A year into #MeToo, survivors' stories resonate online and off: experts

A year into #MeToo, survivors' stories resonate online and off: experts

Jenny Wright remembers scrolling through her social media feed a year ago to find "every single woman" on her Facebook page issuing the same simple declaration: #MeToo.

As the executive director of the St. John's Status of Women Council in Newfoundland, Wright was all too familiar with the far-reaching impacts of sexual violence in Canada. But it was not only fellow activists who were coming forward as survivors, she said — a chorus of women across backgrounds and ideologies were breaking their silence.

"To sit back and to bear witness to everyone's experience, I think it created this creative spring of strength and it inspired others to come through and tell their stories," said Wright. "With #MeToo, it just hit a tipping point that I don't think we've seen before, and it continues to resonate through everything."

On Oct. 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a call for survivors of sexual assault and harassment to post "me too" on social media to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of the issue, popularizing the movement that had been founded by civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006.

In the past year, #MeToo has toppled men in the highest echelons of power, and galvanized a wave of activism that has reverberated both online and on the ground.

Wright estimated that the Council has seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of survivors who have sought help to deal with their encounters with sexual violence, many of whom had been suffering in silence for decades.

She said the next frontier of #MeToo will be to channel the "collective trauma" the movement has unearthed to dismantle the systemic forces that have enabled sexual violence and "burn it all down."

And while some critics have sought to dismiss #MeToo as "hashtag activism," Wright warned that they should not underestimate the power of survivors sharing their experiences.

"I think we've seen some amazing ways in which women have fought back against sexual violence and found support through social media ... and this has created a profound change."

Jessalynn Keller, a media studies professor at the University of Calgary who studies digital feminism, said there is a "faulty binary" between the activism that occurs online and in so-called "real life." For proof of that, she said, one has to look no further than #BeenRapedNeverReported, which trended in 2014 after disgraced former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was accused of sexual assault.

Ghomeshi was acquitted in March 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants. In May 2016, he apologized to a fourth complainant and signed a peace bond that saw another count of sexual assault withdrawn.

In a May paper published in the European Journal of Women’s Studies, Keller and other researchers point to #BeenRapedNeverReported as a case study in the ways social media helps survivors not only draw support from one another, but recognize that their individual experiences are part of a wider social problem.

"It's about sharing personal stories and in doing so realizing that those personal stories are actually political issues," Keller said in an interview.

"What started as sharing an individual story actually becomes motivation for becoming an activist ...  and that speaks to the fact that this type of activism is doing something beyond just a few people having a conversation online."

Keller said several social media users told her research team they were not engaged in women's issues before participating in hashtags like #BeenRapedNeverReported, but now identified as feminist activists.

"The first place I heard about feminism was on the internet. Feminism saved my life," one of the participants told researchers. "The internet has the ability to reach so many people, and if it can change my life, it can change theirs. I definitely see internet feminism as a form of activism with the potential to change society."

The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court despite facing allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied, has prompted some feminists to question whether survivors should be asked to air their traumas before a society who may not listen, or worse, go on the offensive, said Keller.

She said the backlash to #MeToo represents the "last gasps by the patriarchy" to thwart a movement that threatens its existence.    

Whatever their costs, Keller said online campaigns like #MeToo have thrust the issue of sexual violence into the mainstream, which over time, will hopefully translate into change in the real world.

"Of course, we'd all love to see change in institutions and policies and regulations, but we're not going to see those overnight because #MeToo trended on Twitter," she said. "I don't see the conversation slowing down any time soon ... so we'll have to see what happens."

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press