Life in the #MeToo era

Photo credit: Zoe Archambault

Photo credit: Zoe Archambault

The past decade was rocked by two simple words, a hashtag and the social media movement that grew exponentially after the work of Tarana Burke came to light: Me Too. The social media reckoning for powerful abusers, though only truly catching on in public discourse in the last years of the decade, has become a hallmark of the 2010s.

Burke created the movement in 2006 when she shared her experiences, but the true watershed moment didn’t occur until 2017, when The New York Times published allegations of sexual assault and harassment made against movie producer Harvey Weinstein in an article mapping accusations from decades before to the present.

Other people used the hashtag to share their stories, including celebrities such as Ashley Judd and Alyssa Milano. According to Judd, Weinstein’s behaviour was an open secret in Hollywood, with the only form of recourse for survivors being quietly warning other stars. She felt there was no one to report it to, no one who had the power and ability to address it.

As allegations against powerful, previously seemingly untouchable men grew, a group of women in the entertainment field banded together to form TIME’S UP with the ultimate goal of preventing abuse of women in the workplace and promoting equity. TIME’S UP also launched the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund to offer legal and administrative help to survivors of sexual misconduct pertaining to their work.

Even before the #MeToo movement took root in Canada, the shift towards re-evaluating how sexual violence reports were viewed was already visible. The trial of radio personality Jian Ghomeshi became a media spectacle, with his 2016 acquittal of all charges (four of sexual assault and one of choking) sparking controversy.

The same year, Brock saw its own controversy in the case of Dr. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, who was disciplined following an internal investigation found he had sexually harassed a female student, which the professor denies. The scandal prompted protests when the story came to light in 2016 and again in 2019 when an arbitrator ruled the professor had the right to return to work after being placed on an extended leave of absence then a sabbatical since the initial discipline. The one class he was scheduled to teach in the Winter term was cancelled.

In an article published in February of 2017, The Globe and Mail presented an unfounded investigation into how allegations of sexual assault and harassment are handled by police in Canada, including the disparity between the average rate of false reporting of sexual violence crimes and the rate at which cases were deemed unfounded, and as such baseless. The investigation found the rate at which sexual assault cases were deemed unfounded was 19.34 per cent, nearly twice that of the rate for physical assault cases and much higher than the two to eight per cent rate of false reports.

Following that article, Statistics Canada announced in April of the same year that it would once again collect and publish data on unfounded cases, including those pertaining to sexual assault.

In October of 2018, Brock hosted #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, who initially created the campaign to support youth who had experienced sexual violence. Following widespread demand for the resources and workshops she had created, Burke came to realize that adults needed the same supports she had designed for children.

Though scheduled biannually, Brock’s Department of Human Rights and Equity’s review of the sexual assault and harassment policy has arrived with good timing, following Burke’s presentation and running alongside the renewed scandal. The consultation process for the policy included town hall meetings stretching from January to March.

The #MeToo movement brought a voice to many who felt silenced, often in the face of staggering power dynamics. Some insist it has “gone too far,” making it a contentious issue. Across social media, discourse around the era of #MeToo is alive and fiery, as people of varying genders share experiences. As discussion continues about sexual violence prevention and response, as well as the handling of sexual assault cases, some men claim fear of false reports. In the following decade, it seems likely we will see the debate around balancing the rights of the accused with justice for accusers come to a head. How do we ensure we avoid “mob justice” without reverting a system that fundamentally made survivors unlikely to see results in sexual assault cases? How do we maintain momentum without a pendulum swing?


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