When Tarana Burke was asked recently where the #MeToo movement she gave birth to needed to go from here, she was unequivocal: beyond the narrow borders of its initial Hollywood-centric focus to help women in less glamourous walks of life who are dealing with sexual assault and harassment on a daily basis.
For the campaign to have a lasting legacy, in other words, it had to be about more than just the struggles of mostly wealthy, white actresses.
“The #MeToo movement is a survivor’s movement,” the civil rights activist told a public gathering in New York. “And it’s for everybody. I just want to make that point extra clear.”
It’s been nine months since The New York Times and The New Yorker’s explosive reporting on the predatory behaviour of mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a public reckoning around the conduct of men in the workplace and the issue of sexual violence more broadly. And while #MeToo incited a viral coming-out among women worldwide, each with their own story of unwelcome (to downright scary) sexual advances by men, the spotlight remained largely on the famous actresses and others in the entertainment industry who started naming names.
The courage it took these women to come forward should never be forgotten, especially given the opportunity their heartbreaking testimonials created to fundamentally reshape men’s attitudes around matters such as consent and harassment. But of course, we all knew the problem existed far beyond the borders of Tinseltown, in workplaces where women occupied jobs that were far less dazzling than that of actress, in settings in which they are far more vulnerable than the average middle- or upper-class white woman in North America.
The extent to which this is the case has been chronicled in a new book by Bernice Yeung, In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers. As much as #MeToo has given us a reason to celebrate the change it has wrought, this book brings us all back down to earth. Away from the powerful lights of Hollywood, there are women picking fruit in fields and cleaning hotel bathrooms dealing with horrible, disgusting abuse.
One case that Ms. Yeung cites is a the female farm worker who is taken into a shed by her supervisor who warns her to demonstrate more enthusiasm while being raped or he’ll slit her throat with a pair of garden shears. When he’s finished, he wins her silence by threatening to kill her children in Mexico and fire her brother and sister who are working on the same farm. Another is the hotel worker who is raped and impregnated by her boss. Another is the janitorial worker put under the supervision of a convicted sex offender who delights in making obscene comments to her and groping her body.
Many of the women Ms. Yeung talked to had the same reason for not reporting the crimes committed against them: It was too difficult to speak up. They were single mothers who couldn’t afford to lose their jobs. Some of the victims were undocumented workers who feared being sent back to their country of origin if they went to the police.
In cases where women went to their unions with complaints of sexual harassment, those unions were not always helpful. The fact is, many men in positions of authority still regard complaints about a leering co-worker or someone making inappropriate sexually laced comments as trivial. They refuse to understand how that attitude poisons the workplace for all women.
In a Day’s Work is a difficult and infuriating read. I’ve encountered guys who don’t have a clue about what it means to respect a woman’s right to work in an environment free of harassment or sexual violence and intimidation of any kind. They are complete low-lifes who seem beyond rehabilitation. Still, men behaving badly have to continue to be called out – and not just by women.
There was a good reason why men were urged to be quiet and listen when the #MeToo moment first arrived. It was important to understand the full depths of the complaints being leveled against them without any excuse-making or appeals for understanding. But it’s time men got far more involved in the discussion now; we all need to become fierce advocates and allies in this fight. Stephen Colbert, for example, recently used his TV platform to speak about importance of accountability in light of the Les Moonves allegations – but it has to be more than just male celebrities who are driving this issue. It has to be men in everyday walks of life.
The issues that #MeToo brought to the fore aren’t women’s to solve. They are men’s. And there needs to be a broader conversation now about how that can happen.