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How #MeToo lets any woman speak out on sexual harassment: Teitel

Even those who shrug at feminism found their voice in an understated and truly populist social media campaign.

Hundreds of thousands of women have answered actress Alyssa Milano’s call and taken to social media to write “Me too” into their status updates to show the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment.

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Hundreds of thousands of women have answered actress Alyssa Milano’s call and taken to social media to write “Me too” into their status updates to show the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment.

Harvey Weinstein has retreated. The Hollywood mogul accused of sexually harassing and assaulting more than a dozen women in the entertainment industry is reportedly hiding out in Arizona where he will seek counselling for a supposed sex addiction.

In other words, we have reached the part of this story where the monster fades from view, and in his place a conversation begins about what those opposed to monstrous behaviour ought to do.

In other words, we have reached the part of the story where a new feminist hashtag is born.

In this case that hashtag is #MeToo, the brainchild of actor and activist Alyssa Milano and an unnamed friend. On Sunday Milano tweeted the following: “Suggested by a friend. 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.”

The magnitude of the problem, if it could be measured like an earthquake, is off the charts. Hundreds of thousands of women have answered Milano’s call and taken to social media to write “Me too” into their status updates, from celebrities Evan Rachel Wood and Lady Gaga, to activists, to regular people who have never contributed to an online social justice campaign in their lives. I opened Facebook Monday morning and I honestly thought for a moment there was a glitch in my phone because as far as the thumb could scroll, there it was: “me too,” “me too,” “me too.”

Ditto. Like pretty much every woman on earth I’ve also experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault, ranging from the benign (a mentally disturbed homeless man called me a dirty c--- last week) to the scary (one night in university a guy who lived next door walked into my house and crawled into my bed. I managed to chase him out the front door, and later in an act of revenge my friends and I stole his hockey equipment from his backyard). None of this left me permanently traumatized — in fact the hockey bag heist is one of my fondest memories of college — but that’s not really the point. The point is that it happened. The point is that #MeToo has no fixed terms or agenda. Its ambiguity and open-endedness invites women to tell as much or as little as they like.

Of course there are those, like English feminist writer Julie Bindel who would prefer that the #MeToo campaign had a little more gravitas. Bindel tweeted recently:

“No need for the ‘me too’ thing if we could admit that it is every single female on the planet. We need to be saying ‘not me’ in resistance!”

Ironically though, what Bindel and critics like her fail to recognize is that the power of the hashtag lies in its total rejection of resistance. It is open-ended, and therefore accessible.

This is what separates it, in a sense, from some of the feminist social media movements that came before it, such as #YesAllWomen (the hashtag that emerged after the 2014 Isla Vista killings in which 22-year-old Elliot Rodger murdered six people) and #BeenRapedNeverReported (the hashtag that emerged in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi assault allegations). Where these hashtags provoked brave and disturbing details about personal tragedy, the participants of #MeToo appear more reserved. In my corner of social media, I’ve seen only a handful of people venture beyond the hashtag to reveal a personal story.

Perhaps this is why the hashtag seems to have resonated outside the activist tent. In fact, what surprised me most about its presence in my Facebook feed this morning wasn’t simply that it showed up so many times but that the women using it defied expectations. Which is to say, they weren’t exclusively committed feminists who opine about rape culture on a regular basis. On the contrary, they are women I know who normally avoid such topics like the plague. They are girls I went to high school with whose first instinct when asked if they are feminists is to shrug. They are girls who do not, as a general rule, ruffle any feathers or rock any boats. And yet in this context, in this moment, they broke with tradition.

I believe they did this because #MeToo is a truly populist hashtag. It enables women who are wary of feminism and left-wing ideology to publicly acknowledge their experiences of harassment and assault in a seemingly apolitical fashion. It allows them to say, “Something happened to me, period,” without making a case for what ought to be done to prevent such things from happening in the future. It gives voice to the vulnerable without asking that they make a statement. And most importantly, it helps otherwise apathetic women turn to feminism in their own quiet way.

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