#MeToo Five Years Later: How To Measure the Movement’s Impact?

Last spring, the fate of an entire global movement was decided in a single courtroom in Virginia. That’s how the story went.

Actors and ex-spouses Amber Heard and Johnny Depp dueled over defamation allegations. An online mob swarmed over Ms Heard. Many observers feared that other women would be intimidated by allegations of abuse. Even before a jury ruled the case overwhelmingly in Mr Depp’s favor, obituaries surfaced on #Metoo, including in this newspaper.

“This is basically the end of MeToo,” says one psychologist said Rolling Stone after the verdict. “It’s the death of the whole movement.”

The #MeToo mourners came to this conclusion even though the actors’ trial layered allegations of sexual and domestic violence with other elements – thermonuclear divorce, celebrity spectacle. Few commentators cited another story this week: a bombastic report from the Southern Baptist Convention that admitted senior church leaders had suppressed and mistreated allegations of abuse of women and children within their ranks for over two decades. The group soon unveiled a more than 200-page file describing hundreds of accused clergymen and other church workers. The reckoning of the country’s largest Protestant denomination was a broader, deeper #MeToo event than the courtroom row and a sign of the movement’s resilience.

Five years after the #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon, its success is inherently difficult to measure.

The conventional way of judging it follows which prominent defendant falls or prevails at the time. Harvey Weinstein is sent to prison; Bill Cosby goes free. Andrew M. Cuomo resigns; R. Kelly is convicted.

“It’s up and down and up and down all the time,” said Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement in 2006 to seek healing for black women who have suffered sexual abuse.

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After the New York Times and The New Yorker exposed the allegations against Mr. Weinstein in October 2017, the phrase #MeToo not only went viral — it spread. Ms. Burke watched as the term she coined was used in ways far beyond her organization and mission. People used it to describe not only rape and sexual harassment in the workplace, but also domestic violence, gender bias, and verbal abuse.

However, the malleability that has given #MeToo its power and influence also makes it challenging for supporters to define clear goals or tabulate wins and losses.

Take two episodes from this year. In April, Louis CK won a Grammy and provoked shock in many other comedians, fans and others, especially as his accusers – female comedians who weren’t nearly as strong – continued to struggle. But his is also arguably one of the most established #MeToo stories because he admitted the allegations against him were true. The ongoing controversy is less about the facts and more about whether he was appropriately punished.

After sexual misconduct allegations were made against NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson in 2021, the Cleveland Browns signed a $230 million full-guarantee contract, prompting complaints that the league wasn’t taking the allegations seriously and itself don’t care about women. But last summer, after a league investigation found Mr Watson committed multiple violations of his personal conduct guidelines, the quarterback was suspended for 11 games and handed a record $5 million fine. While some saw the penalties as a slap on the wrist, they were among the harshest in league history.

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These stories are shapeshifters, evidence of #MeToo’s endurance or its waning influence.

But stepping back from individual transgressions and examining #MeToo at a systemic level reveals that the last five years have been momentous.

In 2016, Fatima Goss Graves, director of the National Women’s Law Center, was part of a group of sexual harassment experts preparing policy recommendations for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the time, she said, the issue seemed deadlocked. The group saw no political will to bring about change.

The #MeToo explosion over the next year brought renewed engagement. Since then, 22 states have passed laws to make workplaces safer. Some are extending the statute of limitations on sexual harassment claims; others prohibit the use of non-disclosure agreements for financial settlements with victims, which are often used to conceal perpetrators.

Companies have introduced stricter sexual harassment policies and new training. Many employers were motivated to act because “there’s a financial interest,” said Chai Feldblum, a former EEOC commissioner. “It’s a real burden for companies.” Many company boards have taken action, and the definition of a misdemeanor has grown in some companies.

“The energy of so many people speaking out has really accelerated policy change,” said Ms. Goss Graves. “Institutions were forced to respond.”

However, consensus on specific targets has been slow to emerge. Such is the pain unleashed that “a lot of focus has been placed on healing,” said Shaunna Thomas, founder of UltraViolet, a women’s rights advocacy group.

“We are working on a shift away from the accountability of individual ‘bad actors'” towards more systemic reforms, she added.

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When asked how progress should be measured, she and other leaders and experts suggested a variety of goals. More than one person mentioned the strengthening of federal sexual harassment laws that do not cover all workers.

Ms Thomas also cited curbing online abuse and strengthening the social safety net so low-wage workers are less vulnerable to abusive employers. Ms Burke said the focus should be on “consent education in school” so children learn to “reject rape culture and respect bodily autonomy”. Ms. Feldblum, a former EEOC official, recommended self-assessments where companies check whether their employees feel empowered to report problems.

In the coming year, public attention will likely turn to Mr. Weinstein again. He is already serving a sentence in New York and will appear in court in Los Angeles this fall. He was also recently charged with two counts of indecent assault in London. And New York’s highest court has agreed to hear his appeal against the original verdict, so there’s a chance he can walk free.

Neither case will be a judgment on the wide range of allegations against Mr. Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual misconduct, including rape, by more than 90 women. Relatively few women are involved in the court cases, and their claims must meet the strict requirements of the criminal code to be convicted.

Ms Goss Graves, director of the National Women’s Law Center, said the reason targets are difficult to define is because the central target is so ambitious.

“Our goal must be to end sexual violence,” she said. “The true goal feels huge and is not achievable overnight.”

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