Will the #MeToo Movement Change Anything?
Victims feeling empowered to come forward is obviously important. But have we the right systems and supports in place? So that when people do this they know that their accusations will be heard? And be heard in a way that is respectful both to the accuser and the accused?
My reactions to the #MeToo movement
I have had very mixed emotions and opinions on the #MeToo movement since it began. It’s been so encouraging and heartening. To see people who have been obviously mistreated come forward and unashamedly share their experiences is inspiring.
But mixed among the serious allegations of rape, assault or harassment were stories of bad behavior as opposed to wrongdoing. Like someone who is in the public eye behaving in ways that made another uncomfortable. But it wasn’t clear that anyone had actually done anything wrong.
The media seemed, for no clear reason, to lump all these cases together.
The resignation of Al Franken seemed completely unnecessary. And the lack of due process was starting to really bother me.
I began writing something about the importance of the presumption of innocence recently. But ultimately I shied away from the topic. Because I don’t have a #MeToo experience. And so many people that came forward highlighted awful harassment (and worse). Every single one of them deserved to be heard and supported in their quest for justice.
This case is not a #MeToo issue. But it does show the importance (and difficulty) of being heard.
Then a couple of months ago the rape trial in Belfast began. A young woman said she had been raped and sexually assaulted. After a night out she went back to the house of one of the accused.
Four young men were on trial. I may not be naming the correct charges – I don’t want to go into explicit detail. One was accused of rape and sexual assault. A second was accused of sexual assault. Another was accused of indecent exposure. And finally one accused of attempting to cover up what had happened.
The woman was 19 years old when this happened and the men were in their early 20s. Also, the men accused of the most serious offences were ruby players. One played for Ireland and the other for Ulster.
The trial changed my mind about the #MeToo movement. While this wasn’t a #MeToo issue. It strongly highlighted the problems for people coming forward with accusation. I suddenly saw #MeToo as a very necessary movement. Because the effect it is hopefully having in encouraging people to speak up when they have been ill-treated.
As I say, the movement had no part to play in this trial.
The woman started the process of seeking justice two years ago, right after the incident occurred. But the reason why I saw the #MeToo movement differently was because I saw the value of calling out all bad behaviour.
A change of attitudes
Reading about the case I had to face that maybe be problem was my own attitude to reporting sexual assault and rape. I was amazed at the bravery of this young woman. And also at the wisdom of her friends who encouraged her to pursue justice.With deep shame I realised that if in my early 20s a friend had told me of such an experience I would not have been so encouraging.
I would have been sympathetic. If they needed to go to any clinic or anything like that I would have accompanied them. I would have urged them to get counseling.
But while I would not have advised them to not go to the police, I wouldn’t have advised them to do this either. And if they were wavering in anyway about doing so I would probably have been very supportive of just trying to let it go and move on. It’s terrible. And regardless of last week’s verdict I know how completely and utterly wrong that attitude is.
I knew it before too. It’s just I didn’t really face that I had this attitude so deeply ingrained within me. Until the details of this case made me do so.
The bravery and wisdom of this young woman and her friends really amazed me and has made me view the world and myself differently. Her readiness to go to the police and the way the police handled the case seemed like evidence of how much our world has progressed. And it was evidence that I needed to move forward a couple of steps myself to catch up with it.
But things haven’t changed enough
The trial was awful though. It made it seem like nothing had moved on. The woman was more on trial than the accused.
She handled it brilliantly though. And it seemed like the evidence weighed strongly in her favour. Accounts from the trial seemed to be published almost daily. Reading them I wondered why the young men hadn’t admitted guilt. Why not plead diminished responsibility because of the amount of alcohol they had consumed? So strong seemed the evidence against them.
However, the jury clearly were of a very different mindset. They unanimously cleared the men of all charges – after less than four hours of deliberations.
Of course the court’s verdict must be accepted. But nonetheless it was a shocking verdict.
Bravery should still be applauded
Regardless of the verdict the fact that this young woman came forward should be applauded. And it is by many of us who followed the trial. The first step is standing up and demanding the respect that it due to you. And seeing someone else do this reminds everyone else that this is something they can do.
And so the #MeToo movement has perhaps already started a change by encouraging people to take that first step. Or maybe the movement is a result of people being more assertive these days. Whatever the reason it’s great to see people taking that first step.
But we need to progress things much more for real change to occur.
How to progress things?
The next step is to ensure that our societies do respond respectfully to those who make their stand.
I’m not suggesting that whenever someone stands up and accuses someone of a sexual crime they should be instantly and without question believed.
Being truly respectful means respecting the rights of all.
The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of our justice system. A belief that people are basically decent and good is what the presumption of innocence is really about. This presumption is essential for the creation of a truly civilised society.
But the presumption of innocence must be afforded, not only to those accused, but to the accusers also.
And, as this trial has shown, this is why the #MeToo movement is so necessary. Because often in cases concerning sexual crimes the accused benefits from this presumption while the accusers in contrast can face a full on attack on their character and behaviour.
So what changes could be made to the justice system to ensure that accusers are treated respectfully?
- Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre wrote a very good article in the wake of the verdict. In it she asks that accusers in these types of cases have legal representation at trial. I would strongly support such a change.
- Northern Ireland is actually a separate jurisdiction to the Republic’s. But they are both built on the same foundations of the English justice system. So they are very similar. Some key differences are that members of the public aren’t allowed attend rape trials. And details of the accused and the accusers are not published until after the verdict. Sometimes not even then. I think this is right and protective of the rights of both the accused and accuser.
- From our teens we should all be aware of our rights and obligations regarding criminal matters. How do you report crimes? What’s involved? What to do if you are arrested? What are your rights? And what the are the essential points of the laws regarding any type of violent crime or theft? What is consent? How can you be sure it has occurred?
- Let’s also have classes on assertiveness and communication skills taught in schools. There’s no point knowing your rights if you don’t know how to assert them. Although sometimes just knowing them is enough of a confidence booster.
Let’s learn from this
I applaud the young woman in this case. She did everything one should do following rape/sexual assault. She serves as a shining example of how to best behave in such cases. This case seems to have shone a spotlight on the inadequacies of the justice systems with regard to how accusers in these cases are treated.
Let’s not ignore what it’s revealed.