Written by Amy Beecham
How have attitudes towards sexual harassment changed in the five years since Harvey Weinstein’s abuse was exposed?
Content note: this article contains discussion of sexual assault and harassment that readers might find upsetting
On 5 October 2017, the New York Times ran the headline “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades”, publishing the first timeline of alleged abuse of multiple actors at the hands of the famed producer. What came next was a movement that changed the way we thought about men in positions of power – not just in Hollywood, but the world over.
Days later, on 15 October, a tweet by actor Alyssa Milano invited women to share their experiences of sexual harassment under the words “Me too”, a phrase created and used by activist Tarana Burke dating back to 2006. Within a year, the hashtag had been used more than 19 million times across social media, pushing the issue of sexual assault to the top of the global agenda.
Then came the reckoning. The presence of #MeToo and the subsequent #TimesUpthen swept from Twitter timelines to red carpets and thousand-strong protests, becoming a rallying cry for survivors of sexual assault.
As details of the scale of Weinstein’s abuse became apparent, people began to view their own past experiences in a new light. Behaviours that had previously been dismissed were now being used to bring powerful men to account.
Stars including Kevin Spacey, James Franco and Louis CK were named and shamed by those who had endured their alleged misconduct, with the most serious claims leading to convictions for previously untouchable figures including Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein.
In 2020, Weinstein himself was sentenced to 23 years in prison following a conviction of two counts of sexual assault. He had been accused of rape and sexual assault by six women who testified in court, as well as dozens of others who are yet to have their cases heard. Next week, a further sexual assault trial involving an entirely new set of charges against him will begin. In Los Angeles, he faces 11 counts of rape and sexual assault stemming from charges from five alleged victims.
Five years on from the exposé that brought him down, the Women In Film organisation commissioned a survey into the perceived changes around the culture of abuse and misconduct in Hollywood. But while the results showed an improvement in the awareness of workplace harassment, a majority of respondents also noted that either they or someone they know has continued to experience abuse, harassment and misconduct in the past five years.
More than 70%said the culture around abuse, harassment, and misconduct in Hollywood has “improved somewhat”, but 69% also reported personally experiencing abuse or misconduct following the reports on Weinstein.
“Men will say, ‘Don’t report me, but…’ and then go on to say something inappropriate. It’s like they all know but choose to play with the boundaries,” one respondent noted. “Even our unions warn us (when we call to report misconduct) that if we do report, it might damage our careers,” said another.
These revelations paint a disappointing picture of how the momentum of a movement that was once so strong has slowly dwindled. Outside of the film industry, a 2018 study found that 38% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, with separate research finding that 63% of women who were harassed did not file a complaint against their abuser.
It’s also evident in the way survivors are treated by the media, from the militant taking of sides in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial earlier this year to the dismissal of Angelina Jolie’s allegations against Brad Pitt.
#MeToo’s legacy is undoubtedly one of pressure and power, but the findings of the Women In Film report make it clear: there’s still so much change left to come.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12pm – 2.30pm and 7pm – 9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre or visit the website for more information.
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