What’s Next For #MeToo?

Kavita Daiya, associate professor of English and director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.
Kavita Daiya, associate professor of English and director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. (Photo: William Atkins)
November 14, 2018

In the days following Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, a dejected female student stopped by the office of Kavita Daiya, associate professor of English and director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. Like many others, the student had been moved by Christine Blasey Ford’s story of assault and had passionately believed she was witnessing the successful culmination of the #MeToo movement’s campaign against sexual abuse.  But now her optimism was waning. Where, she asked, could #MeToo go from here?

Daiya wasn’t sure she had the answer, but she was heartened that young people were asking the question, and she wanted to keep the conversation going. Daiya helped organize an impromptu “teach-in” outside her office, gathering 25 students and an interdisciplinary group of faculty—including associate Professor of English Jennifer James, Associate Professor of American Studies and Political Science Elizabeth Anker, Associate Professor of English Jonathan Hsy, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Cynthia Deitch and Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy Eiko Strader. “It was meant as a conversation to bridge the world of the classroom and the social world that the students inhabit,” Daiya said. In an interview with CCAS Spotlight, Daiya, an expert in gender sexuality and ethnicity studies, described both the frustration and hope she heard from her students, and talked about the next steps for the #MeToo movement.

Q: From an academic standpoint, how do you put the #MeToo movement in perspective? Is calling it a “movement” correct?

A: Yes, I thinkmovement” is exactly the right word for it. Sexual harassment and sexual assault have been unevenly acknowledged in the public sphere. For a lot of women, there has been a stigma attached to even disclosing their own experience of sexual violence. What the #MeToo movement has done is opened up the possibility for a lot of women to acknowledge publicly, through venues like social media, that they have experienced this too, that this is not something that happened to someone else, that this is so common that a lot of women you know have experienced it. #MeToo has become a very powerful signal to the world. And it has catalyzed women from different communities, racial backgrounds, industries and classes. They have mobilized around this movement.

Q: Historically speaking, have we seen anything like #MeToo before? Is it a uniquely American phenomenon?

A: I think it is unique historically—but it is not uniquely American. While many scholars and activists have drawn attention to the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence, I think the #MeToo movement has focalized the issue in a new, public and collective way. The recognition that this is deeply entrenched across different levels of society, and across industries and institutions, is new. The movement has changed—for the better—the way many women and men think about and talk about the experience. It has also had a very positive effect on feminist movements in other countries. Take, for example, the dramatic impact of the #MeToo movement in India [where the minister of state for external affairs resigned after allegations of sexual harassment]. Women around the world are saying, together, “This is not an acceptable part of our culture, this has to change.” That is unprecedented.

Q: What do you hear in your classrooms about the movement? What questions are students asking?

A: I’ve seen mixed responses. I’ve been in classrooms where students have been willing to talk about it, and to criticize the representations of violence against women they see in literature, films and popular culture. And I have also been in classroom spaces where students don’t want to pursue that conversation. And that’s OK. The first question I often hear from students is: “What can we do to stop it [sexual violence]?” The second question that comes up often is: “What happens when you throw the issue of race into the picture?”

We can’t talk about #MeToo in isolation from the experience of racism or the experience of discrimination due to ethnic and cultural backgrounds. That can be a challenge for students to conceptualize in the classroom, and one of the hardest things to get students talking about. Many ethno-racial and queer minorities often get left out of the more mainstream representations of the #MeToo conversation. The experience of sexual assault in the trans-community is marginalized as well. The movement is going to have to complicate and nuance this conversation—and, from what I hear from students, these are challenges that they are very vigilant about.

Q: Was this a topic that came up during the “teach-in” you held after the Kavanaugh hearings?

A: Yes, we heard some incredibly brilliant and brave things from our students. Some of them talked about their frustration with watching how Dr. Ford was not taken seriously in some quarters. Some were raising this very question of how issues of race were invisible within this narrative. They drew arcs of connection between the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. And some students were very discouraged. And what I said to them was, first, we have to keep talking about this issue, keep writing about this issue, and not let the conversation die out; people have to be exposed, reported and held accountable. But equally importantly, I suggested they need to plan on running for political office. Change occurs when we participate in political movements as activists. But it is also important to work to become a part of the institutions that make, change and implement laws that affect human rights and equality. It is only when we have more women represented at the table and in political office that we will see a change in institutional responses to gender-based violence.

Q: So, what’s your sense of where we are now?

A: I am very optimistic about where we are now, in part because of this generation of students. They are very intellectually and politically sensitive to the issue. They get it. Our job is to enable them as they start to forge new ideas about the kind of society and world in which they want to live.