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The mounting allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have ignited a powerful, widespread discussion — online and off — about how pervasive sexual harassment and assault remain in our society today.
It’s provoked a sort of “Weinstein effect,” with waves of accusers coming forward to publicly call out powerful figures, and institutions acknowledging their allegations and quickly responding — heartening activists who’ve long battled sexual harassment.
“It’s been a long time coming,” journalist and documentary filmmaker Francine Pelletier told CBC Radio’s Daybreak in Montreal this week, describing the “fast and furious” number of revelations emerging about high-profile men.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the head of Amazon Studios, a top showrunner for kids network Nickelodeon and the editorial director for the influential Vox Media all lost their jobs this week after allegations of sexual harassment came to light.
We are now at a tipping point, the veteran journalist said.
“The fact that [powerful men] are tumbling so quickly…we hardly know what to do with this, because we’re definitely not used to it. But it certainly says to me that these are new times — that we are believing women.”
The revelations about Weinstein (who, through a spokesperson, has denied engaging in any non-consentual sex) initiated a tidal wave of reaction across social media, propelled by hashtags aiming to spreading awareness of the ubiquity of assault — like #metoo (and #moiaussi), popularized this week by actress Alyssa Milano with origins in a movement started a decade ago by American activist Tarana Burke.
With the scope of the Weinstein scandal and the widespread discussion it has provoked, “I think this is quite possibly the biggest case that we’ve seen so far,” Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, said from Halifax.
“And then something happens that changes the tide. I’m hoping that this is a moment in time where that boulder gets lighter and smaller… We can also see the court system react differently. We can start to see systems change because the enormity of this issue has come to fore.”
As part of its Campaign to End Violence last spring, the Canadian Women’s Foundation released results of a survey it conducted, in which Canadians expressed a bleak outlook for our youngest generation of women in terms of their likelihood in experiencing sexual assault. Four out of five respondents felt Canadian women under the age of 19 are just as or even more likely to experience sexual assault as women of past generations.
Though the results may have seemed cynical at the time, “it’s making sense now, isn’t it?” Senior noted.
That social media has become an empowering space to sharing these stories doesn’t surprise her either, since “formal routes that have been set up to address criminal behaviour concerning assault haven’t been the best place in terms of resolution or success.”
As valuable as awareness-raising campaigns can be, it’s time for action, according to Shawna Ferris, associate professor and program coordinator of the University of Manitoba’s women and gender studies department.
There’s concern over a normalizing of sexual harassment and assault, “so that the only thing that’s interesting in these cases is who got caught or who finally got outed for years and years of reprehensible behaviour,” she said.
“At some point we have to stop gathering data…What we need is for people to start believing the data we already have and to put into action the kind of harassment prevention and sexual assault prevention tips that have been developed.’ – Shawna Ferris, University of Manitoba
“At some point we have to stop gathering data…What we need is for people to start believing the data we already have and to put into action the kind of harassment prevention and sexual assault prevention tips that have been developed.”
For instance, the Canadian Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights already identify “behaviours that are criminalized and that people are discouraged from engaging in,” Ferris noted.
“It’s there in the codes that are supposed to govern our nation and the workplaces in this nation. But there’s work to be done on part of those who own and run offices and businesses to make people aware of them, to provide reporting mechanisms, to educate people on how to adhere and how to not be criminal.”
Strategies “need to include not only ‘Here’s what to do when it happens,’ but also ‘Here’s how not to assault people,'” she said, highlighting how one hard-hitting example dubbed The Rock Test, widely shared via social media, has done this with humour.
Ultimately, it is up to everyone to act: to turn this Weinstein moment into a real shift, said Canadian Women’s Foundation president Senior.
“It’s going to take women in positions of power to make change. It’s going to take families believing when women and girls are speaking up about their experiences. It’s going to take judges who are open and educated about these issues. It’s going to take the public standing up and taking notice.”