This is part one of #MeTooWhere?, Crikey’s exploration of the past, present and future of the Me Too movement. Read the introduction here.
The Me Too movement has done a remarkable job of achieving the first stage of change: awareness. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you could not have escaped the debate about the pervasiveness of sexual violence in society. Me Too gave a name to something women have always been aware of, and it encouraged people to tell their stories.
But women telling their stories is just the first step in a very long march to justice, and awareness-raising was only ever supposed to be one element of the movement. Awareness on its own can be detrimental, leading people to believe action is being taken — only to be left sorely disappointed.
Disclosures for the sake of disclosures
Disclosures can be cathartic. Talking about an assault can legitimise the reality of the abuse, while also providing survivors access to a support network.
But disclosures for disclosure’s sake can also be harmful — especially if not handled correctly.
Nina Funnell created the Let Her Speak campaign, which has changed laws gagging sexual assault survivors from speaking about their abuse.
“The trouble with many sexual assault movements is that over time they tend to devolve into mere awareness-raising vehicles,” she told Crikey. “The initial buzz and excitement around MeToo produced huge amounts of disclosure but that failed to translate into permanent or meaningful change.
“While disclosure for the sake of disclosure can be an end in and of itself, it can also retraumatise survivors by asking them to perform huge amounts of emotional labour for little long-term benefit.”
This was a huge problem with journalist Tracey Spicer’s efforts to organise Australia’s Me Too movement in 2017. She founded NOW, an organisation that aimed to triage services for survivors — but did so with minimal consultation with the sector, little research and questionable ethics, leading to hundreds of disclosures going ignored and $100,000 in donations largely wasted.
How a survivor’s disclosure is first responded to has a huge impact on whether they’ll tell anyone else about their experience. Survivors who spoke to Spicer said her silence made them question whether their abuse was significant enough to bother disclosing.
Funnell worries a similar trend will emerge after Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year with disclosures being sent to Tame, Funnell and Let Her Speak campaigners.
“It’s unethical to knowingly put anyone in a position where they become inundated with rape disclosure and not provide appropriate support, and yet that is exactly what The National Australia Day Committee have done to the campaign,” she said.
How important is calling out abusers?
Calling out alleged abusers in Australia is tough given we have some of the strictest defamation laws in the world.
Actor Geoffrey Rush was awarded a record $2.85 million after a judge ruled The Daily Telegraph had defamed him over a story detailing allegations that he had inappropriately touched fellow actor Eryn Jean Norvill during a Sydney Theatre Company production of King Lear — allegations that Rush denied.
The laws appear to serve to strengthen abusers’ powers. Last week court-released phone calls revealed how NRL player Jarryd Hayne brazenly dismissed his sexual assault of a woman which left her bleeding from the genitals: “I’ll get her for defamation easy.”
Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jacqueline Maley has covered the alleged sexual misconduct of several high-profile men, including former high court judge Dyson Heydon (a story published only after a High Court investigation found Heydon harassed several colleagues).
“Defamation is really the most powerful threat to freedom of speech in this country,” she said. “It has an incredibly chilling effect on reporting and it always seems to be to be used in the defence of powerful people.”
Publishing Me Too stories, she says, allows men see how pervasive and destructive sexual violence is.
“The public airing and public shaming is in itself quite a powerful preventive,” she said. “If a company is genuinely worried about the reputational risk that will affect shareholders … they’re not going to promote the guy who has the sexual harassment claim against him.”
But alone it will lead to slow, siloed change.
Focusing on an inquiry into Attorney-General Christian Porter’s suitability to hold office after allegations of historical rape (which he strenuously denies) might send a message, but it ultimately only affects one man. Some men who misunderstand the movement have balked at the idea of a “witch-hunt”.
A face to the movement
Another issue with awareness-raising is that often people become spokespersons — intentionally or unintentionally — for the movement. In Australia those representatives have been middle-class white women. Spicer and Tame are two such examples.
Yet the whole point of the movement was that it had no face. It affects every woman in one way or another — sexual violence does not discriminate, as Me Too founder Tarana Burke has said. Putting a face to the movement places enormous pressure on one person, and often overlooks the expert consultation and work that needs to be done behind the scenes.
As Funnell said: “Very often movements like Me Too also become overshadowed by charismatic individual figures who may galvanise support, but if they lack deep knowledge of the issue the momentum can be squandered, or merely leveraged for [the] personal gain of a few at the top.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Where does the Me Too movement need to go from here in order to create real change? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.
Next: Why focusing on women’s stories overlooks Australia’s hyper-masculine culture, and why challenging power is so important.