The myth of #MeToo fatigue

The backlash against the #MeToo movement has begun — and it’s ferocious.

“Suddenly a movement to center survivors of sexual violence is being talked about as a vindictive plot against men,” Tarana Burke said in a recent TEDWomen talk. She reminds us that “this is a movement about the one in four girls and the one in six boys who are sexually abused every year and who carry those wounds into adulthood."


But that focus is being lost in a media frenzy and political campaign of misdirection and false equivalence, so that harassers can keep their privilege and employers can avoid monetary penalties. It’s a cynical and doomed to fail strategy we’ve seen before.

Back in the early 1990s, Susan Faludi wrote about the backlash against feminism that was part of a concerted effort by powerful interests to reverse women’s gains in moving towards equality. “The anti-feminist backlash has been set off not by women's achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it,” she wrote in "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." “It is a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line." 

Now, the same groups that have been undermining women’s equality for so long are busy denying the epidemic of sexual violence and marginalizing survivors who come forward at great personal risk. It’s even been suggested that “#MeToo fatigue” is settling in and that the movement is a phase that will soon pass by. That's not true.

Women will not be silenced even as we face a disinformation and propaganda campaign engineered by a culture of men protecting other powerful men. The serious problem of sexual harassment and assault is being marginalized by those who would keep the focus on celebrity misconduct or business scandals, rather than dealing with the root of the problem: These defenders of privileged men who abuse women ignore the deep and lifelong economic and psychological impact that this discriminatory treatment has on women.

Abusers must be removed from their positions of power and brought to justice, but we need to take the conversation about sexual violence past the “gotcha” phase and the prurient details of lewd acts and find concrete ways to end the culture of abuse.

First, we need more women in positions of power. The results of the midterm elections were a resounding affirmation of feminist leadership. With Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats sharpen their message on impeachment Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate Siren song of impeachment lures Democrats toward election doom MORE (D-Calif.) as Speaker of the House and more women committee chairs and in leadership, a common-sense agenda of policies that protect women’s health, economic security, equality and freedom will soon take center stage. Then, we need to replicate this achievement in state legislatures, within corporate management and board of director positions, in cabinet positions in state and municipal government and throughout the economy.

We must also end forced arbitration, which companies use to require employees to forego their day in court by agreeing to arbitration of a sexual harassment complaint. Per the Economic Policy Institute, more than 60 million workers have arbitration clauses in their employment contracts, where proceedings are kept secret, allowing predators to remain in their jobs, while survivors are frequently pushed out of their jobs or fired.

It’s equally wrong to allow employers to get away with retaliating against survivors of sexual harassment and yet it’s commonplace for employers and others to spread unfavorable information about survivors to other employees and managers. We need a federal law that prohibits retaliatory actions. 

The culture of silence and men protecting men is particularly rampant in the corporate boardroom. Companies protect employees who have engaged in sexual harassment, agree to confidential settlements, gag accusers and then find a way to “encourage” the accuser to move on. Corporations should adopt a Standard of Conduct, similar to one that exists in the securities industry and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The Congressional Accountability Act should be amended to require companies to file annually with the government disclosures of the numbers of sexual-harassment claims settled, the amounts paid and the corrective actions taken in response.

The same standards should be required of legislators and the recent agreement by congressional negotiators on an overhaul of the broken process of handling accusations of sexual misconduct against members is a good beginning. But it can be strengthened with Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierDemocrats sharpen their message on impeachment Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Republicans, Democrats brace for first public testimony in impeachment inquiry MORE’s (D-Calif.) version that makes lawmakers personally responsible for harassment settlements.

Although the backlash against the #MeToo movement is real, it is being balanced by the media, who are paying more attention to women voters and women in public office. We applaud them for taking issues such as inclusion, diversity and intersectionality more seriously. And we must make sure that the spotlight stays on the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and assault and not the ups and downs of a vile cohort of celebrities.

#MeToo fatigue? Fake news.

Toni Van Pelt is the president of the National Organization for Women.