Guest Opinions

#MeToo is not a punchline: Sexual harassment, assault are no joking matter

Positive responses to the #MeToo hashtag

Actress Alyssa Milano got an idea from a friend of a friend on Facebook to elevate the Harvey Weinstein conversation. She took the idea to Twitter, posting: "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet." T
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Actress Alyssa Milano got an idea from a friend of a friend on Facebook to elevate the Harvey Weinstein conversation. She took the idea to Twitter, posting: "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet." T

It’s been several months since stories about Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and others ignited the #MeToo movement – calling out influential men who have abused their power and authority to coerce women into uncomfortable sexual situations, often including harassment, assault or rape. And while the #MeToo phenomenon was launched by women in Hollywood, it didn’t take long for everyday people to weigh in with their own experiences.

It has now saturated the media and worked its way into everyday conversation at the coffee shop, dinner table and social gatherings.

I thought the lessons and traumas from people coming forward were clear. Which is why I was surprised to hear, and continue to hear, #MeToo used as a punch line at everything from Super Bowl parties to patio talk.

The joking goes something like this: Party-goers might accidentally collide in a crowded room and say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make this a #MeToo moment,” instead of simply saying “excuse me.” It also became a quick conversation transition anytime talk started to get too deep or personal.

I am surprised to hear this used and accepted by men and women, of diverse ages, at multiple events. I was troubled most especially that no one seemed to give such references a second thought.

After reading some of the national essays and hearing about these traumas from people in my life, I don’t know how anyone can use it as a joke or a lighthearted conversational tool.

Harassment and sexual assault aren’t funny. And it’s not appropriate to disparage a movement that is finally granting those who have been mistreated with the safe space and respect to speak up.

Making light of the movement belittles the experiences of the people who have stepped forward and confuses the issue. Worse still is that these jokes could prevent others from speaking up in the future.

Regardless of the publicity #MeToo has received, there are still thousands of women – and men – who have not or will not step forward because they don’t feel safe, because it will affect their reputations, or because they fear they won’t be believed. Or maybe they worry when they hear peers turning deeply damaging, personal events into laughs at cocktail parties.

I understand that oversaturation happens. I’m used to seeing topical news devolve into material within comedy routines and late-night talk shows. But at its core, #MeToo has shined a light to widespread abuse of power.

Speaking up is still extremely difficult. Someone who calls out a person in power can expect scrutiny, aggressive questioning and victim blaming. Did you put yourself in an inappropriate situation? Did you invite attention? What were you wearing?

Plus, experiences will be ranked or, worse, discounted based on their severity. This results in a system where it’s difficult to attempt prevention and only even sometimes address issues after an incident. Was it really that bad? I’m sure they were just kidding. You should grow a thicker skin.

My #MeToo experiences happened at former workplaces, crowded restaurants, volunteer events – all places where there was no mistaking malicious intention, but where no one called out inappropriate behavior or tried to help. I was told that I needed to learn to take a joke.

But it wasn’t funny then. And it’s not funny now.

Whether personally affected by misuse of power and sexual misconduct or not, I hope everyone can see the positive changes this movement has initiated in just a few short months. In the past year, at least 14 legislators in 10 states have resigned from office following accusations of sexual misconduct, according to a review by The Associated Press. We are finally discussing what constitutes appropriate behavior and inappropriate use of power.

Let’s keep moving forward to a place where we don’t blame victims, we don’t allow predators to hide in plain sight and we don’t stand by allowing bad things to happen as we chuckle at jokes made in poor taste.

Sophie Sestero is a community member of the Idaho Statesman editorial board. She is an account supervisor with Fahlgren Mortine and is executive past chair of Boise Young Professionals.

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