Earlier this month, in light of the recent sexual harassment scandals involving Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein, social media was flooded with an outpouring of alleged victims of sexual misconduct writing “#MeToo” on their timelines. It all started when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” According to Facebook, within 24 hours there were over 12 million “#MeToo” posts, comments and reactions.
With the #MeToo movement, the conversation has moved from the impersonal world of Hollywood to people’s personal social media accounts, where they see posts from friends, colleagues and even family members. Not only did #MeToo raise awareness about the number of women and men that have fallen victim to sexual assault and harassment, but it also succeeded in illuminating the gray area that surrounds the definition of sexual misconduct.
Contrary to what many believe, sexual assault and harassment come in far more forms than rape; for example, USC defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature.” The 2015 USC Climate Survey includes sexual remarks or inappropriate comments in its definition of harassment, as well as inappropriate physical conduct, which approximately 66 percent of undergraduate female survey-respondents said they had experienced.
The survey demonstrates that sexual misconduct has become normalized to the extent that it’s almost expected to occur when a female student walks near campus at night. Even more alarming is that the physical aspects of assault and misconduct have also seeped into this gray area. Despite the high numbers of female students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment, the 2015 USC Climate Survey noted that an overwhelming majority of survey-takers who experienced sexual assault or misconduct opted not to report the incident to campus officials. Seventy-six percent of females claimed they did not think the nonconsensual touching was “serious” enough to report. In essence, the survey demonstrated that women have become so accustomed to variations of sexual misconduct that much of the time they feel it is not worth reporting.
#MeToo’s ultimate impact is that it has raised the question of what has caused this behavior to become so normalized. One of the most blatant examples at USC may be a rule on the Panhellenic Council barring sororities from hosting parties with alcohol, sending most underage female students to fraternities. This arguably adds a predatory component to college parties by removing women from safe and comfortable spaces and bringing them into spaces where men hold the power. Since the inception of Greek life at USC, this tradition has stood largely unchallenged.
Going forward, it is important for women at USC to be aware that what makes them uncomfortable — even if they have been conditioned to perceive this behavior as normal and insignificant — is always “serious” enough to act on or report if they are comfortable doing so. The #MeToo hashtag was so surprising because it showed people how many of their friends had experienced sexual harassment or assault and not told them, perhaps because they did not realize how “serious” their experiences were at the time. Anything that makes someone afraid or uncomfortable should not be delegitimized.
Exposed by #MeToo, the prevalence of sexual harassment directed at women in vulnerable positions almost seems like a natural component that goes hand-in-hand with the experience of being a young, college-age woman. The next step is for young men to educate themselves and evaluate how easily their words, actions and behaviors could cross the line into sexual misconduct. Ignorance remains pervasive when it comes to the definitions of sexual harassment and assault, and people of all genders have an obligation to fight this. Whether through bystander intervention, or stepping in when students see sexual assault taking place around them, or through educating ourselves and others, and replicating the openness and candor of #MeToo in our everyday lives, we all must address the issue of targeted sexual misconduct toward young women.