Why #MeToo remains a rallying cry for sexual abuse survivors
A new book examines how narrative activism has empowered women
Six years after #MeToo became a viral hashtag on Twitter because of survivors recounting their stories of sexual abuse, the cultural impact is still being felt.
Leigh Gilmore, author of the recent book The #MeToo Effect: What Happens When We Believe Women, said the reason the movement has continued to thrive is that it offers survivors an opportunity to seek justice in a way that hasn’t been available through the legal system or other means.
“MeToo has shifted the response to sexual violence from doubting all the victims to believing some of them. It hasn’t solved all of the problems, but at least some survivors are now being believed,” said Gilmore, professor emerita of English at The Ohio State University.
The MeToo movement was founded in 2006 by American activist Tarana Burke. The #MeToo hashtag was first used on Twitter in 2017 to expose revelations of sexual abuse in Hollywood.
The #MeToo Effect is not Gilmore’s first book to explore literature, law, and contemporary events through the lens of the humanities.
As a professor of literature and gender studies, Gilmore said she has been interested in examining the relationship between cultural phenomena such as violence, trauma, judgment and doubt as it relates to literature. That resulted in her book Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, which came out early in 2017 – right before the #MeToo hashtag went viral.
“I honestly thought #MeToo would be short-lived. I thought the window had opened briefly, that a few people might shift their attitudes, and then the public conversation would move on to something else,” she said.
“But as a news story and cultural event, it did not subside, and that is what gave rise to the research project that led to this new book.”
Many of the abuse narratives were shared on the social media site Twitter, where the #MeToo hashtag became ubiquitous in the months after it was first used. As the group credibility of survivors rose, more and more women were inspired to share their stories.
Data on Twitter shows that people posted #MeToo after seeing an average of six of their contacts do the same, Gilmore said.
“It’s hard to imagine #MeToo happening without Twitter,” she said. “It didn’t cause the movement, but it enabled it.”
Gilmore ties #MeToo to a long tradition of narrative activism, which she defines as storytelling in the service of social change.
“Narrative activism propels #MeToo beyond courts and isolated cases into a global movement with the survivors as authorities on sexual violence,” said Gilmore, who is a core faculty member in Ohio State’s Project Narrative.
“The #MeToo effect that I mention in the title of the book describes two related processes: first, the coalescing of individual stories of sexual abuse into a collective witness that can’t be ignored and second, the transmission of that collective credibility throughout institutions and intimate life.”
The judicial system has always been a problematic place for women to seek justice for sexual violence, Gilmore said.
Courts have been “indifferent and hostile” to women who have brought claims of sexual abuse – so much so that many women describe the process as being revictimized.
One obstacle to women gaining a fair hearing is the “he said, she said” approach that the judicial system takes, Gilmore said: Women have traditionally been doubted more than men in our culture, so sexual abuse survivors already begin the process on unequal footing.
Skepticism of women’s claims in court often feels to many people like the rational approach, Gilmore said.
“It feels like we should say, ‘Hey wait a minute, we don’t want to get involved in a witch hunt here. There are two sides to every story. Nobody knows what really happened,’” she said. These represent default narratives of women’s unreliability rather than a reasoned approach to facts.
“Our feelings of protection and fairness more often are directed at abusers than at victims because we are habituated to give some men the benefit of the doubt and to take it away from most women.”
That means courts cannot be the only place to address issues of sexual violence, Gilmore said.
“Narrative activism is essential because it vaults the stories out of the courts and into the public square, where it is not just a ‘he said, she said’ story. Autobiographical stories can offer a fuller context.”
Gilmore said an important aspect of narrative activism is that it can give more than just two points of view. What the humanities can bring to a chronic societal problem like sexual violence is understanding the participants differently.
“In the book I talk about shifting from this binary of ‘he said, she said’ into a theater of participation where there aren’t just victims and perpetrators,” Gilmore explained.
“There are perpetrators, but also enablers, bystanders, and beneficiaries. So, too, there are whistle blowers and other frustrated supporters. All have their roles in the story.”
Especially in journalistic stories, there is the opportunity to look at patterns, the roles of others in incidents of abuse, and how abusers’ actions can be hidden and shielded by powerful organizations, she said.
An important part of narrative activism is what Gilmore calls “survivor reading” – the role people play when they read #MeToo accounts.
Survivor reading means that readers hear the stories without reflexively applying judgment and doubt to them, Gilmore explained.
“We should give these accounts the same kind of care and sympathy we give to characters we see in shows, movies and books,” she said.
“We can learn to give some of that generosity to survivors. What would it mean if we listened to and believed this person? What else is going on in this story beyond what he said and what she said? Whose stories can’t be heard?”
What is clear is that #MeToo is still relevant and still having an impact, Gilmore said.
“The #MeToo movement clarified that many of us are looking for a better way to understand sexual violence in order to change our culture to be less violent and more fair,” she said.
“What we want is to enable healing and justice for survivors, on one hand, and accountability for abusers and institutions, on the other. #MeToo can’t fix everything, but it has already done some good and it has the opportunity to do much more.”