Words || Olivia James
Content warning: The following article discusses sexual assault and harassment.
The #MeToo movement has dominated the media in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace. Offending behaviour ranges from the hotly debated conduct of Aziz Ansari on the ‘worst date’ of the victim’s life detailed in a Babe expose, to the criminal sexual assault of over 150 women by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
Offences are, in some cases, historic, but the outrage is fresh. The 2018 Golden Globes red carpet was transformed into a coordinated political protest, with stars like Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Ewan McGregor and Viola Davis donning all-black attire and ‘Time’s Up’ pins in protest of the widespread perpetration and cover-up of sexual misconduct.
In a bid to effect change that extended beyond the entertainment industry, eight actresses took the opportunity to invite activists as their plus ones. Emma Watson was joined by Marai Larasai, the founder of IMKAAN, the only UK-based charity to offer support to black women and children who are victims of violence. Saru Jayaraman, a workplace-justice advocate for restaurant workers, accompanied Amy Poehler. Meryl Streep extended her invite to Ai-Jen Poo, the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Michelle Williams stood in solidarity with founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke.
The ‘Times Up’ legal fund, a collaborative effort of over 300 women within the entertainment industry, was another effort to expand the movement’s reach. With nearly $20 million donated, the fund serves to provide subsidised legal support for victims of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace who are otherwise unable to pursue justice. What is clear is that both women and men are recognising that this issue in universal, impacting all areas of work and threatening educational institutions. The 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground shone the spotlight on sexual assault on US college campuses and relied on a plethora of studies to back up its assertion that roughly one fifth of students would be sexually assaulted during their time at university.
While media coverage has been dominated by American victims, perpetrators and statistics, many Australians have been working tirelessly to address the issue of sexual assault and harassment domestically.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2017 report ‘Change the Course’ found that just over 50% students reported being sexually harassed in 2016.
Further, 7% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion between 2015 and 2016. These statistics, whilst disheartening, are not necessarily unique. The most recent ‘personal safety survey’ from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that over 50% of women and 25% of men had been sexually harassed in their lifetime.
Conduct such as passing comments on an individual’s body and sex life and non-consensual groping, fondling and kissing have also substantially increased from the last survey in 2012. Equally as troubling is the fact that the number of women to report this behaviour dropped from the already dismal 17% in 2012 to 15% in 2017.
In light of this, the recent deposing of Don Burke and Craig McLachlan, two icons in Australian media, by the allegations of sexual misconduct from multiple women is a significant step forward. With an litany of victims coming forward to accuse these men, their statements of innocence have been largely disregarded by the Australian public. Don Burke’s claim that his conduct is a misunderstood symptom of his self-diagnosed Asperger’s was understandably canned by Australian media. And while a portion of reporters argue that McLachlan has been unfairly vilified, the response from the public and his employers has been mostly proportionate to the slew of accusations and paper-trail of reported incidences that were never properly investigated.
However, the #MeToo movement stands to be threatened by the instances of poor reporting.
The report that Geoffrey Rush, former Australian of the Year and Hollywood heavyweight, had engaged in ‘inappropriate behaviour’ has aided the attempted lampooning of the #MeToo movement in Australia.
Rush is suing the owner of the Daily Telegraph, Nationwide News Limited, and the journalist who penned the series of articles dubbing Rush ‘KING LEER’ and a ‘sexual predator’. The articles, which linked Rush to the disgraced Don Burke and Harvey Weinstein, were based entirely on an undisclosed allegation supposedly made to the Sydney Theatre Company. The details of this allegation are non existent, with the Daily Telegraph only reporting that Rush had engaged in ‘inappropriate behaviour’.
This lack of journalistic integrity evidenced by the Nationwide News outlet gives ammunition to opponents of the #MeToo movement, who try to destabilise the credibility of women coming forward by questioning the validity of allegations and the motives of the women coming forward.
French actress Catherine Deneuve signed a letter in conjunction with 100 other women that denounced the #MeToo campaign as a ‘witch hunt’ against respectable men. In doing so she legitimised the unfounded belief that women will leaps at any chance to blow their company-supplied rape whistles and cost a well-meaning man his job.
But the reality is that the prevalence of false allegations is wildly conflated, and women are much more likely to allow a crime to go unreported than to report a falsified sexual assault.
Around the globe, instances of false allegations of sexual assault are universally below 7%. The Home Office found that only 4% of reported sexual assaults in the UK were false, whilst collaborative studies of the US and Europe placed this figure between 2 and 6%. It should also be noted that global studies agree that a third of sexual assault cases go unreported, which could be explained by the immense scrutiny victims face when coming forward as well as the fact that, as reported by RAINN, for every 1,000 perpetrators 994 will walk free.
Australia also has uniform defamation laws across the nation, which operate stringently in favour of those claiming to be defamed. Legally, defamation cases such as the Geoffrey Rush case are only dismissed if the claim would violate freedom of political communication, be in opposition to the publicly accepted truth, or be deemed trivial by a judge.
Released in late 2017, The New Yorker’s ‘Cat Person’ short story detailed the all too familiar tale of a woman caught in an unpleasant sexual relationship with an older man. The story, which became conflated with #MeToo and Time’s Up, follows college student Margot, as she struggles to break off a relationship with a man with whom she had been having casual and unpleasant sex.
While profoundly uncomfortable, female readers were able to unanimously recognise that the behaviour of Robert, a man who would eventually call Margot a whore for not replying to his messages after ending their relationship, is not comparable to the conduct of a serial sexual predator like Larry Nassar or Harvey Weinstein. Women are not on a mission to destroy the lives of men that they had unpleasant encounters with because they are able to recognise the difference between ‘bad sex’ and criminal behaviour. Both the pernicious sexual entitlement of men – exemplified by Aziz Ansari’s conduct – and the blatantly criminal actions of Weinstein and other perpetrators of sexual assault have been called out over the last few months.
These are different (albeit related) issues, and we are smart enough to have nuanced and productive conversations about promoting consent and ending sexual assault and harassment. No one is out to incriminate innocent people; rather, we are striving for common sense, safety, equality, and justice for victims.
For years women have stayed quiet, not because they lack the ability to distinguish between what sort of conduct is wrong or right, but because they knew that they would be opening themselves up to a litany of abuse, criticism and skepticism. Now they are speaking, and we owe it to them to listen.
At the very least, the explosion of media coverage surrounding the #MeToo movement, paired with the exhaustive efforts of student activists campaigning for reform of university policy surrounding sexual harassment and assault on campus, has made it clear that for everyone – in every industry and on every campus – that sexual misconduct will no longer be tolerated.