This article first appeared in melbournecatholic.org.au on February 19, 2018 and was written by David Halliday
It was a Sunday in October last year when actress Alyssa Milano launched a global movement. ‘If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet,’ she wrote. Even Milano could not have predicted the tsunami of responses. Within eight days, the #Metoo hashtag was tweeted 1.7 million times across 85 countries.
Much can change in four months. In the ensuing time, women have bravely spoken up about sexual harassment and about times when powerful figures have tried to use their position to manipulate them for sexual ends. The allegations have levelled knockout blows against former film industry heavyweights like Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis CK. With the new year came the dawning of an era where sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are no longer quietly tolerated.
According to American newspaper USA Today, 2017 became the year where sexual harassment allegations became a fireable offense. Facing a public outcry, the Weinstein Co. board officially fired Harvey Weinstein in October. Stars will no longer consider his projects. Distributors won’t touch his films. It’s likely Weinstein’s career is over. The same goes with Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. This is ‘the Weinstein Effect’ in action.
Harvey Weinstein is—or was six months ago—an untouchable industry titan and power broker. The fact that he has already paid a heavy price for the allegations against him is stunning. This would have been unthinkable as recently as five years ago. Needless to say, it’s roused public attention.
And that’s the true significance of #Metoo. It’s not only that the public is listening to victims, but it’s ascribing them power that would previously have rested with perpetrators. Accusers have been emboldened.
The results have been startling, saddening and heart-warming all at once. Instead of honouring a single person for its 2017 Person of the Year, Time Magazine’s person of the year was all those who have come forward in the #Metoo movement and honoured them as ‘Silence Breakers’.
In the months following Milano’s tweet, #Metoo transcended Hollywood and the confines of the film industry and geography to become part of a greater movement—one that pushes for greater gender equality and champions an end to sexual abuse. In 2015, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, ‘The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential. When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all.’
On 20 January, those who had been active on social media took to the streets for a women’s protest march. The march occurred simultaneously in cities all across the world—including Melbourne—and called for cultural change and reform of sexual assault laws. Speaking to The Guardian, Melbourne organiser Melissa Goffin commented, ‘last year was that watershed moment of President Trump’s election. This is mainstream, this is everyone. It’s a new era of feminism.’
Church leadership has been quiet on the #Metoo movement, but there’s an opportunity here; one which requires more than simply ministering to victims, but revaluating the shifting role of women in the church. ‘Narratives about one group of powerful people exploiting another group can open our eyes to understand the call to justice more clearly,’ says Andrea Dean, Director of the National Office for Participation of Women, an initiative of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to promote the participation of women in the Catholic Church. ‘The #MeToo movement is a gift to society as it brings hidden abuse into the light in the same way that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is gift to the Catholic Church as it has brought hidden abuse into the light.’
This stretches far beyond sexual abuse and harassment, and concerns systemic abuse of power, something the Church is dealing with in the wake of the Royal Commission. ‘It is apparent that the Catholic Church’s problem is not so much the sexual exploitation of women, but the abuse of power,’ Dean says. ‘This abuse of power has damaged the lives of too many children.’
‘Some women in the Catholic Church—though certainly not all—feel that the intractable link between ordination and power sets up a disparity between ordained men and lay women that fosters injustice and exploitation,’ Dean says. These are legitimate concerns and addressing them will no doubt take time. For the church to remain relevant throughout this movement and beyond, it should aim for parity where there has been a disparity. This would mean equal numbers of women in leadership positions, and some degree of transparency in pay scales to eliminate the possibility of a gender pay gap.
As a Church, we need to welcome those David and Goliath moments when the vulnerable take on abusers. We have to promote the voices of those affected; we must welcome those who are not afraid to speak and hold their abusers accountable. Greater representation of females among Church leadership is crucial in this process, including female deacons—a possibility Pope Francis began seriously exploring in 2016. The bottom line in #Metoo is that women can no longer be denied decision-making power.
The #Metoo movement is a revelation and a revolution; a moral reckoning made possible by social media. Critiques have labelled it a moral panic driven by sexism and rage and tinged with irrational excess, citing as evidence the surge in trials by media and the sidelining of due process. Certainly, there have been those vocal few who would be comfortable seeing innocent men lose careers and reputation over false allegations if it meant punishing the guilty for more serious alleged crimes, which amounts to a sort of commentariat vigilantism. But this has also been accompanied by calls by prominent leaders and thinkers to speak up about harassment to relevant authorities and follow due process. That the movement has undergone shifts, fragmentations, and backlash only demonstrates that the matter of holding one another responsible is an issue that requires nuance.
Cases like Weinstein and the avalanche that followed will fall out of the public conversation. Many already have. But a culture shift has already begun to take place and that should give us hope. This hope isn’t abstract and is built on more than vague wishes. Instead, it has required—and will continue to require—deliberate concrete actions pushing for greater gender equality, such as Pope Francis’ commission on women deacons in 2016.
As Ban Ki Moon said, when the other 50 per cent of people are empowered to realize their full potential, it secures the future for all. Will #MeToo bring lasting change to society and the Church? ‘We hope so,’ says Dean.