By Nina Funnell
In October 2017, the #MeToo hashtag went viral after Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano urged other women to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault on Twitter. Within three days, the hashtag had been translated into 85 languages and today, it has been used more than 20 million times on Twitter alone.
In Australia, author and former newsreader Tracey Spicer received more than 2000 disclosures after tweeting a callout for personal accounts, and an initial rush of stories which focused on men in media, including Don Burke and Craig McLachlan, ignited a flurry of anticipation as powerful men began to topple.
But much of that early momentum appears to have dissipated amid several setbacks to the Australian arm of the movement: Geoffrey Rush has won a landmark defamation case while his accuser Eryn-Jean Norvill has been lambasted by the judge; the NOW Australia charity has abandoned plans to launch a triage service for sexual harassment victims, against a backdrop of ongoing decreases in funding for specialist domestic violence support services; and the Australian Human Rights Commission has confirmed that not only have the numbers of people experiencing sexual harassment increased, but paradoxically, the rate of reporting has actually decreased from 32 per cent in 2013 to 17 per cent in 2018.
At a structural level, there have been no significant changes to Australian laws and, bizarrely, it still remains a crime for most sexual assault survivors in the Northern Territory and Tasmania to publish their own identities.
So where have the #MeToo wins been, and what is the enduring significance of the movement in Australia?
Women have always shared stories of trauma, regardless of whether it was fashionable or safe to do so.
In what might be considered the first ‘stocktake’ of the Australian #MeToo movement, a thoughtfully curated anthology has been published this month by Picador. #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement is edited by the feminist collective behind Just Between Us and Mothers and Others, and features 35 voices crossing boundaries of race, class, ability, gender identity and sexuality.
Through powerful personal essays, incisive analysis, poetry, fiction and a stand-out graphic essay, the contributors tease out the complexities of the Australian #MeToo movement, including both the empowering and liberating aspects, as well as the tensions and challenges which at times have alienated, silenced and further marginalised those most at risk of experiencing sexual harassment and assault.
In the opening chapter titled ‘#MeToo and Deja Vu’, Kath Kenny re-situates the current #MeToo discussion by anchoring it within a historical context and reminding us that university students and other activists have been campaigning around sexual assault and harassment for many decades. Other contributors also point out that women have always shared stories of trauma, regardless of whether it was fashionable or safe to do so, and in a moving personal account, Sylvie Leber details how her own rape and survival later led to her and a group of feminists establishing Victoria’s first rape crisis centre in 1973.
#MeToo will have no lasting impact, and will not act to raise up or support all women unless it squarely recognises and addresses the issue of privilege and intersectionality.
– Rebecca Lim
In ‘This Place’, Indigenous writer and community organiser Eugenia Flynn provides further historical and cultural context, also exploring the challenges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience when navigating #MeToo conversations and the “blinding whiteness of the Australian media”.
The privileging of certain women, and erasure of others within the #MeToo movement is a theme which is carefully and convincingly built on by a number of contributors, including Rebecca Lim, who argues that there is currently little space in the #MeToo debate for women of colour and other marginalised women, asserting that “#MeToo will have no lasting impact, and will not act to raise up or support all women unless it squarely recognises and addresses the issue of privilege and intersectionality.”
Other contributors have shared the personal and emotional cost to women of being asked to perform their grief in public, or alternatively to participate in public debates which harm them (Eleanor Jackson), and in a striking essay, Greta Parry reveals the seldom-recognised pain and emotional labour required of women who discover that their partners have been accused in the wake of #MeToo.
Sarah Firth’s stunning graphic essay teases out the multiple tensions produced by the movement and the very real danger that “Hollywood take-downs” of individual men can serve as a distraction from the need for systemic reform, and can become a fig leaf for inaction if “we’re forever tackling symptoms not causes”.
As several contributors rightly point out, ‘awareness raising’ in isolation does not produce structural reform, and while there is healing and connection in and through storytelling, there is also very real pain and isolation caused through the mass production, curation and consumption of public trauma. Within that context, the editors have done an extraordinary job of balancing personal narrative with a mindful consideration of the reader’s own safety.
The collection canvases the experience of women in a range of industries including hospitality (Harriet Shing), nursing (Simone Sheridan and Ailsa Wild), sport (Nicole Hayes), sex work (Fiona Patten) and the music industry (Ruby Pivet) among others, while Ginger Gorman and Kerry Sackville write thoughtfully and persuasively on harassment and abuse in online settings. Jenna Guillaume and Arielle Cottingham add an important dimension to the collection, exploring the sexual harassment of female children and teen girls, by tracing their own experiences starting at age five and eight, respectively.
Other standouts include Kaya Wilson’s reflections on what it means to be a trans man in the #MeToo era and Carly Findlay’s discussion of lateral violence in the disability community.
While there is healing and connection in and through storytelling, there is also very real pain and isolation caused through the mass production, curation and consumption of public trauma.
While the book might be criticised by some for being too Victoria-focused, the personal stories of women cut across social and geographical lines, and the pinpoint analysis framing and interlaced throughout those stories renders the anthology a landmark contribution.
Most importantly, the range of voices selected for inclusion have delivered an accessible compilation, particularly because the editors have made a conscious effort to re-centre the experiences of marginalised women.
While many of the contributors deconstruct problematic aspects of the #MeToo movement, the collection is ultimately a hopeful call to action delivered through incisive analysis and powerful storytelling by women who have compelling lives and thoughts to share.
#MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement is out now.
Nina Funnell is a Walkley award winning journalist, author and sexual assault survivor advocate. Nina is a director of End Rape On Campus Australia, a member of the Our Watch Media Advisory Group and a previous member of the NSW Premier’s Council on Preventing Violence Against Women.