Me Too: Why are women sharing stories of sexual assault and how did it start?

Actress Alyssa Milano speaks at the 2017 World Of Children Hero Awards at Montage Beverly Hills: Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for World of Children
Actress Alyssa Milano speaks at the 2017 World Of Children Hero Awards at Montage Beverly Hills: Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for World of Children

It was nearly impossible to scroll through social media this week without seeing a post tagged #metoo. The hashtag filled Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, bringing a flood of personal stories with it. And, like any viral campaign, it also elicited its fair share of backlash.

But what does “me too” mean, and where did the hashtag come from? Here’s what you need to know.

How did it start?

The idea for the hashtag started with singer/actress Alyssa Milano, as a means of addressing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in America. The celebrity posted on Twitter, asking people who had experienced sexual violence to reply “me too” to her tweet.

She explained the idea behind the action in an accompanying screenshot.

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” she wrote.

The tweet has since garnered more than 61,000 replies and more than 22,000 retweets. The simple phrase – “Me too” – has become a viral hashtag, and spread to Facebook and Instagram as well.

While Ms Milano may have started the online campaign, however, the "me too" movement actually started with a Black activist in Harlem more than 10 years ago.

Community organiser Tarana Burke founded the me too Movement in 2006, in order to spread awareness and understanding about sexual assault in underprivileged communities of colour. Now, her organisation coordinates outreach in local schools and provides educators with resource kits to use in their classrooms.

“[Me too] was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible," Ms Burke told Ebony.

She added: “In this instance, the celebrities who popularized the hashtag didn’t take a moment to see if there was work already being done, but they also were trying to make a larger point."

Why now?

As Ms Burke’s movement shows, sexual violence has been a pressing issue for years. But the “me too” hashtag took off this week in the wake of some troubling news: Renowned producer Harvey Weinstein was publicly accused of sexually harassing multiple women who had worked with him. (Mr Weinstein has said that all sexual relations were consensual and his legal team have called other allegations "false".)

The news inspired dozens of female celebrities – including Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and Kate Beckinsale – to open up about being harassed by Mr Weinstein and other Hollywood bigwigs. Several male celebrities also spoke up about the need to put a stop in sexual violence in their industry.

At Elle’s Women in Hollywood event on Monday, actress Reese Witherspoon said she had been sexually assaulted by a director when she was just 16.

“I have just spoken to so many actresses and writers, particularly women, who have had similar experiences and many of them have bravely gone public with their stories,” she said. “That truth is very encouraging to me and everyone out there in the world because you can only heal by telling the truth.”

Who’s using it?

Aside from Ms Witherspoon and the Weinstein accusers, many other celebrities have made their stories of sexual violence known by using the “me too” hashtag.

Actress Anna Paquin, known for her work in True Blood, replied to Ms Milano’s tweet. Sitcom star Debra Messing retweeted it, and actress Gabrielle Union shared a similar tweet.

Lady Gaga, who has spoken previously about being sexually assaulted, tweeted simply, “#MeToo.”

Actress Evan Rachel Wood opened up more about her experience, tweeting: “Because I was shamed and considered a ‘party girl’ I felt I deserved it. I shouldnt have been there, I shouldn't have been ‘bad’ #metoo.”

Several male celebrities also said they had been affected by sexual violence.

“Me too. I don’t know if means anything coming from a gay man but it’s happened. Multiple times,” wrote Hamilton star Javier Muñoz.

Barry Crimmins, a comedian and political satirist, added: “As a male childhood rape survivor who has gone public and had so many disclose to me, I promise: any rape stat you see is low.”

What are some of the criticisms?

Some of the earliest criticisms came from men, who felt excluded from Ms Milano’s tweet. Several pointed out that men can be victims of sexual violence too, though at a statistically lower rate than women.

Some women, however, felt the hashtag actually removed blame from male perpetrators, putting the onus on female survivors.

“Why are we still demanding that women out themselves as survivors, again and again and again, rather than demanding that men out themselves as abusers?” wrote Heather Jo Flores. “...Men, it’s not our job to keep reminding you. Remind each other, and stop abusing.”

Still others said they resented the need to constantly recount a painful experience, without seeing results. Meg Nolan, writing for Vice, lamented the fact that women are “tasked with performing our pain so often”. The Daily Beast's Olivia Messer questioned whether changed required "the horror of every woman I know swimming in her own trauma on social media so you can all see it".

So even as “me too” posts flooded social media, friendly reminders cropped up as well: No one is obligated to share their story if they don’t want to.