For many of us, the fact of rampant sexual violence has always been an open secret. Women and and others who experience sexual harassment and violence survivors operated in whisper networks, warning each other of unsafe people and places. Even as high-profile instances of harassment, rape, and abuse periodically made headlines, legal and cultural norms diminished the severity of systemic, widespread sexual violence, often outright denying its existence or pervasiveness. But in the fall of 2017, after multiple women came forward to say they were assaulted by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, it was as if a dam had broken. Then came academia, tech, the law, politics, and sports. It was vindicating—we had been right this whole time. It felt as if, finally, the whole lot of us were finally proving our disbelievers wrong— but the reward was an unrelenting confrontation of the worst rape culture had to offer every day, in the news, on our social media feeds, and in our lives.
The #MeToo movement—the recent prominent iteration of the rallying cry originally created by Tarana Burke over a decade ago—has changed the national dialogue surrounding sexual violence, gender politics, and survivors’ justice. Exposés by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Jane Mayer, and Ronan Farrow, as well as a raft of individual disclosures, have resulted in the downfall of prominent men in a number of industries.
More than a year after the #MeToo movement went mainstream, progress is apparent, but what does the legal landscape look like for survivors demanding justice, and the advocates fighting for them? What does the shifting conversation around sexual violence mean in places where it’s not matched with intentional changes, particularly for people who lack the resources or the acclaim for their #MeToo stories to go viral?
The available numbers aren’t altogether decisive, but point to a shift. The legal website Above the Law reported in November that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has not reported an increase in sexual-harassment complaints in the first quarter of 2018, but since October of 2017, claims are up 12 percent. Preliminary data from the EEOC about the 2018 fiscal year also shows that the agency has reported a 50 percent increase in harassment lawsuits, the majority involving allegations of sexual harassment.
Colby Bruno is the Senior Legal Counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, the nation’s first nonprofit law center dedicated solely to the needs of sexual assault survivors. (Full disclosure: I interned at VRLC in the summer of 2018.) With offices on both coasts, the center provides survivors with pro bono civil legal assistance that addresses oft-overlooked needs like protecting a survivor’s privacy, helping to secure T or U Visa status for survivors who are immigrants, and helping to secure housing for those whose safety requires leaving their current homes.
From Bruno’s point of view, #MeToo has been “energizing.” “Men and women are speaking out about abuse and it’s helping reach victims that we were not able to reach before.” She’s seen more survivors seeking the help of the VRLC and organizations like it, in part because social media has empowered them to tell their stories. Bruno also notes that the VLRC has likewise seen an increase in attorneys interested in advocating for survivors; and that there’s been an increase in requests for their training services, which cover topics like working with survivors who are minors, and navigating Title IX and other policies that dictate how campus sexual assault is handled. She believes that advocates should continue to use whatever skill sets they have—media or legal expertise, educational connections, or something else—to help survivors: “Working together will only further the movement and change this culture.”
It’s not all good news though. Though social media has been indispensable in amplifying #MeToo, Bruno also realizes that it’s a place where survivors can face judgment, criticism, and harassment that can be detrimental to their healing. Bruno also says she still sees survivors reticent to come forward, particularly in spheres where institutions have historically failed those who have. Laws like Title IX, for example, remain misunderstood by universities; Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s latest proposed changes to Title IX—which include added protections for assailants and permission for assailants to cross-examine their accusers—stand as a stark example of not only how much improvement is needed, but of how easily these systems can be set back.
Systemic and widespread institutional change is still desperately needed in order to ensure that positive outcomes for sexual-violence survivors match the fervor with which advocates have embraced the ethos of the #MeToo movement. “I think all the stereotypes remain the same as they were 50 years ago. As a culture, we automatically blame the victim,” Bruno says. “We look for excuses to make it acceptable or palatable that someone was harmed. It’s awful, but we have not come very far in this area.”
“The most powerful movements have always been built around what’s possible, not just claiming what is right now.”
Tarana Burke spoke to this point during her recent TED Talk, “Me Too is a movement, not a moment.” She described the listlessness and numbness that comes with soldiering on in this movement, making incremental and felt changes while simultaneously watching Brett Kavanaugh be appointed to the Supreme Court and constantly being asked to consider the impact of #MeToo on the lives and careers of powerful men. But being reminded over and over, of how much work remains to be done shouldn’t deter us, she says.
“This is a movement about the one-in-four girls and the one-in-six boys who are sexually assaulted every year and carry those wounds into adulthood,” Burke asserts. “It’s about the 84 percent of trans women who will be sexually assaulted this year and the indigenous women who are three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group. Or people with disabilities, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused. It’s about the 60 percent of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18, and the thousands and thousands of low-wage workers who are being sexually harassed right now on jobs that they can’t afford to quit.”
The Me Too movement, she says, is the first step in this fight.
“And the most powerful movements,” she says, “have always been built around what’s possible, not just claiming what is right now.”
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