The bleak crowdsourcing exercise of #MeToo commandeered my Facebook wall Monday. Teachers, painters, public servants, journalists and hairdressers from their 20s right up to their late 60s typed in the words "me too," publicly signalling for the first time that they, too, experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault at some point in their lives. The cumulative effect of my Facefriends' revelations was deadening.
After Harvey Weinstein's body count tipped at least 30 women last week, actor Alyssa Milano launched the #MeToo hashtag campaign on Twitter as a collective scream. Ms. Milano's hope was to give the world "a sense of the magnitude of the problem" of sexual abuse against women. Her tweet prompted quick affirmatives from celebrities Lady Gaga, Rosario Dawson, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Paquin. In a mere day, more than half a million tweets featured the #MeToo hashtag, with thousands of women recounting visceral memories of sexual violence.
The floodgates have opened and the deluge won't stop. Across various social-media platforms, women are coming out in droves to divulge the day (or days) they "got Harveyed," which is now depressing shorthand for the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment under monstrous, entitled bosses such as Mr. Weinstein, who get to pull the strings as women's professional executioners.
Before #MeToo, Toronto writer Anne T. Donahue asked the people of Twitter, "When did you meet YOUR Harvey Weinstein? I'll go first: I was a 17-yr-old co-op student and he insisted on massaging my shoulders as I typed." Thousands of women recalled disturbing encounters with their doctors, high-school chemistry teachers and driving instructors. France's version was the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, which loosely translates to "squeal on your pig." French journalist Sandra Muller started this one up, outing a former boss who propositioned her with, "You have big breasts. You're my kind of woman." Ms. Muller argued that this kind of sharing online is liberating for women who don't speak up in professional settings because of very real fears of reprisals. Online, there is strength in numbers.
Critical mass. Catharsis. Raising awareness. They are the buzzwords of such revelatory, grassroots hashtag campaigns. Before #MeToo, there was 2014's #YesAllWomen, which motivated women to go public with their experiences with misogyny. Also that year, the Canadian initiative #BeenRapedNeverReported encouraged women to speak up as allegations of sexual assault emerged against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.
In other words, we've been "raising awareness" this way since at least 2014. If it wasn't clear from the mountains of painful revelations such hashtags spur on, then it should be crystal clear from Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes and now Harvey Weinstein that sexual harassment is a near-universal reality for women.
But is awareness actually the problem? Just how many hundreds of thousands of stories will it take to convince those who haven't suffered sexual abuse that the issue is real and life altering? What is the precise threshold of tweets and Facebook status updates to change a perpetrator's mind?
While hashtag campaigns can feel empowering for women who have previously remained silent, stating the prevalence of sexual assault is not a finish line. It's the beginning of a conversation – the very bare minimum – not an endpoint.
What needs more airtime? Concrete measures for enacting cultural and institutional change – conversations more complicated than hashtagged confessions. From the ground up, we need to start with schools imparting deeper knowledge to young minds about consent, empathy, entitlement, bodily autonomy and bystander behaviour. We need real protections for women at work, including stronger unions. We need to start looking at potent deterrence for perpetrators and their enablers, be that through the court system or through robust independent reviews in the workplace.
Ultimately, we need to ask why we still leave the heavy lifting to survivors. Critics of Ms. Milano's hashtag such as journalist Helen Rosner pointed out that the words "me too" focus on women's victimization, rather on predation. Others suggested that abusers take up the handle "me too" to fess up what they've been up to. A somewhat more hopeful hashtag emerged Monday: #HowIWillChange featured guys taking the lead on the issue, promising not to stand by doing nothing and to take survivors at their word.
For victims, there is heavy emotional labour involved in outing yourself and sharing your horror story with the world, let alone on a warm and fuzzy social-media platform such as Twitter. For years, victims have shared and shared only to see momentum stall and the issue fade out of view until the next iteration of Cosby or Weinstein. This time around, we'd be wise to focus on which lessons should stick.