The #MeToo movement went viral on social media when, on 15 October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo. Her tweet encouraged women who have been sexually abused to share their experiences on social media, including the hashtag, to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment. By early November 2017, #MeToo had been retweeted 23 million times in 85 countries.
The current political climate and widespread social media use helped #MeToo promulgate its message and affect numerous industries throughout the United States. Owing to distinct legal and cultural factors, the movement has taken different forms and has had a varying impact across the world.
II United States
The Me Too campaign was founded by Tarana Burke in 2007 as part of the work she was doing to provide resources to victims of sexual harassment and assault. The campaign went viral on social media after Alyssa Milano asked followers on Twitter to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault using the phrase 'Me too'. In just 24 hours, more than 12 million posts and reactions had included #MeToo. By 24 October 2017, the media were reporting that more than 1.7 million tweets across 85 countries had included #MeToo.
Milano's tweet was set against a historic Hollywood backdrop: on 5 October 2017, The New York Times reported on allegations by numerous women of sexual assault and harassment against former film producer Harvey Weinstein. The allegations spanned three decades and came from women across the entire spectrum of film experience. Weinstein announced his departure from the Weinstein Company the same day; he was officially fired three days later from the powerful production company he had co-founded. On 10 October 2017, The New Yorker released another bombshell report of multiple women accusing Weinstein of rape and harassment. Four days later, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences removed Weinstein from its ranks. Numerous other distinguished film groups followed suit in the subsequent weeks. In the months that followed, women broke their silence and accused men working in industries ranging from Hollywood to politics of sexual harassment. The sheer number of allegations could not be ignored, and many men faced swift consequences in their workplace and in the public's opinion. Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey and Eric Schneiderman are just a handful of the numerous prominent, well-known men who were accused of sexual harassment and consequently either left or lost their jobs. Weinstein has since been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 90 women, including for sexual harassment, assault or rape. In December 2019, Weinstein reached a US$47 million settlement with his former film studio's executive board and several women who had accused Weinstein of misconduct, US$25 million of which has been designated to go to his accusers. At the time of writing, Weinstein still faces sexual assault charges in New York State court.
The Me Too movement existed for more than a decade before it truly gained momentum and resulted in tangible consequences for those accused. The current political climate is likely to have contributed to #MeToo's success. Many Americans feel more politically inclined and take more political action following the results of the 2016 presidential election. An estimated 5.2 million marchers across 653 affiliated marches attended the first planned Women's March the day after President Trump's 2017 inauguration.2 Inspired political action, coupled with social media's influence and widespread use, contributes to an environment that makes #MeToo's success possible.
Still, in the United States, women have been protected from workplace sexual harassment for decades. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on gender. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines and important court decisions, such as Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986, establish that Title VII prohibits quid pro quo and hostile sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are strictly liable for a supervisor's harassment that results in a negative employment decision, such as dismissing an employee or failing to hire a potential employee. An employer may only avoid liability for a supervisor creating a hostile work environment if it can show that it reasonably tried to prevent or correct the behaviour and the employee did not use the employer's preventative or corrective opportunities. Employers are also liable for prohibited harassment by employees who are not supervisors and non-employees that it controls, if the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and did not take corrective action.3
In 1991, Italy enacted Law 125/1991 to encourage employers to employ women and to combat the existing discrimination against women in the workplace. Law 125/1991 was amended in May 2005 to implement the EU Equal Treatment Directive. As amended, the Law explicitly prohibits direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace, including sexual harassment.4 If employers make an adverse employment decision as a consequence of an employee submitting to or refusing to submit to unlawful sexual harassment, the employment decision is considered invalid. In addition to other remedies, the employer may be required to pay damages, including psychological damages to the victim (employee).5
Italian-born film actress and director Asia Argento was one of the first women to report that Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted her. In the United States, the response was swift: three days after the initial report by The New York Times was published, Weinstein was fired from the company he had co-founded.
But the response in Italy was very different. Despite the credibility associated with allegations by more than 50 women across more than 30 years against the same powerful Hollywood mogul, Argento's revelation was not well received in her home country. The media heavily criticised Argento for her report. An op-ed in Libero, an Italian right-wing newspaper, noted allegations may be borne out of regret for sex that had originally been consensual.6 Libero's editor publicly stated that Argento should be grateful that Weinstein had forcibly performed oral sex on her.7 Female Italian public figures were similarly unsympathetic. Selvaggia Lucarelli, a feminist writer, characterised Argento's experience as consensual and said that her 20-year reporting delay was not 'legitimate'.8 These and numerous other public remarks were enough to force Argento to flee Italy to escape the media's toxic atmosphere of victim-blaming and comparisons to prostitution. In April 2018, it was revealed that Argento had herself entered into a US$380,000 settlement with actor Jimmy Bennett, who had accused Argento of sexually assaulting him in California when he was 17 years old.9 The Los Angeles County Sheriff's department initiated an investigation but no charges were brought against Argento. In September 2018, Bennett appeared on the Italian television show Non è l'Arena to discuss his experience, but the show's host questioned Bennett as to how a man could be raped by a woman.10 After 10 women accused Italian film director Fausto Brizzi of molesting them, Warner Brothers suspended all future work with the director. The media, however, overwhelmingly supported the director.11 Other prominent Italian figures have faced similar experiences as a consequence of the #MeToo movement.
Indeed, it seems that an unsympathetic Italian response is not unique to Argento's story. In December 2017, the president of Italy's lower house of parliament, Laura Boldrini, held a women-only conference to draw attention to the fact that Italian citizens often ignore women's reports of sexual harassment. She noted the #MeToo worldwide movement ignited by the Weinstein report has not 'had the same effect' in Italy.12 As to why, she joked 'in our country, there are no harassers'.13 She went on to admit that harassment was rampant, but Italy's 'strong prejudice' against women causes them to remain silent.14
Some believe religious education may contribute to Italy's stance towards sexual harassment. Lorella Zanardo, an Italian women's rights activist and author, believes Italy's prejudices towards women are rooted in Catholic education,15 noting that it preaches gender roles that include a woman being an obedient 'good wife'.16 In the #MeToo context, this rigid gender role may discourage reports of unchaste or taboo acts of sexual harassment.
Italian politics may also be a more recent contributory factor to the prejudices against women in the sexual harassment context. Perhaps one of the most well-known Italian politicians in recent times is Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Prime Minister for nine years over three terms between 1994 and 2011. While in office, Berlusconi was known for his 'bunga bunga' parties, graphic accounts of which detail women being fondled, kissed and made to grope Berlusconi.17 He was acquitted of paying for sex with an underage prostitute at a 'bunga bunga' party after a court found he did not know the woman was underage.18
In addition to his political career, Berlusconi is also a billionaire media mogul and his family's company is the controlling owner of Mediaset, Italy's largest commercial television broadcaster. Like much of Italian television, Mediaset's channels largely objectify women as silent provocative dancers and otherwise sexual objects.19 Though Berlusconi has not held office since 2011, his six-year ban on holding public office for a tax fraud conviction in 2012 was lifted in May 2018 and, a year later, he was elected as a member of the European Parliament. Berlusconi's prominence surely reinforces stereotypes and prejudices against women.
#MeToo evoked a different reaction in neighbouring France. The French equivalent of the hashtag, #BalanceTonPorc, translates as 'rat on your pig'. The hashtag encouraged French women to use social media to name their abusers and inspired hundreds of thousands of posts. French President Emmanuel Macron's actions stand in stark contrast to Berlusconi's: Macron generally encourages policies promoting gender equality20 and urged that Weinstein's Legion of Honour, which he won in 2011, be revoked.
Still, the conversation sparked in France does not entirely support #MeToo, or the practice of outing one's harasser. Instead, a backlash brought to light a division between feminist theories in France. In January 2018, 100 famous French women, including Catherine Deneuve, penned an open letter to the daily French newspaper, Le Monde. The letter denounces #MeToo as 'puritanical' and represents a feminist theory born out of the 1960s sexual revolution.21 The letter's signatories believe #MeToo undoes much of the sexual revolution's work of de-censoring sexual desire.22 The #MeToo backlash in France is also likely to be influenced by a culture that encourages flirtation and seduction.23 The letter also explicitly defends men's right to pester women. Berlusconi described Deneuve's letter as 'blessed words'.24
The divide between the authors and those who support #MeToo is largely generational. Many young women in France believe the days of exalting seduction are over, and the #MeToo movement emboldens women to draw boundaries in the workplace.25 Indeed, French feminists wrote letters in response to Deneuve, disagreeing with her. Caroline De Haas, the founder of a French women's organisation, responded with a letter co-signed by 30 women, which noted that 'it's not a difference of degrees between flirting and harassment, but a difference in nature'.26 In France, #MeToo sparked a clash between an age-old cultural adoration of seduction and a modern understanding that seduction in the form of harassment is not welcome.
Cultural phenomena unique to Japan created a distinctive reaction to #MeToo there. Saving face, or avoiding embarrassment for oneself and others, is considered a high priority in Japan.27 This cultural value may further deter women from reporting sexual harassment. Indeed, in a May 2018 survey of more than 200 large and medium-sized Japanese companies, only 14 per cent of the companies surveyed said they had received complaints of sexual harassment in the past year.28 A 2015 government survey found that only 4 per cent of rape and sexual assault victims reported to the police and more than two-thirds of victims surveyed had not told a single person about the crimes.29 A study released in October 2019 by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare determined that 19.7 per cent of the women polled reported that they were victims of sexual harassment.30 Japanese culture puts pressure on people to 'bear one's hardship'.31 This deters reporting and may help to explain the culture of widespread victim-blaming.
Women's status in the workforce also may account for under-reporting. Though Japanese women participate in the workforce at a higher rate than US women, their prospects for advancement and overall outcomes are often worse.32 According to data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for 2017, just 0.7 per cent of employed women were managers, compared to 3.5 per cent of employed men. Using the United States as a comparison, 9.2 per cent of employed women and 11.9 per cent of employed men were managers. Even more starkly, only 5.3 per cent of seats on boards of the largest publicly listed companies in Japan were held by women in 2017.33 In the United States, that proportion is 21.7 per cent. Japan ranked 110th of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2018 gender gap report.34 Perhaps women's low status in the workforce deters them from reporting: an April 2018 online poll of 1,000 working Japanese women found that 60 per cent of those who experienced sexual harassment at work 'put up with it' to protect their status in the workplace, and only 24 per cent of women surveyed reported it at work or to someone else.35 Yet companies have not prioritised improving sexual harassment policies: a May 2018 survey found that 78 per cent of companies had not strengthened sexual harassment policies and 77 per cent were not considering policy changes.36
To combat cultural factors unique to Japan, which result in women drastically under-reporting sexual harassment, #MeToo has taken a new form in the country. In its place, #WeToo encourages unity between victims and supporters. #WeToo was created in the hope of increasing reporting, as well as a feeling of support, solidarity and validation for victims.
Despite the cultural and workplace barriers Japanese women face, #MeToo has had an effect on at least one case in Japan. A female reporter for TV Asahi told a Japanese magazine that Junichi Fukuda, the finance ministry's top bureaucrat, repeatedly sexually harassed her. Fukuda resigned in mid April 2018, though he admitted no wrongdoing. This was the first time in 20 years that a senior official from the finance ministry had resigned over misconduct. Still, the immediate reaction was not supportive of the reporter's accusation. She took her story to the magazine only after her managers at TV Asahi advised her to remain silent about the harassment. The finance minister initially announced that he had no plans to investigate the claims. Later, the ministry urged female reporters to cooperate with fact-finding. This move was criticised as essentially putting pressure on victims to face their harassers.37
India's violent and well-documented history of workplace harassment laws began in 1992. That year, Bhanwari Devi worked as an employee of the Rajasthan government's Women's Development Project. As was required by her government job, Devi reported to the police a plan by five upper-caste men to marry off a nine-month-old girl. In response, the men gang raped Devi and beat her husband. Devi reported the rape to the police. This type of rape complaint was very rare in India in 1992, especially against men of a higher caste. Initially, the police did not accept her complaint, but women's groups put pressure on the police to allow Devi's complaint. The five men were acquitted three years later. The judgment was appealed and Devi is still awaiting a final verdict. Devi's experience inspired women's groups to file public interest litigation, which resulted in the first set of workplace harassment guidelines, the Vishaka Guidelines, in 1997.
India enacted more biting prohibitions on workplace sexual harassment in 2013. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act was similarly enacted in response to a brutal and widely publicised gang rape. Jyoti Singh was 23 years old when she was gang raped on a public bus and left naked on the side of the road. Singh died two weeks later from injuries sustained during the rape. Thousands of Indian citizens protested to demand the government take greater action to ensure women's safety and impose stricter punishments for sexual crimes. The government responded to this demand in December 2013 with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act. The Act requires employers to set up a system for reporting and addressing complaints, which may include an internal complaints committee. The committee is required to provide certain types of rectifications before beginning its investigation. The Act imposes strict punishments on non-compliant employers: they can be punished with a fine of up to 50,000 rupees. Repeated violations are subject to higher penalties, as well as business delicensing or deregistration.38
As Bhanwari Devi's and Jyoti Singh's stories demonstrate, Indian women face a pervasive threat of sexual harassment everywhere from the public bus to the workplace. Indian feminism has, perhaps out of necessity, focused on issues affecting women such as child marriage, dowry-related violence and even the existential threat of rampant female foeticide.39 As evidenced by the public outcry following the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh, Indians also have begun to demand safety for women from sexual assault. Nevertheless, #MeToo faces obstacles in India, where many still see women as inferior to men.40 In a common criticism of the movement, many Indians have rejected #MeToo outright as a movement reserved for women privileged enough to be able to demand freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace. This may be a fair criticism, given the causes Indian feminism has traditionally combatted, and the fact that 59 per cent of women in urban areas and 64 per cent of women in rural areas do not have internet access.41
#MeToo could become a rallying movement, particularly in Bollywood, where many women find it commonplace to be asked for sexual favours in return for acting roles.42 One anonymous actress was sexually assaulted by a casting agent. When she reported the event to the police, they told her that people in the film industry can do whatever they want.43 Actresses who refuse sexual advances face the possibility of retaliation or being blacklisted.44 However, India's regional film industries are also slowly bringing abuse within the industry into the public eye. Sri Reddy, a 'Tollywood' actress, staged a nude protest in April 2018, videos of which spread over the internet and incited comments that she was merely attempting to further her career.45 Radhika Apte, one of the few Bollywood stars to speak out about her experiences of refusing producers' sexual advances, explains one barrier to Bollywood catching onto the #MeToo movement is the system of earning film roles in Bollywood. Unlike in Hollywood, where theatre and acting education is highly valued, earning roles in Bollywood is based on professional contacts, personal conduct and appearance.46 Bollywood's #MeToo movement may be yet to come, given women's reluctance to report abuse.
Sexual abuse in Egypt is also common, as indicated by a 2017 UN poll, which ranked Cairo as the most dangerous megacity for women based on factors including the level of protection from sexual assault afforded to women.47 Until 2014, Egyptian law did not define or criminalise sexual harassment. A 2014 law punishes sexual harassment with fines up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds and jail sentences of between six months and five years. Harassers who hold a position of power over victims, including in the workplace, face longer sentences.48
One potential obstacle to #MeToo's influence in Egypt is the police. Women may feel uncomfortable reporting sexual harassment to male police officers, and there is a dearth of female officers in Egypt.49 In 2008, Noha al-Ostaz dragged her assailant to a police station, but the police refused to file a complaint until al-Ostaz's father arrived. Harassment by a policeman inspired Amal Fathy to post a video detailing the harassment and discussing the government's failure to protect women. Fathy was charged with crimes including insulting Egypt.50 Perhaps in response to this issue, Egypt's Ministry of the Interior deployed female police officers to crowded areas during the Eid al-Fitr holiday specifically to combat sexual violence against women.
Without simplifying the issue to merely a product of religion, #MeToo has affected Egyptian society's practice of religion. Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American activist and journalist. When she was 15 years old, she travelled to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, for the holy Islamic pilgrimage called hajj. During a sacred religious moment and while in a hijab, Eltahawy was groped by a stranger. In response to a Pakistani woman's post about a similar experience at hajj, Eltahawy posted her story on Twitter using #MeToo. Her tweet inspired hundreds of posts sharing similar stories. Eltahawy then posted #MosqueMeToo to encourage more women to share their stories from the Muslim world and break the taboo around sexual harassment 'in sacred spaces'.51 Similar stories of sexual assault in the Muslim world and during holy Islamic exercises are shockingly common.52 Many Muslim women are hesitant to report abuse because they do not want to fuel Islamophobia. Others may fear a conservative backlash that could result in men and women being separated while praying at holy sites.53 #MeToo may face obstacles in societies where religious factors increase women's reluctance to report abuse.
Just as actresses in the United States, and, albeit to a much lesser extent, India, are leading the #MeToo movement in their countries, several reports from the Mexican entertainment industry sparked the #MeToo conversation in Mexico. In February 2018, well-known Mexican actress Karla Souza reported she was pressured sexually and later raped by an unnamed Mexican director. Though Souza did not name Gustavo Loza in her report, a major Mexican media company, Televisa, cut the director from its business the next day. Unlike Televisa's action, the Mexican media did not support Souza or others who have similarly reported abuse.54 TV host Horacio Villalobos called the women 'irresponsible . . . to go on TV and refuse to name names and make false accusations'.55 Just as in Italy, the media's reaction was overwhelmingly critical of women's decisions to report abuse. And as has been the case in India, some in the Mexican entertainment industry have experienced widespread sexual harassment in their industry for decades. Sabina Berman reported that she was molested by the president of the Mexican Writer's Guild for 10 years, beginning when she was 19. Berman made these claims publicly on CNN en Español, where she also accused a casting agency of misconduct involving underage girls. After the agency vehemently denied the accusation, Berman withdrew her allegation against the agency and apologised for her false accusation.56
But the media response was not completely one-sided. Security analyst Alejandro Hope published an article in his weekly op-ed column with his explanation of why women choose not to report abuse.57 Hope cited numerous factors, including that women who report do not receive judicious outcomes and that they are forced to relive their abuse. Hope also noted that women may be blamed for not knowing men 'think with their genitals' and for misinterpreting flattery and flirting for harassment.58 Women utilised the #YoNoDenuncioPorque to explain for themselves why they did not report abuse.
As Hope's cited reasons may indicate, the Mexican culture exalting machismo may affect #MeToo's impact in the country. Machismo, or male entitlement, is widespread and deeply rooted in Mexico's culture and society.59 Machismo culture may help to account for gender-based violence against women, which is rife in Mexico: between 2007 and 2015, the femicide rate more than doubled, from 1,086 per year to 2,555 per year.60 Rafael Vallejo Gil, a labour and employment partner at the Mexican law firm Gonzalez Calvillo, agrees that deep-seated cultural machismo fosters workplace sexual harassment. Gil believes the Mexican culture of individualistically dealing with one's own problems further deters women from reporting sexual harassment. These cultural values are so deeply ingrained that Gil estimates it will take a concerted effort by the Mexican government and an entire generation to eradicate these values. Until then, #MeToo has moved Mexican professionals to consider other countries' efforts to increase reporting as examples for their companies. Gil has also noticed an increase in companies requiring sexual harassment training. Yet he finds employees receive the training differently based on whether they work for a multinational company or a local company: those working in multinational companies are more likely to view the training as evidence of the companies' social responsibility and appreciate the training, whereas those working for more local companies may view training as worthless and as a shallow attempt by the company to maintain a positive image.61 On 21 March 2019, political communications consultant and activist Ana González sparked a new wave of Mexico's #MeToo movement when she tweeted that a writer, Herson Barona, had 'beaten, manipulated, gaslighted, impregnated and abandoned (on more than one occasion) more than 10 women'.62 While González clarified that she had not been a victim of Barona's alleged conduct, she nonetheless reinvigorated the #MeToo movement with new subsets, including #MeTooJournalists and #MeTooEscritores (meaning #MeTooWriters).63 Professional women throughout Mexico responded, and the attorney general for the state of Michoacán opened an investigation into allegations made by journalists who reported they had been victimised.64 Since her tweet in March 2019, González has suffered internet harassment, but insists that she would not have done anything differently.
VII Advice to multinational employers
Sexual harassment cases have arisen out of workplace conduct for decades. #MeToo has had a global impact on how these cases are perceived and addressed. Employers must concentrate on protecting their brand and reputation, which has become increasingly challenging in the social media era. When addressing individual sexual harassment complaints and conducting investigations, it is imperative that multinational companies understand not just the legal differences but also the cultural nuances in the jurisdictions in which they operate.