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#MeToo: survivors testify to the impossibility of preempting sexual assault

Mayim Bialik argued that women can ward off sexual assault by making themselves less attractive. A viral hashtag begged to differ.

2017 World Of Children Hero Awards
Alyssa Milano sparked a viral hashtag about the universality of sexual assault.
Photo by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for World of Children
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Widespread outrage over the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations continued to play out on social media over the weekend — this time through #MeToo, a powerful hashtag aimed at illustrating that anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment.

The hashtag was spurred primarily by an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein's World,” which was written by The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik and quickly went viral. Bialik argued that women are essentially harassed on a hierarchical tier based on how attractive they are and how they dress.

The argument was an affront to many readers, who rushed to point out that in reality, women of all types are harassed. As discussion of Bialik’s op-ed continued, actress Alyssa Milano suggested that women reply “me too” to a single tweet:

This isn’t the first time the idea of testifying to sexual assault through the framing of a “me too” has gained traction. An earlier "Me Too" movement was started over a decade ago by black feminist Tarana Burke, to empower other black women and girls who are sexual assault survivors.

Milano wasn’t aware of that background until Vox reached her for comment Monday evening, whereupon she tweeted noting the movement’s origin story, which she described as “heartbreaking and inspiring.”

But the idea resonated with many women and other survivors, who responded to Milano’s original tweet and passed it on.

The idea spread rapidly, as women began speaking about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault on both Twitter and Facebook, and the #MeToo hashtag was born.

In her op-ed, Bialik painted herself as being savvy enough to preemptively ward off sexual assault

Bialik’s op-ed piece in the Times was framed as an account of her personal experience with rigorous beauty standards in Hollywood relative to the Weinstein scandal. Her argument was two-pronged: She suggested that Hollywood’s emphasis on extreme beauty has insulated her from the worst forms of harassment throughout her career, and she described the acts of “self-protection” — including dressing down and modifying her behavior — that have helped her ward off unwanted attention from men.

“As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms,” she wrote. “Those of us in Hollywood who don’t represent an impossible standard of beauty have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and, in many cases, ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.”

While Bialik acknowledged that “Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women,” she went on to declare that women “can’t be naïve about the culture we live in,” explaining that she makes “choices” she deems “self-protecting and wise.”

“I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with,” she wrote. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

Many people who read the piece felt that it amounted to victim blaming, and that Bialik was unforgivably asking potential targets of sexual assault to be responsible for curbing the behavior of predatory men. But the more widespread backlash was reserved for Bialik’s suggestion that only pretty women experience harassment and assault.

In particular, numerous actresses spoke out, with many saying that their own experiences with sexual assault didn’t align with what Bialik was arguing.

Bialik’s own experience also didn’t align with those of the thousands of survivors who trended the #MeToo hashtag in response.

Words of support and empowerment were also widespread.

There were also calls for men to do more to combat harassment, instead of relying on women to do so by sharing their stories:

Twitter’s ongoing role in the discussion wasn’t forgotten either:

Bialik responded to the backlash Sunday night, tweeting that her words had been taken out of context.

There was, however, at least one chilling reminder that the “too ugly to be raped” myth is alive and well:

Update: This story has been updated to include the historical context of the “me too” movement started by Tarana Burke over a decade ago.