The term “sexual harassment” was first coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University when Carmita Wood, a former employee of Cornell, filed for unemployment after resigning from her job due to unwanted touching from her boss.
After the university denied Wood’s transfer request and, subsequently, her unemployment benefits, Wood along with others at the university formed what was called Working Women United. The group had an event where women – secretaries, waitresses, clerks, filmmakers, and more – shared their stories. A widely reprinted article in The New York Times used “sexual harassment” in its headline that August.
42 years later, on October 5, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times published an exposé detailing a catalogue of sexual harassment and assault claims against Hollywood giant, Harvey Weinstein. When the news broke, several actresses and Hollywood workers added to the accusations against Weinstein and propelled a surge of everyday women began sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and assault.
On October 16, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, alongside a picture, “if you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too.’” The tweet prompted a flood on social media with droves of sexual harassment and assault stories. However, the movement did not start with Milano; it started over 10 years ago with activist Tarana Burke.
Burke is the founder and director of Just Be Inc., a youth organization focused on the health, well-being, and wholeness of youth women of color, and her life’s work predated the use of hashtags.
When asked how she felt about the hashtag was picking up speed without her being credited, “I was worried,” said Burke, “because I have all these big plans for ‘Me Too.’ I’m working on a documentary for example. It has nothing to do with Hollywood and Harvey Weinstein. But then, as the day went on and I was watching it grow, I realized that it was beautiful. This is the thing that I always thought it could be. The vision I had was that words could help the victims of sexual violence. I loved watching it blossom into something amazing."
#MeToo has taken the world by storm, moving from Burke’s hands to seemingly everyone’s. A profound amount of people are speaking up in Hollywood, government, and all over the world. So far, more than 80 women have claimed to be sexually harassed or assaulted by Weinstein. Several men and women made sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey, resulting in the actor being dropped by his talent agency and losing roles in House of Cards and upcoming film All the Money in the World.
More than a dozen women have accused high-profile political journalist Mark Halperin of sexual harassment, leading to his losing deals for a TV news show, an upcoming book, and a movie. Congresswoman Jackie Speier detailed her allegations of sexual harassment and assault experienced as a young congressional staffer, calling Congress a “breeding ground for a hostile work environment,” and has asked other women on Capitol Hill to share their experiences with #MeTooCongress. Over 30 women claimed to be sexually harassed or raped by men in the European Parliament.
Alongside these public allegations are the hundreds of thousands of everyday people – students, entertainers, business professionals, and more – have come forward with stories their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. EDJA Foundation, an organization that combats sexual assault in sub-Saharan Africa, used “me too” in April to raise awareness. On October 24, Burke tweeted that 1.7 million people from 85 countries have used #MeToo. The number has since continued to grow.
The staggering number is a quantifiable way to see the result of rape culture. Sexual harassment and assault are not rare; it is this common. According to RAINN, America’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, someone experiences sexual assault every 98 seconds. But what do those numbers mean? Several issues came to the forefront; two of them were: the availability of resources to support survivors of sexual harassment and assault and the ignorance of their existence.
Burke worried that “people would say ‘me too’ and then not go to a rape crisis center.” This is a valid concern. The reason why it took years for allegations to be made against Weinstein, why the alarming majority of victims of sexual harassment and assault do not report it, is because of rape culture. Casting-couch, “boys will be boys,” “what was she wearing?”, “were you drunk?”, cat-calling, “men can’t be raped,” and countless other beliefs, assertions, and behaviors being normalized has formed and upheld rape culture. “I was part of a growing community of women who were secretly dealing with harassment by Harvey Weinstein,” Lupita Nyong’o wrote in her The New York Times op-ed. “But I also did not know that there was a world in which anybody would care about my experience with him.” Often, when people report sex crimes, they are met with unbelief, nonchalance, chastisement. Instead, they need to be met with belief, concern, and support.
People can help by validating survivors, encouraging others to speak up, and supporting organizations that fight sexual violence and provide resources to its survivors. The allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the magnitude of #MeToo has marked an important shift in the United States and the world – victims of sexual harassment and assault are speaking out like they have never done before. This momentum must continue until the world is free of sexual harassment and assault.