In 2006, a sexual abuse survivor named Tarana Burke launched a grassroots movement to help give other survivors a voice and a sense of community, as well as to raise awareness to prevent future incidents of sexual violence. To create a sense of solidarity, she aptly named her initiative the “Me Too” movement.
Eleven years later, the #MeToo movement was suddenly thrust into the international conversation when the New York Times published an article alleging a longtime pattern of sexual abuse by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. As the #MeToo hashtag went viral across social media, millions of victimized women found a fresh sense of empowerment, and millions of the rest of us were dismayed to discover just how many of our sisters, wives, and friends had quietly endured various forms of sexual harassment and abuse over the years.
As more allegations came to light and more high-profile public figures went down in disgrace (over 200 by the last count), it became clear that this movement would spearhead a cultural shift—not just regarding incidents of overt sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace and otherwise, but also redefining what was considered appropriate behavior and conversation, particularly in the workplace. While many celebrated the shift as ushering in a long-overdue era of female empowerment, others were left in a state of confusion as seemingly innocent flirtations and the occasional off-color joke, once assumed to be harmless, were now looked upon as offensive. Many began second-guessing their every interaction with the opposite sex and grappling to figure out what was acceptable in the “new normal.” Still others feared the movement might swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, endangering the careers of innocent individuals on the power of unsubstantiated testimonies and creating the assumption of guilt until innocence was proven.
If you happen to be among those who feel confused by this cultural change, the good news is that the basic concepts behind #MeToo are fairly straightforward. The challenges and dangers lie in the realm of assumption and intention because we all have different backgrounds and perspectives, and what offends one person might not necessarily offend another. Let’s explore some of the ways the #MeToo movement is reshaping our culture and our dialogue, and how you can navigate these changes successfully if you’re currently struggling to do so.
What Is Changing
First, let’s take a look at some of the more tangible or measurable changes we are seeing as a direct or indirect result of #MeToo, just to gain perspective:
- Many states are changing their NDA laws. Historically, sexual predators in positions of influence have used non-disclosure agreements as a means to legally prevent their victims and other witnesses from exposing them. A growing number of states, including California, are banning the use of NDAs to cover sexual harassment.
- States are clarifying and expanding workplace protections. Laws against sexual harassment have been on the books for decades, but states like New York and California are now closing up some of the loopholes, adding specific protections for independent contractors and domestic workers, for example.
- Workplace employees are changing their behaviors in response to the movement. A recent AP survey showed that 1 in 3 workers have specifically changed the way they behave in the office. In the same survey, 40 percent of Americans say their workplace has initiated some form of sexual harassment training.
Navigating the Changes
At the very least, these and other developments serve as evidence that #MeToo is not a passing fad, but is, in fact, serving as an agent for lasting change. What can you do to respond positively to this changing culture, and how can you avoid causing offense, whether inadvertently or otherwise? Generally speaking, common sense will rule the day, but let’s talk some specifics worth mentioning.
Mutual respect is the compass. While the #MeToo movement began as a response to sexual abuse and harassment, the conversation has since expanded to include how to act respectfully toward the opposite sex—from personal behavior to equal pay. Ultimately, the movement is pointing toward a culture of mutual respect—most specifically, eliminating mindsets that objectify women. You can lean into this new culture simply by acting with respect and behaving according to the Golden Rule. Treat others—both men and women—as you would want to be treated. If you would be uncomfortable with someone ogling you, making off-color remarks about your appearance or commenting on your choice of clothes—don’t do it to others, especially not based on their gender.
Don’t make assumptions. You might consider your offhanded remarks toward a co-worker to be harmless, but don’t assume she feels the same way, even if she says nothing. When in doubt, clear the air and ask if your behavior or comments are offensive. If they are, apologize and change your behavior.
No is always no. Period. The days of treating “no” as simply playing hard-to-get are over. Consent can no longer be assumed; it must be clarified.
The risks of being falsely accused are low. Most people are generally reluctant to discuss their sexual experiences publicly (whether wanted or unwanted) because it makes them feel vulnerable or embarrassed. Since coming forward comes at a personal cost, it’s rare that someone would do it simply to spite someone else. If you haven’t done wrong, you have nothing to worry about.
Second-guessing is a healthy sign. True sexual harassment is not accidental. If you’re troubled about the possibility that you’ve sexually harassed someone by accident, you probably haven’t. A perpetrator would have a much different, more defensive response. You may or may not have been inappropriate or offensive, but offenses can usually be rectified with an apology.
The #MeToo movement has opened up some very important conversations, empowering women to say no to a culture that has previously winked its eye at sexual harassment and abuse. That said, remember that the cultural shift really points to building a new atmosphere of respect. (There are no victims when people respect each other.) Learn to give each person the respect he or she deserves, and you’ll generally have no trouble understanding the boundaries of what is appropriate.
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