Politics

The Parts of #MeToo That Still Endure

Five years later, there are tangible effects—but the intangible might matter more.

Protesters hold up #MeToo and other related signs in a collage image.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Donna Rotunno/Wikipedia, Prabin Ranabhat/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, Sarah Morris/Getty Images, and Scott Olson/Getty Images.

What was #MeToo?

Despite the catch-all name, I suspect we all have different definitions. Was it a crusade against workplace sexual harassment, or was it about the broader problem of gender inequity? Did Alyssa Milano start it, or Tarana Burke, or Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey? Did it end with the creation of Time’s Up, or with Brett Kavanaugh’s seating on the Supreme Court? Was it the dissolution of Time’s Up, or the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard trial? Or is it still in force today?

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On the fifth anniversary of the start (“start”) of #MeToo, it can be difficult to assess the movement’s impact, because we don’t have a common understanding of what it was. The meat of it took place online, where millions of people recounted and bore witness to violations that ran the gamut from annoyance to assault. Whether #YouToo had been harassed, or you worried that you might be the next accused, or you rolled your eyes at the mewling of snowflakes who wanted to be asked permission for every physical touch, your grasp of the social convulsions of late 2017—and what, if anything, they accomplished—was limited by whomever you followed on Twitter, whichever op-eds you read, and whatever your friends said over dinner.

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It was barely a movement, in political terms, after all. It was descriptive rather than prescriptive, sparked by news reporting rather than built by activists. It lacked leaders, organized actions, and policy demands, and there was little agreement—or even discussion—among its participants on what the outcome of its agitating should be. (Even landing on a common definition of sexual harassment and assault, the primary targets of the movement, proved impossible.) There was no shared end goal in mind: not stricter punishments for sex crimes, because many feminists oppose carceral responses to gender-based violence. Not the wholesale exile of offenders, because who adjudicates the terms of their ouster? Simple “awareness” didn’t feel like a satisfying end point, either—at times, it could feel like we were left with thousands of appalling stories and not much to do about them.

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But with five years of hindsight, there is no doubt in my mind that #MeToo changed life in the U.S., in lasting ways, for the better. As a worker’s rights movement, it brought about a slew of upgrades to industry standards and state law. As a major news event, it transformed the way media outlets report on sexual misconduct. And as a consciousness-raising effort, it gave all of us a new language with which to describe the sexual indignities that shape the lives of women.

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First, the tangible effects. In intimacy coordinators, #MeToo all but created a new job category for the sole purpose of preventing sexual misconduct in a sexualized environment. Film and television studios ramped up the use of morality clauses in contracts, insisting on appropriate behavior within and outside the workplace (and causing some concern that the clauses could be used to undermine worker protections). Producers hired more female writers. New SAG-AFTRA guidelines discouraged meetings in hotel rooms, and casting directors took note. Once the #MeToo movement showed how the transactions of the “casting couch,” long accepted with smirking indifference, were, in fact, abuses, it made the prospect of a profitable yet predatory director look like a liability. The risk-averse companies that make our movies changed their ways in response.

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The entertainment industry may have had the greatest public #MeToo reckoning, but workers in every sector saw gains from the movement. For all the sensational details of the #MeToo reportage (Matt Lauer had a door-locking button?) and A-list celebrities who lost their jobs, one of the major accomplishments of #MeToo concerned a comparatively dry contract issue: nondisclosure agreements. Several states banned employers from forcing workers into NDAs, which had been used to prohibit victims from speaking about violations suffered at work, and some banned NDAs in settlements involving claims of sexual misconduct. Other states passed new laws strengthening employee protections against sexual harassment and expanding the classes of workers covered by them.

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And in an unusually effective instance of cross-industry and cross-class solidarity, Hollywood superstars funneled millions of dollars into the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund—an entity administered independently from the dysfunctional and corrupt Time’s Up organization. The Legal Defense Fund has now paid attorneys across the country who take on sexual harassment cases for thousands of workers, most of them low-income. McDonald’s cashiers and NFL cheerleaders alike used the fund’s financial resources and Rolodex to advance their complaints against employers.

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The movement’s intangible effects are harder to quantify, though no less significant. In addition to good laws and funding to sue those who break them, two social mechanisms are necessary to combat workplace sexual harassment: Victims have to be willing to speak up, and people in power have to be willing to listen and take action.

The data suggest that #MeToo made it easier to do both. In the years following 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a spike in the number of sexual harassment charges filed, as well as a major increase in total payouts from such cases settled by the agency. Surveys of employees and human resources professionals conducted after #MeToo found that companies were taking new steps to prevent misconduct, workers were demanding more transparency around sexual harassment policies, and boards of directors were taking an interest in the issue for the first time.

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Journalists, too, changed the way they approach stories of sexual harassment and assault. Mainstream news outlets are much more likely now than they were in 2017 to deem allegations of sexual misconduct worthy of investigation; to allocate resources to related reporting; and to treat sources with sensitivity. Whereas male-dominated news outlets once treated such stories as impossible to confirm and more private matter than public concern, journalists say there is now an “established playbook” for reporting and writing these kinds of pieces, which amounts to a new vector of accountability that discourages bad behavior from individuals and corporate entities alike.

But tracking such institutional reforms is a feeble proxy for the bigger and blunter questions that are at the heart of #MeToo’s impact: Are women’s lives any better, and are they freer from sexual harassment, than they were five years ago?

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I don’t know the answer to that question. (If you know a good way to find out, I’m all ears!) But I do have some idea of why it feels so hard to answer. Think about how the cultural debate around #MeToo got mired in questions of whether certain acts—unwelcome advances, consented-to-but-unwanted sex, workplace flirtation that goes too far—belonged under the #MeToo umbrella, rather than wrestling with the question of how to prevent them from happening: Once you pull on a single thread of the tapestry of gender relations, the whole thing begins to unravel. It’s all part of an interconnected pattern of inequity. (A movement against sexual harassment cannot help but touch on related matters, like office romances and deeply unsatisfying, regrettable sex; but when #MeToo started to unpack those situations, some began to protest that it had gone too far.) Likewise, it is difficult to make progress on one systemic problem in women’s lives in a period of regression in other associated issues, such as reproductive autonomy and workforce participation, all while a virulent strain of white Christian nationalism and gender policing emerged in the U.S.

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But I’d wager that the hearts and minds changed by #MeToo dwelled mostly among participants, rather than observers. The hashtag and ensuing uproar set in motion a cycle of excavation, allowing women to reconsider past incidents, place them in the context of a broader struggle, and release the shame and self-blame that can accompany harassment endured in a vacuum. It was painful to reclassify near-forgotten encounters as harassment. As the hashtag faded from use, its attendant emotions—and its implicit invitation to self-examination—lingered.

Even on the sidelines of the movement, it was impossible to live through those frenzied months without developing an opinion on what was taking place. While much has been made of the vacuousness of activist campaigns predicated on “raising awareness,” experiences of sexual misconduct are so subjective—and secretive, as they often take place between two people, out of public view, under circumstances it is taboo to discuss—that it is quite possible to care about gender equity without coming close to comprehending the particularities or magnitude of the problems #MeToo addressed. For many women, #MeToo revealed an unobstructed glimpse of the churning gears of sexual subjugation for the very first time. To witness the appalling scale of everyday violations produced a profound sense of disillusionment and anger among many people I know. (And others got a rare look at the routine humiliations the other half endures, and perhaps imagined themselves shamed for perpetrating them.) Such moments don’t always lead to world-changing social movements, but world-changing social movements do not arise without them.

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In the case of #MeToo, the reckonings that occurred within individual people will likely leave a more meaningful legacy than the new corporate sexual harassment trainings it left in its wake (though those matter, too). #MeToo changed the way people saw themselves, how they interpreted their own lives, and what kind of treatment they are willing to accept from others. It gave them a bracing, finely detailed view of humanity and helped them locate themselves within it. It lifted veils of euphemism from acts that had persisted because they were obscured. It forced each of us to reflect on where we place the line between acceptable behavior and misconduct, and what should be done when that line is crossed.

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Even as political winds change, that new frame of reference will endure. Just look at the language people still use to talk about allegations of sexual harassment and assault: It’s always, always, always #MeToo.

On one hand, that betrays a laziness among people who seem to believe that no one was talking or thinking about sexual misconduct before October 2017. But it’s also a testament to the power of putting a name to a shared struggle that is often borne in isolated silence. When there is a single phrase to pull together millions of disparate but related experiences, it’s a lot easier to talk about them.

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