The #MeToo Movement Sets Precedent In Combating Sexual Harassment
“In a society in which equality is a fact, not merely a word, words of racial or sexual assault and humiliation will be nonsense syllables.”
- Catharine A. MacKinnon
It is the future Catharine MacKinnon looks forward to, an influential lawyer and a trailblazing feminist who has aptly stated in a recent article that the #MeToo movement has accomplished in doing on a practical level what sexual harassment laws have not successfully done: bringing justice to the victims of sexual abuse by declaring the perpetrators guilty.
The recent court appearance of the abuser whose assaults led to the #MeToo movement, proves her point. Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer with an estimated net worth of over £130 million, part of multiple production houses and a philanthropist towards noble causes was accused of having harassed and abused innumerable well-known women in Hollywood (he has now been charged with rape, criminal sexual act, sexual abuse and sexual misconduct). Over a period of several decades he made famous personalities like Rose McGowen, Ashley Judd, Eva Green and Salma Hayek victims of his abuse, to the point that by October 31st, 2017, over 80 women had come forward with their claims against him.
The entire scenario can be deemed to be fit for a psychological thriller/horror movie straight from Hollywood itself. But to the utter repugnance of so many women, this case was not a fictionalized horror movie. It was the harsh reality of the darkness that lay beneath the glamour of Hollywood. Weinstein showed no pity to any of those he assaulted. In fact, he threatened them into silence and even compelled some to sign non-disclosure agreements.
This presents a twofold question: Does the United States of America not have clear laws on sexual harassment? If it did then why could those laws not accomplish what #MeToo, a social media movement did?
The answer to the first is that legal provisions against sexual harassment were initially enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then strengthened over the years in a string of other statutes including the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 which made it easier for women to take sexual harassment cases to court. In fact, in 2005 Congress passed the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act which provided federal funds to assist victims of sexual violence and sexual assault. The USA, therefore, has very clear regulations against sexual harassment.
Answering the second question is tricky. In order to answer this, an insight into the psyche of Weinstein is essential as are other social factors.
Is Harvey Weinstein a person suffering from a psychiatric illness that pushes him into surrendering to his perverse nature, or does he, like a true misogynist (unless one considers that too to be an illness of the mind), believe that women are merely ‘chattel’ (as claimed by one of the actresses), available for him to use and exploit? The latter seems more plausible than the former; even though he claims to have been receiving some form of psychiatric treatment for a mental illness since the allegations, his symptoms would have reflected in all other aspects of life. On the contrary, Weinstein was a successful producer, ran a successful distribution company and was a married man (at least prior to the allegations).
The fact is that Weinstein was, to put it quite bluntly, a calculated and cunning sexist, a bully, a rapist and someone who frankly thought was playing demigod at luring and assaulting women in a vulnerable position. This poses fundamental questions of gender inequality, which still exists in the world even in this day and age. Despite the existence of extensive laws on sexual offences and criminal laws in general, many men still continue to commit brutal acts against women, marring their psyches and getting away with it. To go into philosophical details of why sexism exists would, no doubt, be an enlightening but cumbersome journey down a bottomless pit. The truth is, it is a power struggle, a battle between those in a strong position versus those in weaker positions, no matter who they are and where they are.
Ever since Weinstein’s allegations have been highlighted by the media, tons of sexual harassment allegations involving Hollywood stars as well as ordinary people have surfaced around the globe, whereby victims have been both women and men. Sexual harassment has been outed as a global epidemic.
In rural areas and even some urban areas of third world countries, there is a culture of superiority of men over women to a great extent, with the prevalent mindset and portrayal of the image of the subservient wife and the idea of a woman being weaker. However, in the West, where a culture of equality of a much bigger magnitude exists between men and women in many spheres despite odd discrepancies, along with the freedom of speech and a whole string of other freedoms, how was Harvey Weinstein able to commit one atrocity after another? How was he able to silence all those otherwise bold women until now?
The answer, therefore, to the second question is that regardless of whether they are the emancipated women of Hollywood, or the sheltered and oppressed women in third world countries, the feeling of shame and fear associated with being sexually abused is the reaction ingrained in women by the patriarchal society, globally. As a result, many actresses did not come forward immediately in the Weinstein case. Cases of sexual harassment often go unreported due to issues like the surrounding social stigma and taboos which work against women irrespective of ethnic backgrounds, social statuses or religious affiliations. It is no doubt that victim-shaming is real all over the world and it is tragic that victims are made to feel guilty for what somebody else did to them.
It also shows that despite the existence of sexual harassment laws, anti-harassment policies and trainings at workplaces, misogyny is a mindset that exists irrespective of racial and cultural differences. Powerful people in positions of authority fail to take these laws seriously and tend to be let off the hook due to the lack of evidence or loopholes in the legal system.
However, in recent months, social media has succeeded in achieving a ‘domino effect’ with the #MeToo campaign. This movement has shown that it can expose perpetrators to the entire world within seconds. Many women also fear approaching the law enforcement authorities with complaints pertaining to sexual harassment or assault and dread lengthy court proceedings. In a way, through the #MeToo movement, calling out perpetrators on social media has proved to be more favourable to the victims than getting sexual harassment laws strictly enforced – all it takes for victims is to tweet an allegation which tends to get taken seriously on social media, sometimes by complete strangers, than having to provide proof of the alleged crime in a court of law or getting law enforcement to even take them seriously. This movement is therefore a reminder for lawmakers to further strengthen sexual harassment laws and ensure that punishments are handed out properly. #MeToo has definitely set a precedent; if you sexually harass someone, you will not walk scot-free. It is now the law’s function to do the same.
Harvey Weinstein’s accountability and legal proceedings consequently show that there has been progress, albeit slow and tiresome, especially for the victims involved. In a world where pornography and prostitution is legalised for male pleasure, despite the numerous laws that exist to combat harassment and rape culture, the question that presents itself is whether there really can be an era devoid of sexual offences. The #MeToo movement has shown that there might just be light at the end of the tunnel. But when and how will we reach the end of the tunnel, only time will tell.
Written by Sana Pirzada (Barrister-at-Law) and Mahnoor Ahmed (final year LLB student at Themis School of Law).
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which they might be associated.