#MeToo was never just about getting men fired.
When activist Tarana Burke started the Me Too campaign more than 10 years ago, her goal was “to spread a message for survivors: You’re heard, you’re understood.” When actress Alyssa Milano helped kick off the current phase of the movement two years ago, she wanted to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
As they made clear, #MeToo has always been about raising awareness of the prevalence and pernicious impact of sexual violence. It’s also about creating change: As Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told Vox last year, “#MeToo is a movement of survivors and their supporters, powered by courage, determined to end sexual violence and harassment.”
But at this point, two years after a New York Times exposé on allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein helped make #MeToo a topic of conversation across America, what has really changed? As a journalist covering the issue, it’s a question I hear more often than almost any other: Survivors have shared their stories, some powerful men have lost their jobs, but at a broader social level is anything really different?
To help answer that question, I looked at some of the changes that have taken place as a result of #MeToo, from state laws to monetary compensation for survivors. The efforts and reforms listed below show that while sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct remain systemic problems, the #MeToo movement has helped motivate Americans to solve them.
States are banning nondisclosure agreements that cover sexual harassment
One of the systemic problems exposed by coverage of Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men was the use of nondisclosure agreements. For example, Zelda Perkins, Weinstein’s former assistant, signed an agreement as part of a settlement that prevented her from telling even family members that Weinstein had exposed himself to her repeatedly, including forcing her to take dictation while he bathed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The agreement kept Perkins from speaking out for almost 20 years. As her story and others made clear, such agreements allowed wealthy and powerful people to essentially buy others’ silence, preventing anyone from finding out about sexual misconduct allegations against them — and potentially putting others at risk.
But as the #MeToo movement gained attention, several states passed laws prohibiting the use of nondisclosure agreements in sexual misconduct cases. In September 2018, California banned the agreements in cases involving sexual assault, harassment, or sex discrimination. New York and New Jersey enacted similar laws. The federal BE HEARD Act — introduced earlier this year by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and others — also bans some types of nondisclosure agreements.
“I don’t think I understood the impact of being silent for 20 years,” Perkins told the LA Times. Under the new laws, others may have an easier time speaking out.
States are also introducing protections for more workers
Federal sexual harassment law and most state laws don’t protect independent contractors; the laws only apply to employees. That means people who are technically self-employed, from actors to makeup artists to Uber drivers, may have little legal recourse if they’re harassed on a job.
Moreover, millions of domestic and farm workers — the people who clean Americans’ homes, care for their children, and harvest their food — lack sexual harassment protections because they work for employers with fewer than 15 employees, as Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell reported last year. These workers, disproportionately women of color and often making a low wage, have nowhere to turn if they are harassed.
But in some places, that’s starting to change. New York expanded its sexual harassment law to cover independent contractors in 2018 and improved protections for domestic workers in 2019. California broadened its law in 2018 to offer protections for people harassed in an expanded set of business relationships — including, notably, relationships with producers.
Meanwhile, hundreds of domestic and farm workers rallied in Washington last year to urge Congress to extend harassment protections to cover them. The BE HEARD Act would do that, giving protections to independent contractors, domestic workers, and more.
The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund has helped over 3,600 people seek justice
For many people, bringing a sexual harassment lawsuit is prohibitively expensive. That’s why Time’s Up, a group of women in Hollywood working to fight harassment, started the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, aimed at helping survivors of sexual misconduct, especially in low-wage industries, get legal representation. Since the fund launched in January 2018, it has raised over $24 million and connected 3,677 people with attorneys to pursue possible legal action, according to a fact sheet provided to Vox by Time’s Up.
One person who’s gotten help through the fund is Brittany Hoyos, who says an older coworker at McDonald’s began making unwanted advances toward her when she was just 16 years old, according to the Time’s Up statement. She refused them, but he began spreading rumors about her at work, she said, and she was ultimately fired. She and her mother, who says she faced retaliation at the same restaurant, joined more than 20 other McDonald’s workers in filing complaints against the company in May.
“Just because you’re going through a lower job in society’s eyes, that doesn’t mean you should have to go through the obstacles and challenges that I did,” Hoyos told the New York Times.
The movement to end the tipped minimum wage is gaining steam
Restaurant workers are often forced to put up with harassment from customers for fear that reporting the behavior or otherwise trying to put a stop to it could result in the loss of a tip. And for many waiters and other workers, losing tips means losing the ability to pay basic bills because the federal minimum wage for these workers is just $2.13 an hour. The idea behind the “tipped minimum wage” is that workers make the rest in gratuities — and while employers are supposed to make up the difference if tips fall short, they don’t always do so.
For that reason, restaurant workers and their advocates have long argued that ending the tipped minimum wage is necessary to fight harassment. Seven states have done so already, and the movement has gained steam with the rise of #MeToo. Legislation to require tipped workers to get the same minimum wage as other workers has been proposed recently in Massachusetts, as well as in cities like Chicago.
The House passed a bill in August that would raise the tipped minimum wage to meet the standard minimum wage (it’s unlikely to pass the Senate). The BE HEARD Act would also eliminate the tipped minimum wage.
Congress has reformed some of its process for staffers reporting sexual harassment
Since #MeToo entered its most public phase, allegations against legislators on both sides of the aisle — including Reps. Blake Farenthold, John Conyers, Trent Franks, and Sen. Al Franken — have drawn attention to the issue of sexual misconduct by members of Congress. Perhaps surprisingly, Congress has actually taken steps to reform itself as a workplace, as Li Zhou reported for Vox.
Last year, Congress passed legislation addressing a number of issues advocates had raised with its process for congressional employees to report harassment or assault. The law eliminated a mandatory three-month waiting period for people reporting misconduct, during which the survivor would have to go through counseling and mediation before filing a lawsuit. It also barred legislators from using taxpayer money to cover harassment settlements — last year, a report revealed that nearly $300,000 of taxpayer funds had been used for that purpose since 2003.
The law doesn’t do everything advocates wanted, Zhou notes; it doesn’t provide staffers with guaranteed legal counsel, for example. But by passing legislation to regulate itself, Congress at least started to address the problem.
Some survivors are getting financial restitution
Though the case began to come to light before #MeToo entered its current phase, the trial of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar has become one of the defining moments of the #MeToo era. Last January, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing more than 100 young athletes, in addition to an earlier 60-year sentence on child pornography charges. During his sentencing hearing, 163 people gave moving and at times heartbreaking testimony about how his abuse had harmed them and their families.
Nassar wasn’t the only one implicated in the case. Officials at Michigan State University, where he was a sports medicine physician, were accused of looking the other way and failing to act on athletes’ reports. After a private negotiation with lawyers for over 300 people, the university created a $500 million settlement fund. It was believed to be the largest such fund ever created by a university in response to a sexual abuse case, according to the New York Times. Through the fund, survivors could get between $250,000 and $2.5 million each.
While the Michigan State fund was one of the most high-profile settlements, monetary awards in sexual misconduct cases in general have risen in the #MeToo era. In 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed 41 sexual harassment lawsuits, more than a 50 percent increase over 2017, according to MarketWatch. The EEOC won $70 million from companies on behalf of harassment survivors in 2018, up 47 percent from 2017.
Americans have changed how they think about power
One of the biggest effects of the #MeToo movement has been to show Americans and people around the world how widespread sexual harassment, assault, and other misconduct really are. As more and more survivors spoke out, they learned they were not alone. And people who had never had cause to think about sexual harassment before suddenly saw how much it had affected their coworkers, children, parents, and friends.
All this has helped to change how many Americans think not just about sexual misconduct but also about gender and power. Those changes were especially evident in Americans’ reactions to the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford. According to a December 2018 poll by the research firm PerryUndem, those hearings made 50 percent of voters think about men having more power than women in government.
In a follow-up poll conducted by PerryUndem in September, 49 percent of voters and a full 76 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement that “one reason Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed is because white men want to hold onto their power in government.”
“We would’ve never seen this three or four years ago,” Tresa Undem, a partner at PerryUndem, told Vox at the time. Overall, she said, Americans are thinking more than ever about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how those with more power are trying to control those with less. There are a lot of reasons for that, including the election of Donald Trump, but #MeToo has been a significant driving force behind the change, she said.
There’s much the #MeToo movement has yet to accomplish, from changes in federal law to real safety for survivors who speak out, many of whom still face harsh repercussions. But two years after the movement began to make headlines around the country, its impact — in statehouses, in court, and in the conversations Americans are having with one another — is undeniable.