Rise Up

Now Elected Officials Need to Take Action to Support the #MeToo Movement

Hollywood A-listers have put a spotlight on the sexual assault awareness campaign of activist Tarana Burke. Now it's time for politicians to put legislation behind the movement.

by Emily Weitz
Feb 27 2018, 5:30pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In a world of government shutdowns and stagnation on pressing decisions, it’s refreshing to see results. The #MeToo and #Timesup movements have taken popular culture by storm, and where government leaders often seem impotent, activists are taking abusers out of power and forcing the hard conversations. But the question remains: what about us ordinary people? Is this actually going to change our lives?

It’s visible in the millions who came together on the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March that women and the men who stand with them want change. But how do we ensure it? Krish Vignarajah, a candidate for Maryland governor, thinks the government is responsible for providing an avenue of support for all its people.

“Part of why I want to centralize an office of sexual harassment and violence is to make reporting abuse the easiest thing to do,” said Vignarajah in an interview with VICE Impact.

The #MeToo movement has provided an invitation for women to come forward and tell their stories, knowing they will be supported. But that support has not been without detractors, and even in this climate, it takes a lot for a woman to come out against those in power.

“I am starting to hear from women that they are feeling enabled to speak out,” said Vignarajah, “but there’s still a deep concern about how this will affect them, and their ability to keep their job. Victims still feel part of the blame will be placed on them.”

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That’s where government offices and businesses have to play a role, she believes. It’s not enough to rely on social media and popular culture to take down predators: this is not only unreliable; it could undermine the goals of the movement. Harvey Weinstein was fired from the company that bore his name after the now infamous New York Times story first broke in October. But what would happen if a waitress tweeted that the manager at her restaurant raped her? What if a farm worker went to the local newspaper to tell her story about the man in charge?

Teresa Younger, CEO of the Ms. Foundation, a non-profit devoted to elevating women’s voices to create positive change since 1973, warns that even as many women speak up and break the culture of silence, the most vulnerable may not feel they have the freedom to do so.

"It’s not enough to rely on social media and popular culture to take down predators: this is not only unreliable; it could undermine the goals of the movement."

“Public responses and consequences are still largely framed by who the survivors and the perpetrators are,” Younger told VICE Impact, “and it is clear that women of color, LGBTQ women, trans women, and undocumented women still face exceptional risks in their day-to-day lives that may discourage them from speaking up. It is important that we fight for them so that no woman lives in fear.”

For these cases, legal accessible avenues must be available. But, these avenues shouldn’t be stagnant proceedings that might amount to nothing for victims.

“Obviously no one wants this to become a McCarthy-esque witch hunt,” said Vignarajah. “There needs to be due process before any adverse action is taken. At the same time, historically we have had a culture of dragging our feet and sweeping things under carpets. Accusations need to be supported. There needs to be some review in place, but I don’t want due process to be some kind of code word for immunity.”

Since the #MeToo movement first ignited, states across the country have begun to look at their sexual harassment policies. On January 2, New York governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new plan to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.“2017 brought a long overdue reckoning where the secret and pervasive poison of workplace sexual harassment was exposed by brave women and men who said this ends now,” Governor Cuomo said in his State of the State proposal.

He proposed measures like preventing taxpayer funds from being used for settlements and prohibiting confidentiality agreements that perpetuate a culture of silence, while still protecting the privacy of survivors.

With women’s rights in question, protections for sexual harassment survivors becomes more precarious.

As the momentum swells under women’s movements, brazen voices have also risen up in opposition. Roy Moore- endorsed Senate GOP candidate Courtland Sykes, who is running against Claire McCaskill in Missouri, made his position of women’s rights clear when he said he expected his daughters to one day grow up to serve him dinner, to “become traditional homemakers and family wives - think Norman Rockwell here and Gloria Steinem be damned.”

With women’s rights in question, protections for sexual harassment survivors becomes more precarious. The first step in the political realm, Vignarajah believes, is that sexual predators shouldn’t be able to run for office. This might take some level of self-reporting, but she believes that by simply mandating a statement from every candidate, we are setting a certain standard.

“Every politician and every candidate should be required to declare that they have never engaged in or been supportive of harassment or violence,” said Vignarajah. “If you get people on paper, it’s the litmus test of what we expect out of our political leaders.”

Perhaps the most essential component to ending the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and assault is ensuring women that they will be believed and supported. For that, Vignarajah has a plan that offers wraparound legal services, counseling, and support.

“The vocal and powerful movement on TV helps,” she said, “but day to day we have to recognize these women need concrete support around them. That’s why I want to create a dedicated office that all Marylanders can turn to that will be an advocate for whatever the aftermath is, and the sense of confidence women need, especially those who are most vulnerable and frankly most likely to be abused.”

Perhaps the most essential component to ending the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and assault is ensuring women that they will be believed and supported.

When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg spoke at the Sundance Film Festival , she shared her own experiences as a young woman, and her quest to find the legal avenues to protect women’s rights. She read “Sexual Harassment of Working Women” (1979) by Catharine MacKinnon, one of the women who coined the term “sexual harassment”.

“It was a revelation,” said Ginsberg in an interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg at Sundance. “ [It described] how this anti-discrimination law, title 7, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, and sex, how that could be used as a tool to stop sexual harassment. It was eye opening and it was the beginning of a field that didn’t exist until then.”

Now, the legal avenues are there. And with #metoo, our society is ready to hear it.

“It’s about time,” said Justice Ginsberg about the #MeToo movement. “For so long women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it. Now the law is on the side of women or men who encounter harassment, and that’s a good thing.”

With the laws in place and the national dialogue happening, the way to bring true impact to individuals and communities is through local, grassroots action. More women are running for office than ever before, with Project 100, a group devoted to electing 100 women to Congress by 2020, now listing 294 progressive female candidates for Congress. Not to mention the growing numbers of male candidates who identify as feminists and have made it clear that addressing sexual harassment is a top priority.

“People need to know their rights, to know what protections are in place so they feel empowered to speak out,” said Vignarajah. “We need to use the national conversation to have the local conversation. This issue came to the spotlight because of the national headlines, but we need a ground up grassroots movement in every community and workplace and state legislature.”

If you have a strong opinion on how the government should be run, don't just talk about it— take action. Make sure you're registered to vote so that you can have your voice heard. Then show up on Election Day in local and federal races to make your vote count. VICE Impact has partnered with TurboVote to get people registered, sign up today to have an effect on tomorrow.

sexual violence
sexual assault
sexual harrasment
Project 100
Krish Vignarajah