Westmont Magazine Making Sense of the #MeToo Moment:
An Institutional and Cultural Perspective
by Meredith Whitnah, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Activist Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement in 2006 to call attention to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in our society and to build connections and empathy among survivors. The simple declaration that a person experiencing sexual abuse is not alone can be very powerful. Indeed, actress Alyssa Milano called for all women who had ever been sexually harassed and assaulted to write “Me Too” and used the hashtag on Twitter as allegations against Harvey Weinstein were emerging in 2017. It went viral.
And yet, we also live in a moment when #MeToo is contested: from within as people call for greater attention to the lives of those not rich and famous; and from without as, for instance, politicians have condemned it and businessmen have reported feeling hesitant to mentor women. I believe we’re in a moment that has implications for a movement.
Focusing on some of the features of the institutional and cultural moment can help us best address the needs of survivors and consider how we could better set up our institutions to prevent abuse and to address it adequately when it happens. When thinking sociologically about important matters, we often engage in issues both deeply personal and social. Readers may have experienced assault and harassment themselves or be involved in these issues in other ways. Depending on our experiences and views of the world, we likely approach this topic in quite different ways.
Yet considering the institutional and cultural factors contributing to our current moment can also help us recognize how our individual stories and experiences are caught up in forces much bigger than ourselves. As sociologist C. Wright Mills put it, our personal troubles are also public issues, and our own biographies intersect with the course of history.
So what is an institution? Political economist Douglas North suggested that, at the most basic level, institutions are our rules of the game. They can inform formal and legal rules, and they can involve informal social norms. They are fundamentally about patterns that exist outside of us and that shape and govern our lives. Sociologists Liz Clemens and James Cook have also pointed out that institutions both constrain the kinds of actions that are possible for us and provide models for how to move in the world.
In our particular moment, public and widely covered accounts of a wide range of allegations have occurred across a number of social institutions and organizations—specifically in four main contexts that help us see the institutional and cultural patterns that matter most.
The first context is film and media industries, where #MeToo went viral on Twitter as Alyssa Milano used the hashtag in response to allegations against Harvey Weinstein. While this case relates to Weinstein in particular, it also reflects the sense of ubiquity of experiences of harassment and, in some cases, assault. While other allegations have been made against other prominent people in recent years, this incident seems to have been a major catalyst for a wave of allegations. Weinstein’s case is notable partly for the sheer volume of allegations: from more than 80 women going back four decades and ranging from harassment to assault. At least some people had heard rumors of inappropriate behavior for years. The role of non-disclosure agreements has been one key institutional factor here. People who knew things were legally bound not to disclose them. There’s some evidence that Weinstein used these agreements as tools to keep people from talking and that when some people started to pursue cases against him, he wielded considerable influence to prevent the stories from coming out.
Non-disclosure agreements have played a significant role in other cases. In the wake of the controversy concerning Matt Lauer, NBCUniversal announced it will allow women with allegations of assault to be released from what the company calls a perceived obligation not to disclose. Like the Weinstein Company, NBCUniversal has been accused of covering up or suppressing allegations.
In this case, the primary mechanism for response and possible resolution has involved both internal organizational processes and external legal processes. NBCUniversal fired Matt Lauer after conducting an internal investigation. The Weinstein Company fired Weinstein, various guilds and industry entities banned him and civil and criminal charges have been filed against him. The civil case settled, but a jury convicted Weinstein of rape in the third degree and a criminal sexual act and found him not guilty on three counts, including two more serious charges of predatory sexual assault. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Particular features of the film and media industry have shaped the way allegations of abuse and assault have emerged and been handled. Rumors of alleged misconduct circulated for years, but the industry tends to work in ways that suppress allegations with influential people having considerable sway over other people’s careers. It has become clear that this is not just a case of individual people, but it’s also about systems that protect some and make others more vulnerable.
The second context to consider is politics, including the Access Hollywood tape of then-candidate Trump bragging about grabbing women’s bodies, photos and accounts of misconduct by people like Al Franken, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of assault against then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the resignation of Representative Katie Hill and the current allegations by Tara Reade against former Vice President Joe Biden. The allegations range from inappropriate relationships to harassment to assault, some focusing on recent alleged behaviors while others are alleged to have occurred decades ago. Some allegations have resulted in resignations, while others remain hotly contested with some alleged perpetrators continuing to occupy high positions of power.
These varied allegations and responses show the power and fragility of political mechanisms for resolution. For instance, some interpret the election of Trump and confirmation of Kavanaugh to be signs or proof of their innocence, while others see these political outcomes as evidence of a broken system. Social movements and political protests have emerged, including the Women’s March. We also see internal political mechanisms; for example, new congressional ethics policies were a factor in Hill’s resignation. Once again, mechanisms from within can be used for good or ill, with responses to allegations using the tools available in this institutional realm through political maneuverings and processes as well as social movements and protests. These cases also point to the increased politicization of the #MeToo movement and the possible cost of coming forward with allegations, including death threats. They also share a sense of ubiquity as the allegations span the ideological and political spectrum.
Cases have also emerged in the religious sphere, specifically the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestantism, with patterns alleged to go back years with various waves of other reports already disseminated. The problem here again involves a range of activities. Within the Roman Catholic Church, a number of reports have focused on child sexual abuse and address what appear to be extensive cover-ups by key leaders. The abuse of minors is only one dimension of the problem. Abuse of nuns (#NunsToo) and adult seminarians has also emerged.
Proposed mechanisms for resolution range from calls to abolish the priesthood altogether to the defrocking of Cardinal McCarrick, found to have engaged in systematic abuse and yet moved up the hierarchy. New legal responses include New York state courts allowing people to file lawsuits even if cases have expired under old Statute of Limitations laws.
The particular features of this social institution matter both for the ways alleged behaviors happen and for possible mechanisms of response, including both external legal and internal mechanisms. For instance, Pope Francis has issued new regulations making it mandatory for Roman Catholic clergy to report cases of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups to the church, which also make provisions for accusations against bishops. The Catholic hierarchical system has been critiqued for the way the structure helped to protect abusers and failed to follow up adequately on allegations or support victims who came forward. At the same time, Pope Francis has inaugurated regulations to create a way the hierarchy itself could potentially be a mechanism for addressing some of these issues. Again, the institution is drawing on the resources it has as much as it is responding to external criticisms.
In U.S. evangelicalism, allegations have emerged against prominent mega-church and denominational leaders, including Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Chicago and Andy Savage of Highpoint in Tennessee. Southern Baptist Paige Patterson was removed from his position after reports circulated of mishandled cases of rape and damaging advice to abuse victims. Recent reports of broader patterns of abuse have also emerged from contexts like the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Allegations range from inappropriate relationships and behavior with women, including staff members; to the assault of minors; to mishandled allegations or rape and problematic responses to abused women. Here again, we see people drawing on the resources available to them within their particular organizational and institutional domains in responding. In most cases, internal investigations led to resignations, with legal options limited by the statute of limitations. An external investigation at Willow Creek found the allegations credible. Southern Baptists focused on sexual abuse during their most recent convention and convened panels to address the reports.
A long-standing debate about gender roles is one of the cultural features at play here. Complementarian leaders like John Piper have suggested that the solution to these problems is returning to traditional masculinity and emphasizing the protection of women by men. Evangelical feminists like Mimi Haddad at Christians for Biblical Equality, on the other hand, suggest that the answer involves rectifying power imbalances, attending to the stories of women and recognizing that abused women are sitting in the pew. Both believe their perspective is right because they think it’s what the Bible teaches. The gender debate constrains them both: evangelical feminists because they’ve been associated with secular feminism; and gender traditionalists because they’ve occupied a defensive posture, which makes it much more difficult to center on women’s experiences. Another cultural feature is the role of the evangelical emphasis on conversion and repentance: Public acknowledgements by pastors of some misconduct and declarations of their repentance from sin were initially met with standing ovations in their congregations.
What similarities and differences exist in these four contexts? What are the rules of the game in these institutions and what patterns of constraint and models of behavior apply? First, we see a range of allegations of the types of behavior. Inappropriate comments are not the same thing as rape, and it seems important to distinguish among the types of alleged actions. At the same time, calling assault “sexual misconduct” does not adequately or accurately acknowledge the extent of the actions. Models of behavior in these institutions are being challenged. Will the institutions themselves adapt and adopt new models for behavior?
Second, with few exceptions, we’re talking about men in power using their positions to influence others, which raises questions about how people in authority can use their influence for good or for ill. If the rules of the game have lacked attention to power differences—and if the rules are based on exploiting people—they need to change.
Third, certain organizational and institutional processes can either help or hinder. In general, people tend to draw on the resources and mechanisms already available to them. Processes like non-disclosure agreements and the Roman Catholic hierarchy can hinder, but new regulations have the potential to carry substantial weight and influence. Likewise, the evangelical emphasis on the power of conversion and turning away from sin may be helpful in some cases, but it has also masked attention to the full resolution of the problem.
Fourth, ideologies matter, but in different ways. It’s interesting sociologically that both ideologically progressive and conservative institutions are involved in this. We see the power of this kind of ideology particularly in religious organizations. For instance, Catholic teachings on priestly authority and celibacy versus the evangelical teachings on gender roles highlight the impact of different kinds of ideology on the process of experiencing and responding to allegations of abuse.
What broader and deeper institutional and cultural realities are shaping our current moment? The first is a focus on prominent people. One of the criticisms of the movement is that it was initiated by an activist woman of color 10 years before a famous actress tweeted about Harvey Weinstein. Tarana Burke and others have consistently pointed out that the movement started to allow survivors to find connection and understanding and to courageously acknowledge their own experiences. We need to keep considering whose stories are perceived to be most valuable and worthy of reporting. Just because narratives about famous people are emerging now doesn’t mean these actions aren’t happening among those not rich and famous.
My own portrayal could be seen as problematic, as I’ve focused on those accused of inappropriate and, in some cases, criminal behavior, rather than on the survivors. At the same time, it seems significant that people with power and influence are facing more scrutiny and possibly more accountability than they have in the past. To some degree, the power and privilege that some prominent people have wielded in damaging ways is being exposed. How might power be used in different ways to promote flourishing rather than exploitation—not only for famous and socially prominent people but also for marginal and ignored people? And not just in egregious cases but also in everyday encounters involving power imbalances?
Second, we need to grapple with the role of social media and technology. How, when and about whom do stories and responses emerge? We live in a moment when information is almost instantly available. Depending on which news source we read or listen to, we can receive and construct completely different ideas about what’s true and real. One short tweet can be shared and debated within seconds. Arguably, this is not the most effective way to engage in thoughtful, reasonable and careful discussion of complex and often emotionally difficult issues. But it has proved to be an incredibly effective tool for mobilizing people and raising awareness. Here again is a dynamic of both facilitating and constraining responses.
Third, we’re seeing the importance of healthy or unhealthy organizational structures, including the mechanisms for allowing allegations and responses to them. For example, non-disclosure agreements go well beyond not sharing trade secrets to preventing people who’ve experienced harassment from voicing their stories. The role of internal versus external investigations can determine the effectiveness of responses. Conducting investigations well is imperative. Often, outside entities can do this more effectively than internal ones because they can be more neutral. Human Resources offices are both charged with receiving and responding to complaints and function to help prevent lawsuits against the organization or corporation. The processes of investigating and resolving allegations may involve competing interests. In some cases, there were simply not clear enough policies in place for investigating allegations, and sometimes good policies were not well executed. Whether people actively stonewalled those attempting to make allegations or powerful people were abusing minors who were not taken seriously when they came forward, there could be better mechanisms implemented for ensuring a healthier climate. This is one key, concrete thing that has emerged in this moment as workplaces seek to establish better and healthier climates and procedures.
Finally, the fourth crucial institutional and cultural factor is the kind of attitudes and beliefs we hold about gender as well as the representation and position of men and women in these varied contexts. Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway has theorized that it’s difficult not to connect beliefs about difference to beliefs that also sustain hierarchy and inequality. Many other important factors are involved in these cultural mechanisms, such as the structure of our economy and political structures. But gender is a distinct and important facet of social life, and I think this is crucial for both making sense of the current moment and considering what movements are necessary from this point on. We know, for instance, that women remain underrepresented in political offices, upper-management positions and religious hierarchies. To the extent that our cultural beliefs continue to present these realities as individually rooted in essential or natural capacities based on gender, we may continue to expect the power imbalances that promote the exploitation and abuse that both women and men today are protesting in the #MeToo movement.
So what kind of posture do we want to adopt, and what is most helpful? I use the term “posture” intentionally to imply that responding to this particular issue requires more than just thinking or believing the right or most helpful things. It’s also about ourselves as practicing, active creatures who are embedded in and responding to particular institutional realities.
Practically speaking, one of the most important things seems to be adopting a posture oriented to the survivor. The #MeToo movement has insisted upon this from the beginning, and it can make some of us uncomfortable. But it’s essential because it remains quite rare to report allegations, especially of assault—and it’s even more rare for people to make false reports or allegations. It’s also essential as we grow more aware of the costs to people who make allegations, ranging from economic to spiritual to social. Responding well to this issue that matters requires us to understand the dynamics of abuse and assault so we keep from retraumatizing those who share their experiences and find ways to be in companionship and solidarity with them.
It’s also essential to adopt a posture that remains committed to truth and facts. The process of investigating allegations matters for both the accusing and the accused. It also matters for those of us who may never be in either one of those positions. Our ever-shifting cultural terrain seems too easily and quickly to vilify, pretend there are no reliable facts and assert that evidence is always questionable. It’s essential to reclaim a posture of fairness, a belief in facts and evidence, and care for the right process. Implied here is the importance of listening well, even to what is difficult to take in and understand. Listening can change us.
From a Christian perspective, I think it would behoove us to engage in prophetic lament and reclaim a robust notion both of the inherent dignity of all creatures and of sin that pervades institutions as well as individuals. In the confession of sin my church prays frequently, we acknowledge that we have sinned by the things we have done and left undone. We must acknowledge we were not paying attention where we should have, that we should act where we have failed to do so and that we have acted in ways we should not have.
Ultimately, we must find ways to engage in restoring healthier relationships and systems that promote the flourishing of all people to fully grapple with this moment. Our individual lives and experiences matter as do the institutions that we work together to create and sometimes change. Factors beyond ourselves are shaping our experiences and perceptions. But at the same time, we are society; we create institutions, and we know that institutions can change to promote flourishing rather than exploitation. As we continue to make sense of this moment, my hope is that we also find ways to act.