As Wake Forest minister John Pavlovitz watched his Facebook and Twitter feeds fill up in recent days with the proclamations of friends, family and acquaintances that they had been victims of sexual assault or harassment, he thought the wrong people were baring their souls.
The victims, most of whom are female, shouldn’t have to announce “Me too” on social media to help the world grasp the ubiquity of sexual violence and harassment, Pavlovitz wrote in his blog, “Stuff That Needs to be Said.” It should be the perpetrators and those whose silence allows the behavior to go on.
“We should not be expecting women to further make themselves vulnerable just to wake our consciences up and to call us to places of decency and accountability that we should already be aspiring to,” said Pavlovitz, who lives in Wake Forest and heads up the teen ministry for North Raleigh Community Church Downtown. As men, he wrote, “We should be the ones stepping from the shadows right now.”
On Sunday, in response to the scandal of disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is accused of sexual misconduct and harassment, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted an invitation to those who have been sexually assaulted or harassed to speak out by responding with the words “Me too.”
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Saying it was a friend’s idea, she wrote, “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.”
As the social media world embraced the #MeToo hashtag, men such as Pavlovitz joined the conversation, wondering how they could ease the pain their wives, sisters, mothers and friends have suffered, or how they could prevent it from occuring in the future. By midweek, #IHearYou started springing up on Twitter as an encouraging response.
“Guys, while we may not believe we have committed direct acts of violence against women (however given the statistics, this is quite likely), we have each participated in a culture of misogyny and sexism that continues to victimize and traumatize, to steal safety and generate fear, to deny humanity and to cultivate disrespect,” Pavlovitz wrote. “We are fully complicit in these #MeToo stories, whether we have intentionally acted, contributed unknowingly, nurtured with our silence, multiplied with our laughter, our cosigned with our credit cards.”
Tarana Burke, founder of Girls for Gender Equity, is credited with starting the “Me too” movement several years ago as a way to demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexual violence and to let survivors know they’re not alone.
“It’s beyond a hashtag,” Burke said on Twitter Sunday after Milano’s tweet took off. “It’s the start of a larger conversation and a movement for radical community healing.”
Rape and sexual assault on the rise
The incidence of violent crime in general went down in the country in 2015 compared to the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But the incidence of rape and sexual assault went up, from 1.1 per 1,000 people aged 12 or older to 1.6.
The Weinstein scandal started to unfurl after an Oct. 5 New York Times report and a subsequent New Yorker investigation alleged that the producer had sexually harassed or assaulted women over the years, and in some instances paid off accusers. A few women have alleged that Weinstein raped them. Weinstein has denied the allegations.
But the situation has brought attention to sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. The women Weinstein is accused of harassing worked – or hoped to work – in the film industry.
Sexual assault is prosecuted under criminal law. Sexual harassment can be prosecuted as a civil rights violation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which treats it as a form of sex discrimination.
The law applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It’s defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
The EEOC says prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, which should be done by clearly communicating to employees that it won’t be tolerated; by providing training and establishing an effective complaint process; and by taking immediate, appropriate action when a complaint is made.
State Rep. Graig Meyer, a Hillsborough Democrat, used the Me Too campaign to say on Facebook that he was struck by the volume of survivors’ voices. Meyer introduced legislation in the General Assembly in 2015 to try to help deal with sexual assault on college campuses. The bill did not get out of committee.
But legislation primarily deals with offenses after the fact, Meyer said Wednesday.
“What’s more important is that we stop people from harassing or assaulting others in the first place, and that’s only going to happen with a change in consciousness.”
Anne Hedgepeth, who works for the American Association of University Women, said she agrees with Pavlovitz. She is interim vice president of public policy and government relations for the Washington-based non-profit that advocates for equity for women and girls.
While the “Me too” campaign may be effective at drawing attention to the problem, she said those who proclaim it should not have to do the work alone.
“It will matter what follows from it,” Hedgepeth said. “It is important for survivors to have a space to share their stories if they want to. But will we stop forcing them to carry the burden of convincing society that this is a problem they need to stop?”