By Emily DuChene, Prevention Innovations Research Center Intern
With our country’s overwhelming 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to sift through the haze of attention-grabbing article titles and clickbait. Because there is so much news out there, it is hard to gauge the true impact of the stories that are being reported. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we have seen an ever-increasing amount of news articles that focus on sexual assault and harassment cases. This reporting is important and must continue in order to reveal the true scope of sexual violence in this country. Since the fall of 2017, story after story have revealed new details of powerful people abusing their positions and taking advantage of the women and men around them. It can be disheartening to read the testimonies of the many strong survivors that are coming forward, especially when it is hard to see real changes occurring because of this reporting. The media provides survivors a platform to share their stories and use their voices to push for change. The impact of the #MeToo movement is demonstrated through the many laws and bills that have been brought forward on the state and national levels.
On the state level, legislatures are reviewing existing laws and rapidly working to enhance and change them in order to effectively prosecute sexual assault and harassment cases, and support and protect survivors who choose to come forward. In California alone, more than 20 bills have been filed relating to sexual harassment in the workplace. These bills range from employee safety for hotel workers, to sexual violence and harassment prevention training for janitorial staff. In New Hampshire, the influence of the #MeToo movement is reflected in the passage of legislation that raises the marriage age from 13 years-old to 16 years-old and protects against child marriage, as well as legislation that protects incarcerated individuals from sexual assault by prison administration.
In 2016, President Barack Obama signed the groundbreaking Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act into law. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, states have been reenergized and are now pushing to pass their own legislation guaranteeing state-level protections mirroring those outlined in the federal Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. New Hampshire passed their own Survivors’ Bill of Rights legislation in June of 2018, following in the footsteps of 13 other states who have passed similar legislation, including states across a range of ideological spectrums like Illinois, South Dakota and Virginia.
On the national level, representatives in Congress have been engaged in similar efforts to expand protections against sexual violence. One example is Bill S.534, passed in the United States House and Senate to protect amateur athletes from sexual abuse, after several high profile disclosures in the sports industry, including allegations by more than 300 survivors against gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar. In the same vein, there has been a resolution introduced in the Senate to investigate the U.S. Olympic Committee, with a special focus on USA Gymnastics. And, like the many states who have refocused their attention on the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, Congress has also renewed its efforts to implement the steps outlined in the Survivors’ Bill of Rights. In early 2018, the House Judiciary Committee invited Amanda Nguyen, the woman who helped draft the original Survivors’ Bill of Rights, along with actress Evan Rachel Wood, to discuss their experiences of sexual violence and the positive impact the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act will have on future survivors who come forward. Later in 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee invited Nguyen, along with actor Terry Crews, to testify in front of the committee as survivors of sexual violence and advocates for the implementation of the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees plan to use these testimonies to inform committee members, and Congress at large, of the importance of civil rights protections for survivors of sexual violence and the importance of enforcing the Survivors’ Bill of Rights across all fifty states.
Internally, the members of Congress have even taken it upon themselves to examine the procedures for identifying and handling sexual assault and harassment claims in their own offices. Both the House and Senate passed legislation to update the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act. The ME TOO Congress Act is designed to ensure that lawmakers are held accountable if they sexually harass a staffer or another congressional employee. The House and Senate bills also removed rules that deterred survivors from coming forward, including mandatory arbitration and a thirty day “cooling off” period before survivors could submit a complaint. Presently, Congress is working on a bipartisan effort to combine the House and Senate bills to create comprehensive legislation that would cover all Congressional offices.
These legislative changes that will support survivors’ voices and protect victims when they come forward are a step in the right direction. However, these policy advancements have to be paired with cultural changes in order to make a lasting difference to end sexual violence in this country. Research has shown that prevention trainings and misconduct policies that work to combat harassment in schools and workplaces can be helpful, but without real cultural change at the heart of these organizations, these rules and training can actually reinforce stereotypes and lead to more hostile environments. In order to make the most of the recent legislative actions, we must pair these new laws with evidence-based prevention. For example, if the bill in California calls for training of janitorial staff on sexual violence and harassment prevention passes, the training the state mandates should be in-person group training that focuses on how to identify and report harassment, how to support someone who has been harassed, examples of what harassment looks like, and how to intervene to stop harassment when it occurs. In addition, the training needs to focus on fostering a safe and respectful work environment. Without this type of evidence-based prevention training, a law meant to combat harassment among janitorial staff will not have the desired impact and, ultimately, will not make a difference in the level of harassment taking place.
The glare of media coverage on the #MeToo movement has been an effective tool for keeping the issues of sexual assault and harassment in the forefront of public discussion and legislative action. The country is already seeing a shift in how our culture views harassment because of the increased media coverage on survivor’s stories and intense scrutiny of perpetrators. This shift can be made permanent through the policy changes we are already beginning to see, combined with increased scientifically proven prevention trainings and emphasis on the need for environments that foster respect and equality for marginalized groups and people that may be more vulnerable to harassment and assault. Hopefully, as time goes on, there will be fewer incidents of sexual assault and harassment to report and more journalistic outlets for survivors’ stories. And, maybe, we all can rest easier knowing that the #MeToo movement has spurred real changes and moved society in a permanent and positive direction.
Emily DuChene, PIRC Intern
Emily is a senior at the University of Michigan working toward earning her Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology and Political Science with a minor in Judaic studies. On campus, she is involved with WeRead, a volunteer organization that works to improve reading and writing skills in sixth grade students at Noble Elementary School in Detroit, Kappa Alpha Pi, a pre-law fraternity, and Delta Gamma where she works with the Sexual Violence Empowerment and Education Division of the Panhellenic Peer Education Program. Emily is interested in law and politics and hopes to eventually study law and policy to advocate for women’s rights and give a voice to people in need.