Transatlantic Take

#MeToo Underscores Human Rights Abuses at Core of Liberal Democracies

January 29, 2018
Lora Berg
Megan Doherty
4 min read
Photo credit: Shutterstock / Mihai Surdu

WASHINGTON, DC — “Me Too” has become the rallying cry of an international movement, with women around the world reporting their experiences of sexual harassment. Most coverage has characterized this in terms of gender politics — with some in France over the past week, most visibly the French actress Catherine Deneuve, publicly defending “sexual liberty.” Yet this issue cuts much deeper. On both sides of the Atlantic our societies are confronting a fundamental question of leadership around basic human rights. Leaders in Europe and the United States often assert that the transatlantic community is defined by a common set of values grounded in democracy, rule of law, and free and open societies. If transatlantic partners are to continue to assert to the world that we are a values-based, values-driven community, we must recognize and address the concerns of this burgeoning international women’s movement to defend basic human rights.

The downfall of Harvey Weinstein last October has been cast as the pivot point that catalyzed women to express their disempowerment. Yet the roots of this movement spread deep and the manifestations of discontent stretch across the Atlantic. The hashtag “#MeToo” itself was created a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke to encourage survivors of sexual assault, particularly women of color, to speak out — something taboo for centuries. Weinstein and the many other men felled in media and entertainment, like Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and Matt Lauer, represent only one country and sector. In January 2017, millions of women marched on Washington, DC and staged companion marches in every U.S. state and 50 other countries, in response to President Trump’s sexually degrading comments and policy proposals on issues affecting women.  Across the Atlantic last autumn, British Minister Mark Garnier, accused of making his secretary buy sex toys, unsuccessfully defended his “hijinks,” while British MP Stephen Crabb was accused of sending explicit text messages to a 19 year old job applicant. Women MEPs in the European Parliament banded together in October 2017 to protest the “culture of silence” in European politics, with German Green MEP Terry Reintke  and Swedish Green MEP Linnéa Engström sharing their experiences of harassment, and Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström calling for a Parliamentary committee on sexual harassment. Back in the United States, effects have been felt in business, with Uber CEO Travis Kalanickand 20 others ousted for sexual harassment, and in politics with the defeat of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore in November after allegations he abused a woman when she was 14 years old. Social media has propelled a powerful domino effect, leading to the downfall of men accused of victimizing women across sectors and societies.

#MeToo makes three trends powerfully apparent. First, social media offers individuals instantaneous ability to catalyze discontent into a movement. We have long known this — this was widely acknowledged during the Arab Spring, for example — but arguably no issue to date has amounted to such a sustained campaign. Second, social media crosses national, language, ethic, and class lines, meaning that the issues and debates that drive change also cross these lines. Third, while the line between the “public” and “private” spheres has always been a malleable construct, this distinction has perhaps never been so blurred. #MeToo has exploded precisely because it resonates across the categories we use to delineate our lives. Frustration, anger, and injustice experienced by many are being expressed through every avenue: as a workplace issue, a political issue, and a question of basic human dignity. 

While sexual harassment has emerged as the banner issue driving this transnational women’s movement, the frustrations this gives vent to have deep structural roots. Here in the United States alone the story is telling. The U.S. ranks 49th in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 index of gender equality, based on data sets of the forum itself, UNESCO and the OECD. This index takes into account access to healthcare, education, and political and economic opportunity, and conditions for women have continued to decline over the past year. Trump’s rapid rise crystalized many women’s understanding of the threat to their rights. It is against this backdrop that #MeToo calls out men’s sexual abuse and dominance. We are just at the start of re-evaluating and confronting the sexual predation that stymies women’s advancement in the workplace. At the same time this doesn’t resolve the broader problem of violence against women. In the U.S. alone nearly one in five women report having experienced rape according to the CDC; nearly half of these women experience rape before the age of 18, with the prevalence highest in our most vulnerable populations.

The astonishing number and range of women joining to say “Me Too” points to profound structural barriers to freedom and equity at the core of modern liberal democracies. Transatlantic partners must address this injustice. Our leaders must recognize that millions of our citizens are now questioning their right to work and exist without coercion — and act to address this a fundamental threat to human rights.