The raw numbers certainly succeeded in conveying the scope of the problem, Milano’s goal. Yet as I scrolled through the posts on social media, all I could feel was weariness. After all, this is far from the first effort to use social media to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault, and not the first that asks women to share their pain while men get to be passive observers. There was #YesAllWomen in 2014, which discussed misogyny and violence against women after Elliot Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista, Calif., an attack seemingly inspired by his hatred for women. There was #NotOkay a year ago, after The Post reported on an “Access Hollywood” video in which then-candidate Donald Trump bragged about assaulting women. That was followed up by #WhyWomenDontReport, once Trump’s surrogates attempted to discredit the women who said Trump had assaulted them.
And it’s not just social media: In 2011, women started organizing SlutWalk marches to protest victim-blaming attitudes around sexual assault, with many marchers carrying heartbreaking signs detailing their experiences of assault and harassment. As sexual assault survivors have organized on college campuses, many have come forward to speak to the media about their experiences in detail. Take Back the Night first started in the 1970s and continues on college campuses and in cities across the world. Women are asked to show their scars, to speak about their traumas, to make experiences public. Which raises the question: When can we move past describing the violence against women and move toward demanding that the perpetrators — and the people who enable them — change their behavior?
This is not meant as a critique of the women who are speaking out. I know that talking about assault and harassment can be an empowering step. (Yes, me too, of course.) But this collective display of trauma can too easily allow others, men especially, to offer sympathetic comments and social-media “likes” without being forced to reflect on their own actions. Do they need to change the way they treat women? Do they look the other way or make excuses when they find out that someone they know has assaulted someone else? What other signals are they sending that say sexual violence will go unpunished? (Trump did get elected president after the “Access Hollywood” video and assault allegations came out, after all.)
There are already a few models of constructive ways forward. Bystander-intervention programs have some proven success in getting people to intervene more often. And going back to hashtags, activist Feminista Jones began the hashtag #YouOkSis in 2014 not only for women, particularly black women, to share stories of street harassment, but also to share tips to protect women and de-escalate harassment as a bystander.
Colin Firth recently expressed his “shame” that he hadn’t acted when a co-worker told him about a “distressing encounter” with Weinstein. But if men don’t allow that shame to push them toward action, there will continue to be more Harvey Weinsteins and Roger Aileses and Bill O’Reillys and Bill Cosbys and other alleged abusers who aren’t famous but still harass and hurt women. Here’s to hoping the next hashtag that emerges around sexual violence will be from men collectively working to decrease violence and harassment against women. #MenToo have a role to play.