When the hashtag ‘#MeToo’ went viral in 2017 in the wake of the multiple allegations of harassment and abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, it was a watershed moment in public consciousness and understanding of sexual harassment. The outpouring of testimony from celebrities and women in the public eye that they had been subject to rape, assault and other forms of sexist abuse by (overwhelmingly) men in positions of authority (bosses, producers, managers etc) gained huge media attention.
But it was the millions of stories shared by women in almost every walk of life – hospitality, health and social care, manufacturing, education and academia, and everywhere women work and participate in public life which made this into a mass phenomenon. All at once, it seemed that the truth about the extent of abuse that women are subjected to on a daily basis – that women instinctively knew already – was no longer kept secret or private and was finally laid bare for the public to see.
This was a mood that became global in its nature and built upon existing or emerging feminist movements worldwide. In Ireland and Argentina, it was part of the context in which subsequent feminist campaigns for reproductive rights developed. In South Africa and Mexico, among other places, women rallied against rampant femicides.
Powerful men exposed
From the get-go however, it became obvious that the courts and justice system globally, as well as in the US and UK, were not set up to keep women safe and bring men accused of abuse to justice, especially if they were in the public eye.
Preceding #MeToo, in the UK, from 2012 onwards, after the death of the serial abuser and TV personality Jimmy Saville, multiple victims came forward to allege that he had used his stardom to systematically abuse children for decades. This put allegations of historical child sexual abuse of other famous men in the public eye. The Yewtree inquiry into historical sexual abuse was set up and led to 19 arrests. The amount of victims and survivors was staggering.
Given the limitations of persecuting abusers through the court (due in part to the fact that many alleged abusers had died), those leading the inquiry had to look at patterns of behaviour which painted a picture of abuse. Each time the same dynamics appeared. A wealthy or powerful man or a man of standing in the community or with a position of authority over the victim, used their power to abuse them sexually and shame or threaten them if they tried to speak out.
There was a parallel here with the #MeToo movement. Women who had made allegations against powerful men were often silenced, disbelieved, and ridiculed individually. But in cases such as that of Jeffrey Epstein or Bill Cosby, when multiple women came forward to confirm one another’s testimony and share matching stories, the patterns of behaviour could not simply be ignored.
The solidarity and anger that the MeToo movement highlighted, combined with the many mass struggles against gender violence that have taken place, has led to a situation in which many women and gender non- conforming people have felt more confident to speak about their experiences and call-out abusers. The changes that have taken place in consciousness as a result of this cannot simply be reversed. Nonetheless, with hard right forces, such as those organised around Trump in the US, on the march in some places, a new reactionary backlash against #MeToo can begin to crystallise.
Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard
When Johnny Depp took his ex partner, Amber Heard to trial in April this year, alleging that she had defamed him by stating in a New York Times article that she was a victim of domestic abuse, the court found in Depp’s favour. The case, which was televised, was accompanied by a grotesque social media storm in which Amber Heard’s testimony was ridiculed for clicks. In that sense, the case represented something of a backlash against #MeToo. Much of the social media response (which clearly influenced the jury) seemed to rubbish what MeToo had made so clear: that men who are well liked and admired can use this to perpetrate and get away with subjecting others to abuse and violence.
The texts leaked after the trial from Depp show a history of vile sexist, racist and derogatory language used against Heard and others. Depp’s legal teams used social media to help spread a narrative that Amber Heard was an unstable woman who had lied and used her acting skills to ruin Depp’s reputation. The apparent acceptance of the jury and the court of these sexist tropes and the potential defeat it represents for free speech for abuse victims is a step backwards from the #MeToo movement which fought against these stereotypes and raised consciousness of the realities of domestic abuse and gender based violence.
In the UK as elsewhere globally the conviction rates for rape have fallen to an all time low – now below 1%. After the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met police officer little has changed in the structure of the courts and justice system to effectively tackle violence against women. Despite the enormity and the global reach of the Black Lives Matter movement, the system that helps uphold structural racism have also been left intact.
“The whole system is guilty”
All the while, capitalism is globally in complete crisis. The Ukraine war and supply chain issues have led to rampant inflation and crisis in the cost of living. Especially when capitalism faces crisis, women are often forced into more and more precarious and vulnerable states. How can one flee domestic abuse when financially dependent on a partner’s wage? How can women be empowered to stand up to sexual harassment in the work place when they could lose their jobs?
The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court shows that even the rights to bodily autonomy cannot be guaranteed under this system. Capitalism is a system in which oppression is baked in. Working class women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people are systematically marginalised. Women still face a dual burden of disproportionately being responsible for the majority of unpaid domestic labour, while also being overrepresented in low paying and precarious work globally.
However, women have been at the forefront of the fightback against the brutalities of capitalism throughout history. From the tens of thousands of farmers in India who organised against the privatisation of agriculture last year to the women at the forefront of revolutionary movements in Yemen and Myanmar. In the UK, the summer has been marked by an ongoing strike wave in various sectors and the emergence of campaigns like Enough is Enough to combat the cost-of-living crisis. This is a crisis which will be all the more grave for working class women and which will compound the already existing difficulties women face in leaving violent relationships etc.
History has shown that when women are active in workplace struggles they often also gain more confidence to challenge oppressive ideas. The legacy of the #MeToo movement, among others, means there is already heightened consciousness around these issues. Socialists have argued that one necessary ‘next step’ is to take #MeToo into the workplaces.
With trade union struggle on the rise, now is a perfect time for trade unions to take up and build the fight against harassment in workplaces – linking this to the overall struggle to end the cost of living crisis. Gender oppression and the exploitation of working class people are intrinsically linked. Only the transformation of society into a socialist one built on the solidarity and unity of working-class people can lay the foundation for ending sexism and gender violence.
The result of the Depp trial will certainly offer a blueprint for other abusers to vilify their victims in court as well as an opportunity for bourgeois commentators to suggest that this is an end of the #MeToo movement. Socialists know that this shows that the movement has not gone far enough, and despite this blow it has the potential to manifest itself in the future in very powerful ways if it is built upon the mass actions of working class people.