#MeToo, Rape Culture and the Paradoxes of Social Media Campaigns

by Bianca Fileborn & Rachel Loney-Howes*


Image by For All Womankind (edited)

The allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein led to a powerful and widespread social media campaign, with Twitter and Facebook feeds flooded with the hashtag #MeToo. Within 24 hours, at least 4.7 million people made over 12 million posts. Individuals from around the world participated in this online conversation, declaring that they had also experienced sexual harassment or assault, demonstrating both the pervasiveness of sexual violence and an unwillingness to stay silent any longer.

#MeToo provides a timely example of how survivors of sexual violence are using social media and communication technologies to speak out and as a mechanism for achieving a sense of justice. At the same time, there are substantial limitations and challenges associated with online justice that need to be taken into account.

The positive response to the #MeToo campaign has been phenomenal, demonstrating widespread validation and recognition of survivors’ experiences. Online communities and collective disclosure provide solidarity and support to victim-survivors, serving as  an alternative form of justice that expresses victims’ justice needs and fosters cultures and spaces of support outside of mainstream criminal justice vehicles.

Additionally, online spaces can provide subaltern or counter-public spaces to challenge rape culture in ways that the normative “public sphere” has denied. Survivors coming out and claiming or disclosing their experiences in these online spaces challenge the scripts that govern what rape and trauma ought to look like. In particular, these online campaigns demonstrate that rape is widespread, not necessarily violent, and that traumatic responses vary.

Clearly, the power of a viral social media campaign has potentially opened up a space for productive and meaningful dialogue about sexual violence. Yet, in other respects campaigns such as #MeToo, and the search for justice online more broadly, raise some critical questions regarding whose justice needs are fulfilled in the online realm, and who, precisely, is able to harness these spaces effectively to have their experiences and victim status recognized.

Participation in these campaigns is inherently performative and problematic, as recent feminist critiques have raised. Public representations of trauma, which are a central feature of #MeToo, can be read as reinforcing notions of women as vulnerable victims. Moreover, why does it take a social media campaign to give credibility to women’s campaigns given that the pervasiveness of sexual violence has been well documented for some time now?

We also need to be aware that there is a certain type of privilege that comes from being able to speak out. It is often white middle-class women who occupy online spaces, and victim-survivors from diverse demographic groups may be actively excluded. Survivors vary in their capacity and willingness to engage in online disclosure, and to effectively harness these spaces in disclosing. Some voices are privileged above others online, with subsequent implications for who is recognized as a survivor and who is able to achieve a sense of justice. Also eclipsed in much of the discussion on #MeToo is the potential for further victimization. Online disclosure can lead to validation and support, but it can equally result in dismissal, disbelief, and further harassment and abuse.

Rarely acknowledged is the amount of emotional labor that goes into sustaining these cultures of support and justice in online spaces. This is more than just “keeping out the trolls” but speaks more broadly to the effort of providing therapeutic support in these spaces. Survivors are burdened with the responsibility of raising awareness about sexual violence, generating broader social and cultural change, and providing support to other survivors.

The extent to which online disclosure and viral campaigns can generate substantive change is also open to question. The phrase “going viral” is itself instructive here, as “viral” also connotes something that needs to be eradicated. “Viral” campaigns are typically ephemeral and unlikely to maintain the momentum needed to generate longer-term change. This has lead to critiques of online activism as “slacktivism.” That said, with US congressperson Jackie Speier introducing a Me Too bill addressing sexual harassment policies in US government, there are signs that the campaign may transcend mere “slacktivism.”

Ultimately, #MeToo merely underscores what feminist activists have been trying to “convince” society of for years: that sexual violence is pervasive, often perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and that such behavior is condoned or at least tolerated because of a pervasive rape culture. #MeToo is therefore not a new phenomenon, although it is occurring in a new space. What we are seeing, though, is the impact digital technologies are having on shortening the time between waves or cycles of anti-rape activism. Moreover, these online spaces are able to sustain networks of solidarity across time, space, and place, making mobilization much faster, dynamic, and palpable and bringing seemingly “private” troubles to the public sphere to be witnessed.

However, the critiques and limitations of #MeToo illustrate a need to pay close attention to the power dynamics shaping speech acts, the subjectivities of those who engage in this type of activism, and the discourses that manifest in these spaces. Failing to do so will lead to backlash within and external to the movement, ultimately undermining the potential of campaigns like #MeToo to move beyond rhetoric and engender meaningful change.

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Recommended Readings

Fileborn, B. 2017. Justice 2.0: Street Harassment Victims’ Use of Social Media and Online Activism as Sites of Informal Justice. British Journal of Criminology 57(6): 1482–1501.

Loney-Howes, R. Forthcoming. Shifting the Rape Script: “Coming Out” Online as a Rape Victim. Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies.

Powell, A. 2015. Seeking Rape Justice: Formal and Informal Responses to Sexual Violence through Technosocial Counterpublics. Theoretical Criminology 19: 571–88.

Salter, M. 2013. Justice and Revenge in Online Counter-Publics: Emerging Responses to Sexual Violence in the Age of Social Media. Crime Media Culture 9: 225–42.

Wanggren, L. 2016. Our Stories Matter: Storytelling and Social Justice in the Hollaback! Movement. Gender and Education 28(3): 401–15.

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Dr. Bianca Fileborn is a Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney. Her research examines intersections of identity, space/place, culture, and sexual violence. Her current research focuses on justice responses to street harassment, and sexual violence in licensed venues and music festivals. She is the author of Reclaiming the Night-Time Economy: Unwanted Sexual Attention in Pubs and Clubs (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Dr. Rachel Loney-Howes is a Research Officer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Melbourne. Her research examines the nature, history, and scope of anti-rape activism with a particular focus on the impact digital technologies have on the movement. She is currently working on project examining the use of a sexual assault reporting app (SARA).

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