sexual assault expelled from their academic institution, and some simply receive educational sanctions or probation, a small punishment considering their crime. There is prevailing evidence that incidents of abuse and assault are even more frequently, and more severely, mishandled at the high school level. Adele Kimmel, senior attorney at Public Justice representing victims of sexual assault, states that college are ahead of K-12 schools in their development of sexual assault and harassment policies and education of staff and students regarding Title IX.
When the abuser is Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer or another powerful individual and, to some extent, the victim is a respected individual such as Jennifer Lawrence or Megyn Kelly, then the media has proven itself capable and willing to take the role of the prosecution. However, most assault and harassment cases involve unknown abusers and victims. In these cases, the victims of abuse rely on the courts to achieve justice.
As a result, the media-reliant #MeToo movement, although symbolic and important, has not been life-changing for the vast majority of assault victims. Unfortunately, this will continue to be true unless the movement is paired with serious policy changes that improve the current system for reporting and prosecuting sexual assault.
If the movement continues in its present form, more celebrities and CEOs may be taken down, their transgressions revealed, and more women may be empowered to step out of the shadows with their stories. However, justice will rarely be served, and isn’t that really the goal of the movement after all? To provide a semblance of justice to women who once had no hope of any?
Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.