In October last year, American actor Alyssa Milano wrote an 86-character tweet that set the internet on fire and started one of the most defining moments of 2017. “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Written just ten days after the now-infamous New York Times story broke about producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual assault and harassment, Milano’s tweet launched a movement to make public the widespread and systematic nature of sexual abuse. Victims came forward in droves across social media.
On Valentine’s Day this year, Newsroom broke a story about a pattern of sexually inappropriate behaviour at law firm Russell McVeagh after female students who worked as summer clerks at the firm came forward. The article triggered legal researcher Zoë Lawton to start a MeToo blog where lawyers could anonymously describe the sexual abuse or harassment that they were facing or had faced. “I knew that there was a lot more out there that hadn’t been said and I didn’t want the story to just suddenly become yesterday’s news and that no real change would come out of it,” Lawton told VICE. The MeToo blog was designed to be a “learning tool for people that maybe didn’t think that the issue was as bad as it is or maybe don’t have a good understanding of the issue from the victim or survivor’s perspectives.” After a month, Lawton’s blog closed up shop, successfully having prompted the Law Society to sit up and take notice. Soon after the blog’s closure the Law Society did a survey which showed that a third of female lawyers had been sexually harassed during their working life. The Law Society made a commitment to tackle the toxic legal workplace culture head on.
In the wake of the success of Lawton’s blog, new MeToo blogs are sprouting up. Today marks the start of the Victoria University of Wellington’s MeToo VUW Student blog, run by the University’s Students’ Association (VUWSA). The blog aims to give current and past students a “safe and non-judgmental space to [anonymously] share their stories” about sexual assault or harassment committed by staff, other students or any other human while students were on campus, at a hall of residence, at work or elsewhere. “We hope that this blog can be a resource for decision-makers in spaces that affect students,” says Beth Paterson, the VUWSA’s Wellbeing and Sustainability Officer. “A student’s life spans across so many different places—it’s more broad than just any workplace. Students work, are at home, in university, on the streets in town—those are all places where students are vulnerable. Decision-makers need to take into account the real, lived experiences when they’re making choices about how to support students.”
Earlier this month the University was accused of "bungling" sexual harassment complaints made against a Victoria University chemistry tutor who “would run his hands up their legs and back, give them unsolicited massages, make sexual comments, and stalk them” reported Stuff. The newspaper reported that after two women made complaints the “university repeatedly offered the women sessions of restorative justice with their harasser”—an offer which the women declined and after which they were ghosted by the University. The alleged offender is reportedly still studying in its School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. In response to an email by VICE, the University spokesperson stated that “[t]he Disciplinary Committee made a finding of serious misconduct and penalties were applied. These formal measures included remedial actions… designed to prevent any re-occurrence by the student of the behaviours that were complained about.” No further details of the measures were given to protect the individual’s “privacy rights”. Currently Victoria University of Wellington does not have a standalone sexual harassment policy, however the spokesperson confirmed that the university is in the process of developing one. “However, the University already has, and has had for some time, robust mechanisms for receiving complaints in this area,” wrote the spokesperson.
Besides helping to inform policy makers on how to keep students safe and give them adequate support, giving victims a space to write their own stories can also be incredibly cathartic. Earlier this year Paterson, along with other members of the Students’ Association executive team decided to share their own stories of assault with the student magazine Salient. “That kind of kickstarted it for us in terms of how important it is but also how freeing it is as an individual to write your own experience down. Because it can really lift a weight for you as a person to just express that thought. A lot of the time you don’t even realise that what has happened to you might be assault because there’s a stigma around saying that you might have been assaulted.” Lawton saw the same feeling of relief when lawyers wrote to her blog. “It’s part of the healing process for them to get it off their chest. They might have not talked to anyone about it or not felt able to. I got so much feedback from people who said, ‘I felt so much better after writing my story, even if nothing concrete comes out of this I’m glad I did it.’”
Although these MeToo blogs are giving victims some room to let their stories breathe, the format also has its limitations. It might be perceived as toothless as it is entirely anonymous, which both protects victims and the blog from defamation claims but also does nothing to hold particular individuals accountable. Lawton often saw the same perpetrators’ names privately come through in various submissions to her blog, indicating that either no one has reported their misconduct, that there isn’t a safe means for them to do so, or that there is a failure to properly hold these people accountable. “The same names came up time and time again and these are often quite senior, powerful people—it’s terrifying reporting anyone, let alone quite senior people.” Defamation laws in New Zealand have a high threshold, but it’s also not entirely without reason. “To accuse anyone of a serious crime is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly,” media law expert Dr Ursula Cheer told VICE. She said victims who do want to hold offenders accountable are better off doing so through the Human Rights Council, the university or workplace complaints procedure or through the courts.
Interestingly, although offenders were not publicly identified or held accountable, many were still drawn to reading Lawton’s blog, possibly due to a deep-rooted sense of guilt, or possibly just blind fear. “I know that a lot of perpetrators [who were privately identified] did read my blog because I got abuse from them over the blog. So that was one of the things that I was really proud of—they were reading it because they were terrified they were going to be identified… I really hope that reading the blog resonated with some of them.” Whether these MeToo blogs reach any of the particular offenders written about or not, their victims will keep telling their stories and keep pushing for societal change. MeToo isn’t just a viral hashtag, it’s paradigm shift.
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