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24/01/2020 Communication Science news and articles

Discussion with Megan Twohey: why the #MeToo movement has not gone far enough

On December 3rd, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Megan Twohey joined the University of Amsterdam’s Room for Discussion to give students an inside scoop on the story that kick-started a movement.   


Survivors are not alone. That is the foundation of the #MeToo movement, which took the world by storm in 2017 when it gave victims center stage to tell their stories of harassment. Two years after the article that helped ignite it, what can we say about systemic changes following the public outcry for justice?

I have been waiting for this knock on my door for 25 years.

Twohey recalls the process of tracking down the so called patient zero of the Harvey Weinstein story, a woman who had allegedly been assaulted by him in 1990, 27 years before he was exposed as a predator by the New York Times. The first thing the woman said to her was: “I have been waiting for this knock on my door for 25 years”. And thus began an investigation that would wreak havoc in Hollywood, America and the world. 

The exposé on Weinstein
According to the journalist, a few aspects of the article helped pave the way for a global movement. For one, the celebrity factor: this was one of the first stories where some of the accusers were more famous than the accused. Additionally, it ultimately became an X-ray on abuse of power going way beyond Harvey Weinstein and encompassing the machinery that was in place to silence women who came forward. As written in her book “She Said”, the producer’s predatory behavior was an open secret in Hollywood. So many people failed to intervene, thereby allowing him to continue harassing women for decades without consequence. 

Finally, Twohey believes that it was women like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie coming forward with their stories of harassment at the hands of Weinstein that helped strip away some of the misplaced sense of shame that had been silencing victims for so long. 

We watched in wonder as the dam broke.

The aftermath
According to the Pulitzer Prize winner, it was only days after publication that she and Kantor could feel that a significant shift had occurred. She stated: “we watched in wonder as the dam broke”. Their emails and phones were flooded with women coming forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment. This was happening not only in the New York Times but in multiple news organizations across the United States and ultimately, in the world. 

The lack of change
Although the #MeToo movement has led to a shift in cultural attitude when it comes to speaking out, it became clear from the discussion with Megan Twohey that in the aftermath of public outrage, few systemic changes have occurred. There is still one pressing question we need to answer: what is the process for vetting allegations of sexual assault? Is there any consensus (within HR departments and the court of public opinion) on how to determine what has happened? 

Sadly, when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct, history does seem to repeat itself. When Anita Hill went to Washington to testify against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, there was no protocol in place for which the Senate could decide whether the assault actually occurred. In 2018, decades later, when Christine Blasey Ford went to testify against nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she was faced with the same lack of standards and guidelines. Once again, the accused was confirmed as a Justice in the most powerful court in the nation. 

On the road to progress
According to statistics from the Centrum Seksueel Geweld (Sexual Assault Center), 100.000 incidents of sexual assault take place in the Netherlands every year, with most victims falling into the age group of 12 to 24. Given that a vast majority of students belong in the aforementioned group, due process of sexual harassment is a recurring theme for universities all over the world, including the University of Amsterdam. 

Although the House Rules and Code of Conduct do mention that everyone present in the UvA’s facilities will be expected to, among other rules, “call others to account regarding their undesirable behavior”, there are no specifications on how sexual assault allegations should be dealt with. However, this year a social safety taskforce has been appointed to evaluate blind spots on policy that will serve as a basis for developing future steps. Hopefully, this taskforce will assess the power dynamics that students are exposed to and will help create a safer environment for everyone on campus.

Just last year, the Dutch newspaper NRC exposed former law professor Ronald Beltzer for sexual misconduct and abuse of power during his tenure at the UvA. Nonetheless, one day before publication, Beltzer won summary proceedings against the paper and the right to have his name redacted from all articles. Fortunately, NRC appealed the judge’s decision and won. The court stated: “it is precisely in #MeToo cases that there is a great interest among the public to learn which high-ranking or public persons have displayed inappropriate sexual behavior with impunity”. 

It is safe to say that the NRC is happy with the ruling. Editor-in-Chief René Moerland said: “Media should be able to name a public person when evidence of misconduct or involvement in misconduct can be sufficiently established. That serves a public interest. The ruling of the court recognizes this important journalistic task. “

The next step
As a journalist, Twohey believes that “you can’t solve a problem you can’t see”. With sexual assault, journalism stepped in to give voice to victims when the criminal and civil system failed them. But the press can only go so far. Although reporting might help pave the way for change, it is not the solution. It’s about time for other institutions to step up and do a better job in holding the powerful accountable for their actions. Enough is enough. 

Cover: Michelle Ding

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