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The #MeToo campaign continues to rock our world. It has spread across the globe and crossed racial, economic, and other boundaries. The digital campaign gained traction on October 15, 2017, when—in response to allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein—actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet urging women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed to post a status on social media with the words “Me Too,” to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” When she awoke the next morning, she found that over 30,000 people had used #MeToo.
In fact, the campaign was created by a black woman, Tarana Burke, ten years ago, before hashtags even existed. Milano eventually tweeted that she was “made aware of an earlier #MeToo movement”—linking to Burke’s story—and the two have reportedly developed a friendship via text messages.
TIME magazine named these and other such “silence breakers” as their 2017 Person of the Year, profiling not only Milano and Burke, but numerous other women who have spoken out as part of the #MeToo movement. The TIME profile included women of diverse backgrounds, among them not only celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Ashley Judd, but also a Latino strawberry picker (identified only by a pseudonym, Isabel Pascual) and others. TIME photographed and shared the stories of several women of various racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, as well as of a couple of men, to illustrate the many faces of those who have experienced sexual harassment.
Besides hitting Hollywood, media, politics, national security, and other sectors, the movement has rapidly spread across the world—a mirror of the numerous women’s marches across the globe this past January. By early November, #MeToo had been tweeted 2.3 million times from eighty-five countries. According to CNN, 35 percent of women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence, and “120 million girls have experienced forced sex or other sexual acts.”
The digital campaign had real-world results. In the United Kingdom, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon quit the cabinet following revelations that he had "lunged" at journalist Jane Merrick when she was a 29-year-old reporter. In France, the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc—roughly translated as “snitch out your pig”—was conceived of by French journalist Sandra Muller (also profiled in the TIME Person of the Year issue). Italians began tweeting #QuellaVoltaChe, or “that time when.” In Spain, #YoTambien began trending. And a direct translation of #MeToo into Arabic has caught fire in parts of the Middle East and Africa. Indian tech writer and novelist, Pankaj Mishra, posted on Twitter: “India’s #Weinstein moment happened last year. Just that we choose to bury our head in sand. Heard of a man named Mahesh Murthy? #metoo.”
The social media analytics tool Talkwalker tweeted a map illustrating how the hashtag spread across the world—with over a million uses in two days. Twitter data as of early November showed that users in the United States, United Kingdom, India, France, and Canada used the hashtag #MeToo most heavily.
India is still reeling from the 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a woman who died after being brutally attacked by a group of men on a bus. In response, the Indian government enhanced punishments for sexual assault and created a $480 million fund for women’s safety initiatives. Despite these efforts, reported rapes are up 40 percent from 2012 (though this may reflect that more women are reporting rape—now that there is greater awareness that it’s a crime—rather than indicating a higher incidence of rape). More recently, the #MeToo campaign has been important in increasing public awareness of sexual assault, especially among men, said Namita Bhandare, a writer for the Hindustan Times. “The #MeToo (posts) made it evident how widespread it was, it was different from looking at a statistic or data,” she said. “A lot of my (male) friends said 'oh we didn't know, we had no idea it was widespread,' and these are fairly enlightened men.”
However, the #MeToo campaign has been somewhat less visible in the Arab world. According to reporting from CNN, “Experts believe that the burden of harassment and abuse there is as rife as in any other region but that the voices heard are few and far between.” Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World in Lebanon suggests that “There are so many reasons behind this silence….I've heard trickles ...[but] people are scared," in part due to norms that attach stigma and shame to speaking out.
A 2013 UN Women report found that 99 percent of women surveyed across seven regions in Egypt had experienced some form of sexual harassment. These survey results are amplified by a report by Harassmap—a company whose app allows women to flag unsafe neighborhoods of the Egyptian capital, Cairo—which indicated that “more than 95 percent of women sampled in the city had been harassed.”
In the Czech Republic, women’s rights activist Andrea Molocea noted, "What's happening now is fantastic and it's for the first time in our history as women that we can speak the same language of sorrow and despair and of subordination."
In Sweden, the king himself maintained that the campaign was having a positive effect: "It's probably good that you look under old rocks. In the end something good will probably come of this," he told Swedish newspaper, Kvällsposten.
In India, Bani Rachel Bali, who works on gender issues with her organization, Krantikali, told CNN that “I haven't seen a campaign that started in one corner of the world and replicated all across, so to see something like this really blow up and more than this being an online campaign ... I felt the presence of a sisterhood." Indeed, #MeToo is a powerful example of what international relations theorists call international norm diffusion.
At the same time, as Zephyr Teachout notes, the hasty push to force U.S. Senator Al Franken to resign, while other lawmakers remain in power, highlights the need for both due process and proportionality. Both at home and abroad, greater thought needs to go into developing procedures that are both responsive to survivors of sexual harassment and abuse, while protecting the rights of those accused.
While #MeToo has gone viral, the full legal, political, and cultural consequences have yet to be sorted. Plus, the recent Alabama special election to replace U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions highlighted the #MeToo campaign’s potency as well as its limits. Fifty-seven percent of women voted for Doug Jones, however, 63 percent of white women backed Jones’ opponent, Roy Moore, despite accusations that he sexually pursued, abused, or assaulted several teenage girls (whereas 98 percent of Black women backed Jones).
Nonetheless, the broader trajectory of the #MeToo campaign demonstrates the power of women as a group, along with the power of social media in building a global movement.
This piece was authored with support from Maiya Moncino, CFR research associate for international economics, and James Goebel, CFR intern for economic history.