#MeToo Reykjavik: Nothing less than a revolution will do.
I spent last week in Reykjavik, Iceland, attending the #MeToo Moving Forward conference, the first international conference following the explosion of the #MeToo hashtag two years ago (though many years after Tarana Burke began her work on the movement). According to planners, they expected an attendance of about 30 or 40 people. Instead, 800 people registered and came from as far away as New Zealand, Russia, Canada, France, Italy, and the United States. Angela Davis and the Prime Minister of Iceland gave the opening remarks. Roxane Gay gave the closing address. Here’s what I learned.
Lesson 1: Be Hysterical.
The most significant question for me at the conference boiled down to: how do we come to see the end of sexual violence? To answer that question, Emma Holten, a writer and gender expert from Denmark, talked about the mild-mannered woman, the one who usefully upholds the patriarchal system and thinks she’ll get ahead and be treated well by doing so. Then she talked about the hysteric (you do know where the word hysteria comes from, right?), the one who makes life difficult for herself by speaking up, by challenging the system. Emma’s take away was that “the mild-mannered woman will feel sorry for a person who has experienced violence, but like rain or illness that it is inevitable. The hysteric says: if we lived in a good society, this would not happen. Ever.” Acknowledging this distinction is very useful for identifying solutions, and the right place to start. Count me in as a hysteric.
Lesson 2: This isn’t whack-a-mole, it’s wholesale cultural change.
When #MeToo took off, a much broader segment of the public became aware of sexual violence, but in many conversations the focus was on single individuals who had harassed or assaulted, so the focus was on specific incidents that galvanized conversations and broadened understanding. Now at least part of the focus is on the institutional and the cultural changes that prevent harassment and how power can be leveraged to ensure safety, a message shared by Purna Sen, UN Women’s Executive Coordinator and author of a roadmap for organizations to address and prevent harassment. This cultural change will require significant effort from men, a point made Alán Ali, who brings conversations about sexual violence to men in Sweden who don’t know where to start, and who begins his talks with a heartbreaking story of sexual violence from his childhood in a refugee camp.
Lesson 3: Connect the little picture to the big, and see the threads that run through both.
Over these last two years, we’ve seen a willingness by some to speak up and engage when they witness sexual harassment or assault, as well as the everyday slights and indignities in workplaces and elsewhere. We are better equipped to cause change when we make a connection between the small-scale comments and exclusions and the larger systems that exclude and limit individuals in workplaces, the justice system, public spaces. To understand how people are affected by sexual violence, we have to see them as a whole person, with the experiences and identities that may put them at greater risk; in addition to gender, it may be race, immigration status, disability, sexual orientation, personal appearance or other features, and knowing that we have to look at these features together. As Marai Larasi put it, “if you’re doing gender well and race not as well, then you’re not doing gender well.”
Lesson 4: Demand accountability, in a variety of ways.
In many high-profile #MeToo stories, the perpetrator is (a) condemned, (b) shut out from public life, © there is no part c. Public conversations in many places have not addressed reintegrating individuals back into workplaces, communities or families. That conversation will continue to fail if we rely on a one-size fits all response, in light of how, in many instances, the criminal and civil justice system — as a system — has failed the individuals who experience sexual violence as well as those who commit violence. As Maria Normann put it, how do we rely on laws to do justice when actual human beings are responsible for their implementation? We must engage individuals to talk together about what solves problems within communities, rather than imposing solutions from elsewhere, a message brought by Monica Ramirez, who co-founded Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, which you might remember penned a letter of solidarity to Hollywood sexual assault victims from America’s farmworking women.
Lesson 5: Sexual violence is a public health crisis, so let’s treat it like we did our most successful public health campaign.
Angela Davis made the point in her remarks that some 30, 40 years ago, it seemed like everyone was a smoker. Everywhere you turned, people were smoking. Now it’s a rarity. (She’s right: between 1965 and 2018, cigarette use by US adults dropped 67 percent). If we could arrive at such an enormous public health achievement in such a short amount of time, there is no reason that we can’t eliminate the public health crisis of sexual violence.
Audrey Roofeh is the CEO and Founder of Mariana Strategies LLC, a workplace culture consulting firm based in Washington, DC that helps build inclusive and equitable workplaces.