This unsigned editorial titled “The #metoo campaign” was printed in the Oct. 29 issue of The Southern Cross, South Africa’s Catholic weekly newspaper.
As the Catholic Church discovered 15 years ago, sometimes it takes just one case to blow the lid off a long-fermenting scandal.
In 2002 the investigation by the Boston Globe into the coverup of abuse of minors by clergy led to revelations of similar scandals in many countries around the world. The Catholic Church has been humiliated by the scandal of its own making and is suffering the fallout even now. But the exposure of the culture that allowed for the sexual abuse of young people and its cover-up was necessary so that overdue corrective measures could be developed and implemented.
Hollywood now has its own scandal of sexual abuse and coverups with the recent revelations concerning movie executive Harvey Weinstein, one of the film industry’s most powerful men.
Weinstein’s abuse of young women in the film industry, ranging from indecent exposure to alleged rape, are shocking, as is the fact that many people knew about it — and even joked about it at award ceremonies. But Weinstein is not the only nor even the worst sex offender in Hollywood. He is, in fact, just the tip of an iceberg that has been growing ever since the inception of the movie industry.
The casting couch system, whereby actresses — and actors — would be coerced to submit to sexual acts in return for advancement, has been known about and tolerated for the best part of a century. A refusal to submit to the casting couch could end a career.
Hollywood is virtually synonymous with sexual exploitation. And its practitioners have been adept at covering up that sexual abuse, with many even defending known offenders.
The Weinstein case must become the scandal that brings down the whole predatory system of sexual exploitation in Hollywood.
But Hollywood — like other areas of celebrity culture — merely magnifies the reality of pervasive sexual abuse in many other walks of life, throughout the world.
Weinstein symbolizes a patriarchal system, present in many different social environments, that has always insisted on men’s sexual entitlements, one which takes for granted acts of sexual harassment and coercion and even blames women for their rape. That is the way it was, and that is the way it must no longer be.
The worldwide reaction by women to Weinstein suggests that these patriarchal assumptions are being challenged by women and by men who are dismayed with the sexual exploitation of women.
The social media was awash with a #metoo campaign, whereby women who have had experience of sexual assault, abuse or harassment could simply state in a hashtag that they have been subjected to these.
For some women, it has been an opportunity to tell their stories, and point out how even behaviour which many men might find innocuous had made them feel violated. Many other women who have had these experiences did not post #metoo for various reasons, none of which should be double-guessed.
The importance of #metoo and similar campaigns which doubtless will come in the future, is in the awareness that sexual abuse happens to most women, and to women we all know. It builds awareness about the prevalence of the sexual exploitation, and the unequal power relations that feed it.
Such campaigns help to encourage women in the knowledge that their stories, which some may even be keeping as a “shameful” secret, is shared by others, and that shame rightfully resides with the perpetrator. Solidarity is a powerful healing agent.
For some women, #metoo has been an opportunity to tell that story. For men, even those who are innocent of sexual predation (or think that they are), it is a time to listen — to be silent and hear these stories, without offering justification or contextualization or mounting the defence that not all men are like that.
It is a time for men to introspect about when they might have been the protagonist in a situation that justifies a woman to post #metoo, or were complicit in such a situation by their inaction.
In a patriarchal country like South Africa, with its high levels of sexual violence and complex sexual relations, it is especially important to take into the public forum the question of how power is institutionalized in our patriarchal society.