In October 2017, #MeToo went viral in response to reports of serial sexual abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein. “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” tweeted actor Alyssa Milano.
Within 24 hours, she had 14,000 retweets and 29,000 likes. Other celebrities tweeted about similar experiences, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman. Within days, over 200,000 people on Twitter had used #MeToo, flooding social media with women’s stories of sexual abuse. Milano’s tweet turbocharged a call first made in 2006 by Tarana Burke to use “Me Too” to help survivors stand up for themselves.
Five years later, has #MeToo made a difference?
The #MeToo campaign made widespread sexual abuse in the U.S. visible for the first time and inspired a record number of sexual harassment lawsuits against employers. Advocates raised over $24 million for a Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund based at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) to provide attorneys to women suing for sexual harassment. Advocates also fought for stronger laws against sexual harassment.
#MeToo exposed how our decades-old workplace anti-harassment laws were outdated and often ineffective. Sexual harassment became illegal in the 1980s, but employers had found ways to evade the law by hiring workers as independent contractors or requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements forfeiting their right to a fair and public trial. Wealthy abusers like Weinstein bought their victim’s silence with nondisclosure clauses in settlements. Meanwhile, conservative courts eroded sexual harassment laws and Congress failed to restore and update those laws.
The #MeToo movement succeeded in winning new, stronger laws across the country. According to a recent National Women’s Law Center report, 22 states and the District of Columbia passed more than 70 workplace anti-harassment bills in the last five years—many with bipartisan support
- 16 states prevented employers from requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements.
- 13 states implemented or strengthened anti-harassment training requirements.
- 10 states and D.C. expanded workplace harassment protections to more employers and workers, including domestic workers, interns, and volunteers; and nine states extended the statute of limitations for filing harassment claims.
However, the NWLC report says lawmakers failed to make other important updates to sexual harassment laws, including expanding the definition of sexual harassment beyond the most severe forms, allowing increased monetary relief to compensate survivors and protecting women of color and low-income women who are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse. Large swaths of the Midwest, South and Mountain States have done nothing to strengthen their laws or don’t even have anti-harassment laws, leaving millions of women with little protection against workplace sexual abuse.
At the federal level, some progress has been made.
In December 2021, Congress finally overhauled how the military handles sexual assault by creating independent military prosecutors to determine whether to bring charges.
In March 2022, Congress passed a law barring forced arbitration of workplace sexual assault and harassment claims.
To address sexual harassment at educational institutions, the Biden administration in July proposed new Title IX rules to restore Obama-era student survivor protections eliminated by the Trump administration. The new rules would provide full protection from sex-based harassment and require schools to take prompt and effective action to end harassment. They also require schools to provide trained, unbiased decision-makers and offer supportive measures to students bringing sexual harassment or assault complaints.
Despite these gains, some recent developments are discouraging, such as the National Academy awarding a Grammy to Louis C.K., the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial and verdict last summer, and the release of convicted rapist Bill Cosby. These cases indicate that U.S. rape culture persists and creates an environment where women and girls are disbelieved, survivors are discouraged from reporting abuse, and male abusers are forgiven—or even rewarded—for sexually abusive behavior.
Congress must do more. We need federal legislation to create a strong, uniform standard of protection for all workers across the country. Last November, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) reintroduced the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace Act. This workplace anti-harassment bill would extend protections to all workers, remove short statutes of limitations, limit the use of nondisclosure agreements, require and fund efforts to prevent workplace harassment, require the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to establish workplace training requirements, provide a model climate survey to employers, and ensure that tipped workers are entitled to the same minimum wage as other workers, making them less vulnerable to sexual harassment by customers.
Feminists named sexual harassment in May 1975 for a speakout in Ithaca, N.Y. Forty-two years later, we are still struggling to end this abusive behavior. The #MeToo movement has made tremendous strides over the last five years, but so much more remains to be done.
This story was originally published by The Daily Hampshire Gazette.
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