clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the #MeToo movement can survive a brewing backlash

 9 experts weigh in.

Activists at the Take Back The Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors March & Rally in Hollywood, California
Activists participate in the Take Back The Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors March & Rally on November 12, 2017, in Hollywood, California.
Sarah Morris/Contributor/Getty Images

For months, women and men have been coming forward to publicly and privately share their stories of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, and misconduct at the hands of powerful figures.

But as this moment has gone on, questions have emerged of how sustainable this ongoing reckoning actually is, with some predicting that the moment could soon give way to a backlash. “I do think that lots of people will jump on any excuse to make this conversation stop,” journalist Rebecca Traister told Vox’s Ezra Klein in November. “There'll be a moment where everybody just sort of is like, ‘Okay, we're not having this conversation anymore.’”

The backlash could take many forms. Some, like Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler, fret that a false or exaggerated accusation of harassment or misconduct could make a field day for opponents to the movement, a concern rooted in the Duke lacrosse and Rolling Stone/UVA scandals of years past. Others, like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, have suggested that #MeToo “goes too far” and threatens to sweep up the crass along with the criminal, ending the careers of men that, as the argument implicitly suggests, might not deserve to face heavy consequences.

And then there’s the worry that we are seeing the beginnings of a “sex panic,” a blurring of the lines between awkward flirting, inappropriate behavior, and assault that threatens to leave men and women fearful of interacting with one another in the workplace, destabilizes our perception of sexual interactions, and ultimately fails to address the issues that #MeToo set out to confront.

Much is still up in the air. But at some point in the future, it is almost guaranteed that the reckoning as we know it will change, as reporting attention turns elsewhere and the seemingly never-ending faucet of misconduct allegations against high-profile figures slows down. But what comes next?

Vox reached out to a group of experts in advocacy, academia, and activism to ask about the potential backlash to #MeToo and how to build this current movement into more than a moment. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Don’t be surprised by the backlash

Jamia Wilson, executive director of the Feminist Press at City University of New York

Throughout history, we've never seen progress without backlash. From the civil rights movement to the movement for gender justice and beyond, retrograde hardliners have always endeavored to hinder the advancement of equality to ensure that their ideas and their unearned social power survives and thrives. That's why we must continue to resist, persist, and practice radical solidarity in the face of pushback. We should treat backlash as a sure signal that the positive disruption we're creating is working to undermine systems that are broken and/or unjust.

Now is the time to keep applying pressure, stand with each other in the face of adversity, maintain our tenacity, and keep powering through — because our lives depend on it.

Jennifer Drobac, professor at Indiana University School of Law

People who wield great power sometimes abuse it. When challenged, they don’t want to give up the “high” of that power or its perks. They often respond to resistance with a tighter grip to secure their position. For example, they enlist allies to discredit subordinate challengers. That’s why in sexual harassment cases, you often hear that the woman was “nutty,” “slutty,” or a “gold digger.” In high-profile cases, allies begin a media “spin” to recast the allegations as a cover for poor job performance or unrequited feelings by a miserable wannabe lover.

To that end, these predators will protest their innocence and fight their disempowerment. They don’t want to feel like the women they abuse.

People, especially men, may wonder if they even want to work with women now. Executives may hesitate to mentor female subordinates. Men may fear unfounded accusations or that their own clueless behavior could prompt a complaint. Are the battle lines being drawn? Yes, but let’s be clear. Those battle lines are between men and women against sexual predators. Co-workers are in this battle together. This #MeToo phenomenon could divide us or bring us together to cure a social evil: sexual predation.

Forget about the backlash — let’s talk about the institutions that have helped harassment thrive

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center

With a new headline every day about the severe and pervasive harassment in Hollywood, politics, and beyond, some might argue that the only part of the story left to come is a backlash to counter the deafening #MeToo chorus.

We are just getting started.

The stories we have heard so far have involved some of the most egregious incidents — powerful men stripping off their clothes during business meetings, routinely groping breasts and other body parts without consent, retaliating against women who rebuffed sexual advances. These stories are headline-grabbing for a reason — they are outrageous and the sort of conduct that any employer should address swiftly.

And we haven’t even gotten to the also unlawful day-to-day harassment that women face in nearly every industry, and we have barely touched on the harassment that women of color and LGBTQ people routinely face at work, at school, and in other areas of their lives.

Nor have we effectively outlined the many reasons our laws and policies are not fully prepared to meet this moment. Right now our system is broken. People are reporting their stories in the press because they believe they will experience less retaliation and gain actual accountability with the sunlight the media affords. I hope they continue to do so. But our next important step must be focused on the institutions that failed survivors for years.

We need leaders to rise to meet this moment, and there is plenty of room for our institutional leaders to take a stand for change — to move beyond just responding to harassment to also preventing it. They must examine their policies, procedures, and culture, and investigate why reporting and accountability have been so low even as harassment rates remain high. So the best counter to any backlash to come is to build systems that allow for institutions to do the hard work of changing the culture of the workplace. It’s time for that to finally happen.

Alicia Garza, strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter Global Network

With every act of courage, there is the potential of retaliation. When a survivor who bravely exposes the prevalence and varied nature of harassment and violence is attacked, like bees, we must ensure that there is a swarm ready to give aid. A backlash is little more than an attempt to further silence and shame the survivors, and to keep abuses of power intact. Our response must support survivors to shape the interventions that come next.

There are conditions that allow sexual violence to go unaddressed — and make some survivors particularly vulnerable to harassment and assault. A lack of pay equity, inability to access labor protections, and absence of services and social supports are important examples of why survivors may be fearful of speaking up. For example, whom do domestic workers go to when being violated by their employer, when some federal labor protections may not even view your work as work? What does it mean to expose your employer when that may be your sole source of income for your family? If you’re an immigrant woman, what if your employer threatens you with deportation if you don’t comply with their abuse?

To change this, we must ensure that communities get the resources necessary to limit their vulnerabilities. That means strengthening laws that ensure survivors’ safety, creating accessible structures that can intervene in harassment and violence. It means interventions that ensure accountability with meaningful consequences without feeding an already bloated criminal system. It means passing immigration laws that keep families together and create pathways to citizenship. It means eliminating the inequities that make women especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence in the first place. It means believing and trusting women. And it means all women coming together to change all industries and make every workplace safer.

Emily May, co-founder and executive director for Hollaback

Many people for the first time are realizing how prevalent harassment and assault are, and many more are coming forward and sharing their stories for the first time. What I love about this moment is the impact it’s [having] on those hard-to-reach people who are still awakening to the impact of sexual violence, and [are] able to hear about it, learn about it, in ways that our work as a movement hasn’t touched them before.

I want the intolerance toward harassment and assault to build. I want those who have experienced to feel their true power — and to have the space and love needed to let the trauma they’ve been holding on to, keeping secret for years, defrost at last and be held not by the victim but by society itself. I want each of us to recognize we have a role to play in ending sexual violence, and that “not assaulting people” or even “being nice to women” isn’t nearly enough. Harassment and sexual violence are an epidemic, and we need to treat it with the urgency it deserves.

Bernice Yeung, reporter with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers

In the end, speaking out about sexual harassment is a lot to ask of someone, and we keep this momentum going not just by asking more women to speak out but by finding ways to prevent the abuse in the first place. Part of that comes from expecting men to hold other men accountable. This is an approach recently taken up by some of the janitors and farmworkers [through my reporting on low-wage immigrant workers].

At a 2016 sexual violence training I attended at a Florida tomato farm sponsored by Futures Without Violence, the Fair Food Program, and others, an instructor named Angel Garcia asked a hard question: Why do men let other men get away with behaving badly? He told the assembled farmworkers that this was a critical point: “We are creating a culture of respect, and one part of that is to challenge males to talk to other males,” he said. Meanwhile, in California, the president of the janitors union marched alongside female members protesting on-the-job sexual assault, and told journalists and the male membership that “enough is enough.”

More men should follow suit. After all, it shouldn't be the job of women, who bear the brunt of this problem, to somehow be responsible for fixing it too.

Jaclyn Friedman, an anti-violence activist and author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All

We need to stop being reactive — waiting for victims to come forward to name yet another famous and powerful man — and start talking about the systems that foster this kind of abuse.

We should seize on this moment to push to expand comprehensive, fact-based sex ed school district by school district, so that young people grow up seeing sex as an act of collaboration, not a means to domination. We should be supporting union drives, so that workers with non-famous bosses have enough power to demand abuse-free workplaces. We should be demanding that the institutions that shape our culture — all the media, tech, journalism, and political organizations — share and implement short- and long-term plans to transform their workplace culture, including creating gender equity in their highest echelons of power.

"Throw the bums out" is satisfying, but if we want to leverage this moment for real change, we have to refuse to be sated by the firing of any individual predator. We'll secure our gains when we change our systems so that they no longer nurture men (or anyone) who abuse.

Women are being left out of the #MeToo moment, and it’s time to include them

Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and Guardian columnist and author

I see sexual harassment through the lens of income inequality. That's at least partially because I run an organization devoted to covering economic instability and we at EHRP cover that topic from all angles. Astoundingly, women are still paid significantly less than men. That may trap women in bad or even abusive jobs where they can’t even afford the time to look for work elsewhere.

Female workers may also be un-mentored throughout their careers, passed over for promotions on account of their gender or their refusal to cater to the egos and libidos of male bosses. It's no coincidence that the news and tech and entertainment industries have produced so many spectacular cases of harassment.

These are industries reliant on star systems with particularly steep income gradients — Matt Lauer made $25 million per year, while on-the-ground former journalists are now receiving food stamps. In essence, an economic madness has enabled men like Bill O’Reilly and Lauer and that guy at Amazon to feel untouchable while they sexually harassed women.

Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action and a co-founder of the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence

To end sexual violence, we must be led by low-wage workers. People in the lowest income brackets experience sexual violence at disproportionately high rates. Many of these workers don't have time to keep up with social media campaigns. Their abuser is no celebrity — just another nameless person who just happened to have more power than they did. Their story will never make it into a splashy headline bringing down an industry titan. And their erasure from the current media narrative is just another way their worth is diminished; another reason why workplace predators won’t think twice about targeting them.

These survivors know firsthand that a hashtag cannot address the root causes of sexual violence — unsexy issues like income inequality, inhumane immigration policies, and housing instability. Gender parity in Hollywood and congressional measures to protect legislators will not pay these workers’ rent, buy their babies’ diapers, or prevent their deportation.

All the same, some put everything on the line to seek justice. These workers are warriors. Their survival is improbable. They clean our houses and hotel rooms, care for our children and elders, serve our food, package our goods, and pick our crops. They are the most powerful among us, and we must center their voices in creating new solutions to sexual violence, because the old ones don’t work. It’s time to bring the experts in.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.