On the 21st of January 2017, one day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, one of the largest protests in American history took place. Over 1% of the entire American population marched in towns and cities across the United States. The movement was not contained to America, with marches spanning all 7 continents.
The marches taking place the day after Trump’s inauguration were no coincidence. The election of this caricature of male egocentrism sparked a conversation around male behavior that would have worldwide reach.
Trump’s campaign had been marred by accusations of sexual assault as well as an open and boastful admission from the former president about his treatment of women. However, in a campaign that seemed to leap from scandal to scandal with relative ease, bragging about sexually assaulting women regrettably wasn’t enough to prevent him from reaching the highest office in the country.
The women’s marches had started a conversation, however in just a matter of months, this conversation would break a story that would shock the world.
Harvey Weinstein was one of, if not the most powerful man in Hollywood. He produced hundreds of movies and regularly brushed shoulders with the rich and powerful, including former Presidents. By the end of 2017, Weinstein had been unmasked as a serial rapist and sexual predator. The New York Times reported accounts of women who accused Weinstein of using his power and influence to abuse and manipulate women as well as destroying the careers of any who refused his advances. This started a snowball effect with more and more women coming forward with stories of abuse by Weinstein and later by other powerful men. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison but the social media movement that had become known as #MeToo had only just begun.
Actors, singers, politicians, news anchors, comedians and journalists were among those fired due to complaints of sexual harassment against them.
Something that has always been known by women was now abundantly clear to everyone else. Predatory men, sexual assault and harassment are commonplace in most workspaces. Me Too was an attempt to change this uncomfortable reality and empower victims to speak out about their experiences and achieve some form of justice. Calls to a US rape crisis hotline rose by 23% and the Time’s Up campaign successfully raised $22 million in legal assistance for survivors.
Despite the admirable goal of simply making workplaces safer for women, the Me Too movement hasn’t been wholly welcomed by everyone with some notable (typically male) critics.
Some argued that the Me Too movement is cutting out the due process of criminal trials and instead a trial by media of sorts is taking place where men accused of assault become victims of cancel culture. Other say that the allegations of sexual assault are over reactions and that romanticism is being stifled by political correctness.
Also highly discussed on social media is the possibility of false accusations. Many have expressed deep concern that some of the men accused of sexual assault may have their careers and their lives ruined due to a false allegation by someone with an ulterior motive or agenda.
These counter claims are not hard to find on social media, in the press and in conservative circles. A 2019 study by Houston University suggested a significant increase in the number of men who would feel apprehensive about hiring or interviewing an attractive woman. There is real evidence to suggest that the Me Too movement is preventing sexual assault and making workplaces safer for women, while at the same time generating a backlash of sexism and misogyny.
Last year, reported sex crimes in England and Wales went up by 9%. Despite this rise, prosecutions dropped from 5.6% to 3.8%. Convictions for rape also hit an all time low during the same period with just 1.7% of rapes ending in a prosecution. In America, just 23% of sexual assaults get reported to the police with a minuscule 0.5% leading to a prison sentence.
These statistics are perhaps the most important to consider in relation to the Me Too movement and whether or not it has gone too far. It does seem like an absurd suggestion when you consider that at the very least 95% of those that commit sexual assault will walk free.
It has been suggested by some on the political right that 5% of sexual assault accusations are false. Criminologist Joanne Belknap puts it closer to 0.5%. Even the figure of 0.5% is contentious as it includes allegations that have been withdrawn for any number of reasons. A larger American study looking at 25 years of crime data found 52 cases of false rape convictions. This is compared to 790 false convictions for murder.
This evidence suggests you are over 15 times more likely to be falsely convicted of murder than of rape.
With such a high percentage of those committing sexual assault happily continuing with their lives, perhaps a more interesting argument could be that the Me Too movement hasn’t gone anywhere near far enough. The bar for conviction of sexual assault appears to be incredibly high especially in cases when the perpetrator is a powerful male. For Harvey Weinstein to be convicted, The New York Times had to give a voice to over a dozen victims. Bill Cosby had to be tried twice despite many accounts of him drugging and raping women. Even in cases when dozens of women come forward, it is often still not enough for any justice to be served.
Despite accusations that Me Too is just another branch of cancel culture catapulting beloved celebrities into obscurity, many alleged abusers have seen only minor blips in their careers after women spoke out against them. Comedian Louis C.K. is back performing despite admitting serval counts of sexual assault. News anchor Matt Laur is planning a comeback despite an allegation of rape. Film producer Roman Polanski continues to win awards despite living in exile in France after being found guilty of sexual offences against a child in the US.
Famously, a 2005 hot mic recording resurfaced where Donald Trump was caught bragging about sexually assaulting women. A number of women came forward and agreed that what he had said was true and he had assaulted them. These claims did not stop Trump’s bid for the White House. Even the current President, Joe Biden, has an allegation of inappropriate behavior made against him that was rarely taken seriously.
For all the examples of the Me Too movement claiming victories against abusers, there are also examples of women who have come forward and been demonised, blamed, attacked in the press and forced to relive their trauma.
In 2018, President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill a vacancy in the supreme court. A woman named Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her in the early 80s. Despite her desire to remain anonymous, Ford was eventually convinced to give evidence to the Senate Judiciary committee. She also took and passed a polygraph test with a former FBI agent present. She knew fully that the results would have no bearing on any hearing, but Ford was clearly desperate to be taken seriously and importantly to be believed. While Kavanaugh now sits in the highest court in the US, Ford’s life has been turned upside down with death threats and security issues forcing her out of her job and her home.
Much closer to home is the case against the former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond. In the same year as the Kavanaugh hearings, Salmond was accused, charged, and arrested on 14 counts including sexual assault and attempted rape. Despite these extremely serious allegations by 9 different women, an already wealthy Salmond was able to crowdfund his legal fees from his supporters. Salmond admitted sexual relations with two of the witnesses, while also admitting wrongdoing. His defense described him as “touchy-feely.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, he was found not guilty. Days after the trial, Salmond’s own QC was overheard calling him a “sex pest” and of the accusers he said, “all I had to do is put a smell on her.” This suggests that even in high profile cases with multiple accusers, the discrediting of one witness can be enough to derail the prosecution.
Current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that Alex Salmond may be unhappy with her due to her refusal to make the allegations against him “go away.” Salmond has suggested multiple individuals and institutions were conspiring against him. The women involved have been subjected to intense speculation around their identity by Salmond supporters with one woman suggesting the whole process will make it harder for women to come forward in the future.
As previously mentioned, the chances of one woman falsifying a story of sexual assault are slim. The chances of 9 different women, either separately or in collusion, fabricating accusations then lying to a judge and jury in court are minuscule.
It is important not to play down the importance of the Me Too movement. It represented a real change in the way people view sexual assault allegations and how they are treated by workplaces and other institutions. The argument that the movement has somehow gone too far is refuted by even a brief glance at statistics on sexual assault. The fact that only 1.7% of rapes end in a prosecution suggests massive room for further change is still needed in the way sexual assault cases are handled and the way victims are treated.
Unfortunately, cases such as the Alex Salmond trial and Brett Kavanaugh hearings have shown how accusers can be subjected to horrendous ordeals either in courtrooms or in the public eye. Far from being a hurricane of political correctness cancelling any celebrity that isn’t whiter than white, the Me Too movement has seen too many powerful men evade justice and far too many victims subjected to further suffering.
Perhaps a more far reaching second wave of the Me Too movement is needed. It is still true that the vast majority of women don’t come forward. They have suffered, or continue to suffer harassment in silence, due to a fear of not being believed. Unfortunately, this is not an irrational fear. Even when women come forward in significant numbers, the chances of any justice being served remain low and chances of the accusers being demonized and attacked are high. Ultimately, myths about false accusations and concerns about cancel culture are drowning out the voices of the few survivors of abuse that have dared to speak out.
Words by James Archibald
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
Britannica – Women’s March 2017
The Observer – The Complete Harvey Weinstein Timeline From Allegations to Conviction
BBC News – What has #MeToo actually changed?
The Hollywood Reporter – Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund Releases Annual Report, Unveils $22M Donated in Fundraising
Harvard Business Review – The #MeToo Backlash
Vox – MeToo’s latest critics say they want to help the movement. Why are they shaming women?
The Independent – Only 1.7% of reported rapes prosecuted in England and Wales, new figures show
RAINN – The Criminal Justice System: Statistics
The Cut – Almost No One Is Falsely Accused of Rape
The New York Times – Examining Tara Reade’s Sexual Assault Allegation Against Joe Biden
Metro US – Christine Blasey Ford has had to move four times, can’t go back to work
Vox – The Ford-Kavanaugh sexual assault hearings, explained
BBC News – Alex Salmond accused of sexual assaults on 10 women
The Guardian – Alex Salmond’s accusers urge other women to ‘be brave’
SKY News – Nicola Sturgeon reads out private Alex Salmond messages to dispel ‘conspiracy’ theories