For Women, #MeToo Is Frustratingly Familiar

How many times do we need to perform our pain?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinstock.

Last week was a “particularly rough week to be a woman,” as Slate writer Katy Waldman wrote in response to the mounting allegations of sexual assault against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the creation of the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet, and the one-year anniversary of the release of now-President Donald Trump’s infamous “grab em by the pussy” tape.

Over the weekend, the shittiness of this week snowballed into a movement of sorts. On Sunday afternoon, as if it were inevitable, actress Alyssa Milano hit “post” on the Tweet read round the world:

Like so many of its predecessors, it was immediately successful. As of Monday evening, Milano’s tweet has over 18,000 retweets, more than 37,000 likes, and a whopping 51,000 replies. The hashtag has been used 500,000 times on Twitter, and more than 6 million people are discussing “me too” on Facebook. By all counts, it’s poised to be this year’s #YesAllWomen.

And that’s what sucks so much about it: For many people who experience harassment, #MeToo doesn’t feel radical or empowering—it feels frustratingly familiar. Sexual harassment and assault is a persistent problem wherever gender norms and power imbalances occur, which is to say they are a problem everywhere, for basically everyone, even if many people remain stubbornly blind to this fact. As Milano explained in her initial tweet, #MeToo hopes to make these numbers come alive, to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The sheer number of responses are a testament to its size.

The hashtag has also made the internet a very hard place to be over the past few days. Yes, many women have said the conversation that stemmed from #MeToo has empowered them, connected them, and helped them feel as though they’re making a difference. But it also exposed them to further harassment and made many feel as though they needed to perform their pain in a public platform to have its existence acknowledged.

Of course, each individual has to do his or her own emotional math to decide if participating in #MeToo is worth it. But on a societal level, the notion that unbelievers will be persuaded by the volume of tweets or their stomach-churning contents feels like a question that we have answered before. If you need a hashtag to show you that sexual assault is real—if you require millions of women and men show you their scars so that you might believe their pain—you’re probably never going to get it. In fact, we know this because we have done this before.

Back in 2014, #YesAllWomen was the harassment awareness hashtag du jour. (Around that time, the similarly focused #WhatWereYouWearing was also trending.) Formed in response to the Isla Vista slaying, when Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded four others in a meticulously planned murder spree as revenge for rejection from women, it also aimed to draw attention to the pervasiveness of rape culture. And to a degree, it worked. It was lauded by many media outlets and, in less than a week, was used 1.2 million times on Twitter. Did it move the needle on actual harassment in the real world? Who knows—if it did make a difference, it certainly wasn’t enough. What we do know is that it spawned a counterhashtag, #NotAllMen, which is still in use to this day.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use #MeToo. If it helps, tweet it. But the number of times these harassment hashtags have trended speak to the real issue at hand. We don’t need more hashtags. We need, as comedian Aparna Nancherla put it, for #metoo to turn into ‘I believe you’ ”—and for “I believe you” to be a part of everyday life, not something that’s only said when enough people speak up to make a hashtag go viral.