#MeToo is more than a hashtag. Although it isn’t as present in media anymore, its impact resonates throughout campus.
Kelli Matthews, a University of Oregon public relations professor, made this quite clear as she recalled the sexual harassment that led to a lawsuit.
Over 20 years after she quit her job as a hostess for a hotel’s two restaurants in Portland, Matthews sat at her desk motioning around her to describe how her manager would squeeze himself behind her in the small area behind the hostess station and tell her to go flirt with men at the bar, so they would spend more money.
As an 18-year-old in the mid ’90s, she wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t know if what she was experiencing was even something to complain about but ended up sharing with a friend and fellow co-worker, who Matthews learned had been experiencing similar situations. The two of them and another woman at the restaurant filed a lawsuit for sexual harassment, with the advising from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
This story is not unique. With the viral #MeToo came a wave of people identifying as survivors, victims and allies, bringing sexual violence to the forefront of many people’s minds. To Matthews, an expert in social media and crisis communications, the hashtag meant an immediate sense of community and camaraderie among women who may or may not have felt comfortable explicitly sharing their story.
“All you had to do was say hashtag five letters, #MeToo, and that’s it, and everyone immediately knew what you were talking about,” said Matthews.
The ‘Me Too.’ movement was founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 to help primarily Black female survivors of sexual assault find resources and the ability to heal. In October 2017, following the first accusation of Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano started the viral hashtag that brought the movement into people’s lives no matter gender, race or sexual orientation.
While the tag may no longer be filling people’s Twitter feeds, the impacts of it, and the movement that came with it, continue to operate in individual lives and in the larger community.
#MeToo had both positives and negatives. Although it brought validation and understanding to survivors, people were forced to relive trauma with every story they read online. It also meant sexual violence was put into the conversations of people who would have never discussed it before.
One of the most significant initial effects of #MeToo was that people were able to find validation in others’ experiences. Even after Matthews went through a legal process over 18 months, had qualified professionals say that sexual harassment occurred and ended up with a settlement, she still questioned the legitimacy of what she went through. To her, the movement helped combat this mindset.
“Women can recognize themselves in those experiences and know that ‘I’m not the only one who’s experienced that. It’s not my imagination, and it’s real,’” Matthews said.
However, Matthews noted that the media’s coverage of sexual harassment and assault was not always beneficial. Though it created a community for people who had experienced sexual violence, when they would look at their phone, they were forced to remember their experiences and had to relive difficult traumas.
“There are shades of a lifetime of being a woman that are in every one of those experiences,” Matthews said. Whether or not the stories she read were something similar to what she had been through, Matthews said that it was heavy and incredibly sad to read them because of the common themes of simply being a woman in every shared story.
Sophie Bange, a junior at UO and former acting director of the Organization Against Sexual Assault, found a similar validation through the movement, particularly in hearing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Senate Judiciary Committee's Kavanaugh hearing.
“To hear Dr. Ford share her story in the way she did — it was validating to my experience because in order for it to be assault, rape doesn’t have to happen necessarily,” Bange said.
In her experience as a survivor, Bange told herself that not a lot happened, so it wasn’t a big deal, and she could get past it. At the time, she had gone to see her school counselor, but she didn’t want to seek further help: She said she felt being strong meant moving past it. But hearing about others’ sexual assault experiences and the validation they were receiving through media allowed her to understand her own experience and begin to deal with her emotions.
“Witnessing all these things coming out, and hearing all these stories being validated by that, I have been able to recognize the impact it has had on me, and I’ve been able to let that out,” Bange said.
Despite the benefits that she found by hearing and identifying with the story of Dr. Ford, the constant presence of media coverage throughout the trials was sometimes a trigger for her, too. She said that she found herself sitting in class, unable to focus on anything else. One of the most difficult aspects for her was that sexual assault was turned into a partisan issue, while Bange sees it as “a people issue.”
“You would hear people, even other women, really shutting survivors down, so it was kind of hard to just navigate that emotionally,” said Bange.
She felt like the #MeToo movement had caused society to progress further. But after seeing the outcome of the Kavanaugh hearing, Bange was discouraged and angry that the people who most needed to pay attention to #MeToo had decided to turn their backs to it. Despite this, she has chosen to remain hopeful.
Bange said that, between survivors and allies, the movement has helped create an environment where people can do both little and bigger things to connect with one another. Since the movement started, she has had people close to her open up about sexual harassment they have experienced, and while it is difficult to hear, she said that it means a lot that they feel they can come to her.
“I have to remind myself that if I can at least tell one person that they’re not alone, if I can at least give one person a resource to reach out to … then I’ve done my job,” Bange said.
While the conversations around the movement had both benefits and consequences, Ryan Kelly, a UO women’s self-defense instructor, sees some of the backlash as having an indirectly lasting positive effect. He said that even if people are criticizing the rise in accusations, they are often still joining in on the conversation of consent, even if it’s just to know how to avoid being accused.
As a self-defense instructor, he has regularly heard from students who were able to either use physical self-defense or had the empowerment and de-escalation training for verbal defense. Even though he hasn’t observed any specific changes from the #MeToo movement in his position as an instructor, he can observe how vital a movement such as this is for emotionally empowering people, both in difficult situations and in sharing stories of violence.
When he was younger, Kelly experienced attempted assault by a male neighbor who he was close to. He thinks that the #MeToo movement didn’t affect men as significantly because they face different barriers to opening up. Even though the movement didn’t resonate for him as much in a way where he felt he could go out and publicly tell his story, he fully welcomed it as something that was long overdue for women in society.
He said, “I do think that it empowered obviously a lot of women and some men to step forward and tell their stories and made it easier for people to just discuss it in daily conversation.”
Kelly sees the movement as having put sexual assault and consent into the conversations of people who would have never before discussed those topics.
Through the movement, Kelly believes society has at least been able to move past questioning if sexual assault is a problem. He said, “I think culturally we’re past that, and we’re onto now ‘where do we go? What’s our response? What do we do?’ I think that’s at least a step forward.”
The future of the #MeToo movement remains unclear as its presence in media has substantially declined. But this does not mean that there isn’t movement in regards to sexual assault.
Matthews, the PR professor, said, “System changes take a long time, so I think we’re at an ebb in terms of out loud media attention, but I don’t think there’s any ebb in terms of the attention.”
But Matthews doesn’t see it as necessarily bad that the hashtag is no longer being used all the time. She thinks it has turned into a bit of a punchline, overapplied in ways that dilute the impact of the original intent.
Bange, the UO student, hopes that if she is seeing articles that simply say “sexual assault” or “harassment,” rather than “Me Too,” then the media is making it into less of a one-time wave and framing it as more of an ongoing problem. She said that while the hashtag may be dying out, it is hopefully leading to a continuing movement against sexual assault.
“I sort of hope that if people aren’t saying #MeToo anymore, we are sort of looking at it in more of the greater scheme of things.”