/ 1 December 2017

#MeToo is about changing behaviour

(Graphic: John McCann)
(Graphic: John McCann)


A month ago, more than 1.7-million #MeToo tweets from 85 countries had been published by people identifying as, or aligning to, victims of unwanted sexual misconduct.

According to PRCO Studio, as of October 18, about 30% of them were men. At about the same time, Facebook announced that there had been more than 12-million mentions of #MeToo within 24 hours by 4.7-million users worldwide.

The hashtag is the brainchild of social activist Tarana Burke, who has been around since MySpace days. It took off after actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet encouraging people to use of the hashtag following Jodi Kantor’s and Megan Twohey’s New York Times exposé on Harvey Weinstein.

Burke’s initial idea was to empathise with and empower victims of sexual abuse by shifting experiences of sexual assault from the private to the public.

#MeToo is a microcosm of human behaviour and the factors that shape it over time. Looking at the stories that emerged in the media and on social networks, two continuums emerge.

One continuum is a reoccurrence of abhorrent human behaviour over time. At one end is unwanted inappropriate behaviour and at the other is sexual abuse. Between them is a range of behaviours such as lascivious conduct, sexual harassment and other come-ons.

This continuum could be single incidents from different experiences from different people, in order of severity. It could also be a gradual increase in severity in one person’s experience with either one man or various men throughout their life, an indication of how inappropriate behaviour, when unchecked, can go all the way to sexual abuse.

It is unfair to suggest that some forms of inappropriate behaviour and sexual abuse are more severe than others.

We all have differing capacity to handle these experiences. Privilege affords us social capital that can protect us from sexual inappropriateness and abuse: class, able-bodiedness, age or mental health.

For example, a young girl living with disabilities, mental illness and in poverty is more vulnerable to predatory male behaviour than an older, middle-class woman living in a gated community. That being said, #MeToo has shown us that sometimes even these layers of privilege do not necessarily insulate women from sexual deviance.

The second continuum is about disclosure. On one end of this plane is absolute privacy, when a victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour keeps it to themselves. The other end is when they share their experiences openly. The undisclosed end could be a picture of how the 1970s (and before) were for women, and for many women this picture remains today. They couldn’t share their experiences of abuse for many reasons: the powers that be didn’t care, victims would be further victimised, there were no laws to protect them and the shame associated with being abused.

This is not to say victims of abuse are sharing enough, or that people do not feel shamed if they are sexually abused in today’s world. Although there is relatively more sharing, there are still many stories that will not see the light of day, yet should.

This continuum is dynamic and with it comes considerations of time, technology and socioeconomics. For instance, technology that facilitates the sharing of human experiences, such as the internet, social media and smartphone proliferation, lives here. The evolution of human rights from a patriarchal, male-centred world in which women’s rights were not a consideration to now when women’s rights are integral in human rights also lives here.

If we plot these two planes into a graph, we get a considerable range of people’s experiences with sexual inappropriateness and abuse, and how those experiences occupy real estate in public and private discourse over time. Experiences that wouldn’t have seen the light of day and those openly known.

It’s also a picture of how far we have come from a technology perspective and socioeconomically, the meaningful impact of these factors in people’s lives, and how much still needs to be done.

First, and this bears repeating, the behaviour of many men, mostly older and powerful, which emboldens many younger or less powerful men to follow suit, needs redress. #MeToo publicised what has long been private conversations among women.

In Westminster in the United Kingdom, there is a WhatsApp group of women who have been sharing their experiences about MPs who have come on to them. Saturday Night Live, after the Weinstein exposé, did a skit enacting an imagined roundtable of Hollywood actresses discussing sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.

Conversations between women are happening, and have been for decades. It’s time for men to step in. Thirty percent of the #MeToo tweets came from men. That’s considerable. All the men who supported women sharing their stories are part of the solution, because sexism, systemic and individual, is everyone’s problem.

So online and in real life, he should be for she in furthering an anti-sexist narrative, not just reactively, but actively.

Weinstein’s legal counsel called him “an old dinosaur learning new tricks” and, in his apology, he excused himself by saying he came of age in the 1960s and 1970s and “that was the culture back then”.

This is no excuse. Yet, it is steeped in truth. For a long time, many industries have little regard for creating safe spaces of work for women. Advertising was one of them — watching Mad Men is indication enough of what it was like to be a woman in a boys’ club.

Today, many industries are still led by old dinosaurs, men who were sired and marinated in worlds where women were only good enough to get coffee or to be used for their own amusement. The traction that a movement like #MeToo has received is an urgent call — if the progress of the past few decades is not enough — these dinosaurs need to learn new tricks, which, in my opinion, are not new tricks really, just decent human behaviour.

The relative autonomy that technology gives people to express themselves, the reach of internet-based platforms and the ability of audiences to congregate around interests and issues is revolutionary.

I believe that #MeToo has moved the needle of intersectional feminism to the point where we are easily entering, if not cementing, the next wave of intersectional feminism. Giving people a voice, amplifying that voice to reach millions at the click of a button, and facilitating allyship and community — that is the core of effective 21st-century activism.

#MeToo stories are painful and that many women can relate to them — anywhere along the continuum of human behaviour — is angering. My hope is that this viral campaign doesn’t die but that it lives on as an archive of stories we can visit over and over again to keep us focused on being better to women.

Because of the democratisation of technology, everyone’s ability to access community platforms and get involved is one of the very reasons why #MeToo was successful. It is also one of the very reasons why it attracted a lot of noise — not the noise from men who felt threatened by the movement or meninists.

Noise from women who blame victims and police for their behaviour instead of advocating for the change of men. Or noise from women who jumped on to the bandwagon with stories that had little to do with actual sexual appropriateness.

I am in no way policing people’s right to participate in this discussion but there is a clear message that women want society to get and any noise diverts attention from the crux of the matter.

#MeToo is about moving the needle on the disclosure continuum from private to public to influence behaviour. Let’s not lose sight of that.

As Burke says about #MeToo: “It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow … It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”

Through #MeToo, the North Star is to reduce incidents of sexual abuse and, where there are, we hope the victims feel empowered and safe enough, with the right technology and access to resources, to share their experiences and be instrumental in effecting change.

Lynn Madeley is the chief executive of Havas Southern Africa, a global communications group headquartered in Johannesburg