#metoo Paradox: Movement Topples The Powerful, Not The Ordinary
The #MeToo movement has brought a reckoning to some of the most powerful men on earth, from politicians and movie magnates in the United States to business titans and Bollywood legends in India. The latest example was the former Costa Rican president Óscar Arias Sánchez, a Nobel laureate who was accused last week of sexual misconduct by multiple women.
Yet the movement has had little effect on the broader problem of sexual abuse, harassment and violence by men who are neither famous nor particularly powerful.
A partial explanation may lie, according to Sarah Khan, a Yale University political scientist, in a concept social scientists call “common knowledge”: the idea that systemic change is shaped as much or more by people’s perceptions of others’ beliefs and values as it is by their own.
That means that reducing sexual misconduct presents a kind of coordination problem. You need to not only change people’s views of the problem, you also need to show them that other people’s views have changed the same way.
But while #MeToo has been successful in creating common knowledge around the misconduct of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, it has failed — crucially — to change the consensus in bigger ways.
How inequality limits #MeToo’s power
#MeToo’s ability to create common knowledge beyond the Harvey Weinsteins of the world has been limited, in part, by the very power imbalances that leave women vulnerable to sexual abuse in the first place.
Michael Chwe, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that creating common knowledge usually requires “public rituals”: rallies, media events and other shared experiences that cannot only persuade people but show them what others believe.
One study in Mexico found that when people listened to a radio soap opera with an anti-domestic violence message privately in their homes, their beliefs were little changed. But when the program was played in public places, so that villagers knew their neighbors had also gotten the message, tolerance for abuse of women fell significantly.
The Weinstein story was broken by two women who work for The New York Times, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. Ashley Judd, the actress, was willing to go on the record about her experiences.
The strength of those articles and the power of the platform, in turn, inspired other well-known Hollywood women to come forward. Eventually, when a critical mass was reached, Mr. Weinstein faced real consequences. He was forced out of his company and now faces criminal charges.
That, in turn, spurred a similar reckoning for other high-profile men, generating further media coverage.
But the #MeToo movement has not shown consensus that abusers in all walks of life ought to be held accountable for misconduct. Instead, it seems to have generated common knowledge only that perpetrators should be kept out of extremely high-status roles, like movie studio chief or United States senator.
Most women do not have the wealth or power of successful Hollywood actresses (whose power, of course, is nowhere near that of men in the industry) that can force this sort of new consensus about right and wrong. So although #MeToo spread broadly around the world, reaching, for instance, actresses in India’s Bollywood film industry, it has failed to help many ordinary women.
If an American factory worker or a Mexican victim of sexual assault tries to call out an individual perpetrator, and maybe even a broader culture of abuse, she cannot count on powerful women and allies to come to her aid. Often, the abuse goes unpunished and the broader culture of harassment unchanged.
“I can see people looking at a high-profile case and saying, ‘I would never get this kind of support just for speaking up against person X, who is in my social network but doesn’t have any high social standing,’” Ms. Khan said.
#MeToo has had other moments in the spotlight in Latin America, including accusations by a prominent Argentine actress that a fellow cast member had assaulted her, and from dozens of women in Brazil who say a faith healer known as John of God abused them.
But the movement’s most significant impact so far in Latin America came in Costa Rica, which has a relatively low gender gap in wages, high rates of female education and high representation of women in politics.
Yet even in Costa Rica, where at least nine women have now accused Mr. Arias of misconduct ranging from unwanted leg-touching to forcible penetration with his fingers, women face an uphill battle to be heard.
Yazmín Morales, a former Miss Costa Rica who has said Mr. Arias forcibly groped and kissed her, has struggled to find a lawyer to represent her in her claims. Three different criminal lawyers refused to take her case; she believes they are unwilling to take on the powerful former president.
Elsewhere in the region, women are less able to count on the support and influence of other powerful women.
And in countries with a history of right-wing dictatorships that used sexual violence as a means of social control and repression, such as Guatemala and Argentina, there is a legacy of trauma and abuse that makes the subject even more complex to address.
When #MeToo backfires
Even large protest movements, such as advocacy in recent years by women’s rights groups like Ni Una Menos (“Not One Less”) in Latin America, can have unintended consequences.
If they fail to create a reckoning for perpetrators, they can send a somewhat discouraging message: that there is little appetite for systemic change among those in power, and few consequences when they fail to do so.
That may push women out of the public sphere — further reducing their influence over public norms.
“Restrictions on women’s mobility are often framed in terms of safety,” Ms. Khan said. Rather than trying to reduce harassment and violence, she said, male decision makers who hear about such problems often take the attitude that workplaces are unsafe, “so let’s keep women away from them.”
She believes that in India, where she is conducting a long-running study on the effect of common knowledge on violence against women, increased awareness of the risks women face in public is one reason their participation in the labor force has fallen in recent years even though the country has experienced rapid economic growth.
Then there is the problem of men perceiving #MeToo as potentially dangerous to themselves, and withdrawing from mentoring or collaborating with female colleagues. That further hinders women’s ability to rise through the ranks.
And many #MeToo episodes have contributed to a long-existing negative form of common knowledge: that women who step forward with accusations of misconduct must anticipate being harassed, belittled and shamed.
Victim-blaming, smear campaigns and outright threats are a way to preserve the status quo of male dominance.
Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who testified at the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of then-Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh that he had sexually assaulted her in high school, received such serious threats that she was forced to leave her home.
Following in her footsteps hardly looks appealing to anyone. But for women with few resources, who could not afford to leave their homes or take other expensive measures to stay safe, it may look utterly impossible.
A single mother working a factory job, considering whether to speak out against harassment by a supervisor, might see little possibility of surviving that kind of backlash.
Underprivileged women in many developing countries may be even more vulnerable to the costs of a damaged reputation.
In India or Pakistan, for instance, a woman who is poor and uneducated, and who lacks the mobility or connections that would allow her to leave her community, may fear that revealing she has been raped or assaulted could harm her marriage prospects.
“Those costs are not just material costs,” Ms. Khan said. “They are these kinds of status costs that are harder to quantify.”