A report about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults was the beginning. Over time, more and more cases became public.
Actress Rose McGowan (left) and Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement Photo: ap
Whenever someone mustered the courage to speak publicly of a sexual assault, the accusations were not far behind: pomposity. Greed for money. How come she never said anything before? Since #MeToo, that hasn’t stopped, to be sure. But it’s no longer simply accepted. Since 2017, #MeToo has united women and men around the world in their fight against sexual violence and abuse of power. It was the first time that there were too many voices to say: oh, surely it wasn’t meant that way. Or: Why don’t you take it as a compliment?
This worldwide movement was triggered by the research of two journalists, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. They reported in the New York Times on October 5, 2017, how dozens of women accused US producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse, harassment and rape. Shortly after, the hashtag #MeToo, initiated by US activist Tarana Burke, went viral, with millions of women (and men, too) sharing their experiences of sexual abuse. Perpetrators lost their jobs, counseling centers or initiatives like "TimesUp", which support victims with money and lawyers, were founded.
But while more and more people are demanding their rights, the entire movement is also accompanied by massive criticism. And the myth of false accusation persists. This myth is a kind of social reflex that does not exist with other accusations of crimes. Instead of believing the victims, people first look for reasons why the story of sexualized violence might be implausible. This is supported by the narrative that a harmless flirt can easily be interpreted as a sexual assault.
While "when in doubt, give the accused the benefit of the doubt" must also apply to allegations of sexualized violence, to the same extent this must mean "when in doubt, give the victim the benefit of the doubt." Otherwise, a social climate is created in which abuse of power not only leads to sexualized violence, but also makes those affected look like liars.
Little evidence, few trials
Many of the accusations were already time-barred in 2017 and never led to investigations, many investigations were discontinued due to lack of evidence, some trials took place – but hardly anyone has been sentenced so far.
One of the most prominent accused in connection with #MeToo is probably the US actor Kevin Spacey. Since October 2018, dozens of people accused him of abuse and harassment over a period of thirty years.
So far, charges have been brought in two cases – but both failed. The first criminal case was dropped at the end of July this year. The alleged victim, William Little, refused to testify in the ongoing proceedings. The reason for this, according to consistent media reports, was the disappearance of an important piece of evidence: Little’s telephone. While police say they returned the phone to Little, the family disagrees. They said they never received the phone. Spacey’s next trial was scheduled to begin two months later. But before that happened, the plaintiff died under as-yet unexplained circumstances – an anonymous massage therapist who accused Spacey of trying to force him to perform oral sex during a massage session in 2016.
The case against soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo was also dropped, in part because of a missing piece of evidence. Plaintiff Kathryn Mayorga had filed suit in August 2018, accusing him of raping her in a Las Vegas hotel suite ten years ago. There was video footage that would show the two before and after the incident. But that footage has disappeared, according to prosecutors. Eight years earlier, Ronaldo allegedly paid her 375,000 euros in hush money, Spiegel reported. So in the case of both Spacey and Ronaldo, it is by no means proof of innocence that led to the acquittal.
The two cases line up alongside those of other celebrities. For example, the case of R. Kelly, who was accused of child abuse, among other things, and who subsequently settled out of court with many of his alleged victims. Kelly, of whom child pornographic recordings exist, but who was still able to perform in sold-out stadiums as an R’n’B singer. Or the case of Louis CK, who sexually harassed five women, admitted it and shortly after made his comeback as a comedian. Of Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual abuse by Christine Blasey Ford and publicly questioned by the Senate a year ago. Kavanaugh is now a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court. Blasey Ford was massively threatened and had to change her residence several times.
#MeToo has still not changed the fact that women who speak out publicly about their experiences are massively threatened. The Cut, an offshoot of New York Magazine, recently asked affected women how they fared after speaking out loud about their accusations. Most speak of loneliness and isolation, many lost their jobs and lots of money, were insulted and threatened.
Fear of women
But not everyone got away with it in the past two years: Bill Cosby, for example, has been in prison for a year for sexual assault. And the sports doctor Lary Nassar, who is accused of sexual violence by 250 girls and women, was also sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. But the fact that many of the alleged perpetrators are not brought to justice is not only difficult for those affected. As long as the question of guilt is not clarified, they are a potential danger for some and for others a potential example of what men can do with impunity.
The myth of false accusations has even become more entrenched in the last two years. This is the result of a study by the two U.S. researchers Leanne Atwater and Rachel Sturm, in which they surveyed 152 men and 303 women. The result: Compared to the previous year, more men no longer hire attractive women, avoid one-on-one meetings, or no longer go on work trips with them. For fear of unjustified accusations. And so, in the end, it is once again those affected who suffer. What’s more, in a survey conducted by the organizers of Women&Work, Europe’s leading trade fair for women, women said they didn’t feel their workplace had become safer for women. In addition, 30 percent of respondents said they have not reported harassment in the workplace.
Women who speak out publicly about their experiences still face massive threats today
Although it is difficult to say how high the number of false accusations actually is, various international studies in recent years put false accusations in the single-digit percentage range. This refers only to cases in which the police or a court has concluded that it is a false accusation and that no abuse has taken place.
Perpetrators who are not convicted; victims who are not believed, men who socially exclude women even more than before. This backlash does not show that #MeToo was in vain, but how much work still needs to be done.
Social change takes time, and it probably can’t be pinned down to individual court cases. But it is the high-profile cases that have the clout to accelerate change. Many lawsuits are still pending. The trial against Harvey Weinstein was supposed to start in September, but it was postponed until January 2020. The trial against R. Kelly is also scheduled to begin in April 2020.
Clean investigations and a fair trial: that is the least that those affected should be able to expect. Two years after #MeToo.