In October 2017, actor Alyssa Milano picked up her phone and posted on Twitter: "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted, write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet."
The response was overwhelming, and sparked a global movement. Suddenly, it was impossible to ignore what women had always known – the sheer ubiquity of male harassment and violence against women.
Former journalist Tracey Spicer at the National Press Club last month. Credit:AAP
But one prominent Australian feminist was having none of it. Melbourne-based writer Amy Gray took to her social media accounts to sound a rare note of defiance. "I'm not giving you my trauma for you to believe it's real," she wrote.
Two years on, MeToo is back in the headlines. And not because more high-profile Australians have been accused of sexual misconduct (although several have). Instead, former newsreader Tracey Spicer – the most prominent face of the local MeToo movement – has been accused of improperly handling private sexual abuse disclosures.
Last month, a pre-broadcast version of the ABC's Silent No More documentary revealed the names and faces of rape and domestic abuse survivors without their consent. Producers failed to blur out these details, which were visible on Spicer's computer screen, but critics say she should never have let a production crew film her private correspondence with survivors in the first place.
An ABC spokesman said the response to the documentary has been "overwhelmingly positive".
Spicer's lawyer has flagged defamation concerns with at least three people following the ABC controversy. Spicer has said she was trying to "correct misinformation". Her detractors say it's hypocritical for a journalist, especially one who has criticised Australia's defamation laws, to issue legal threats to detractors.
Spicer has also stepped back from NOW Australia, the organisation she founded in the wake of MeToo with the intention of it being a "one-stop shop" for survivors. Some accused NOW of diverting attention and resources away from existing organisations. Others say it was ill-equipped to provide survivors with legal and psychological support to begin with.
A spokesperson says Spicer had not sought to make herself the focus of MeToo. "She is not the movement, and the movement is not her," they said.
"In June last year, Tracey developed a major depressive disorder, brought on by vicarious trauma. She regrets that she didn't heed her medical professionals' advice earlier, and prioritise her mental health. For this reason, she is undertaking no further interviews."
Several people who spoke to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald did so on the condition they would not answer questions about Spicer.
Asked about the current state of MeToo in Australia, Gray says there were red flags from the beginning. She says the lack of diversity among Australian news outlets, and the emphasis on social media all combined to create structural problems.
"People have confused celebrity with competency," she says. "These people are not subject-matter experts in anything other than writing. They are not activists and rarely have the structural, organisation-based experience to know how to support or represent others. When you combine that system with the personally focused disclosures Australia's take on MeToo demanded, it was always going to fail. We lost a chance to understand an entire system in exchange for someone's anecdote."
Biripi woman and academic Tess Ryan says more work needs to be done to protect the women who have made disclosures. "In the Aboriginal space, we say it's 'having to bloodlet our trauma'," she says. "But there is no foundation or structure in place to manage that now."
Former Liberal staffer Dhanya Mani at her home in Sydney. Credit:Sam Mooy
Dhanya Mani is one of the thousands of women who contacted Spicer. Mani used to work for a former speaker of the NSW state parliament and in May 2018 wrote to Spicer alleging a fellow Liberal staffer came to her home in 2015, attempted to undo her jeans and began masturbating without her consent. After not hearing from Spicer, Mani came to this masthead directly to tell her story.
"It's such a big deal for people to come forward with their most private, vulnerable experiences," she says. "I felt I was putting my future on the line reaching out to her. So when I heard absolutely nothing I suppose, for me, the fears I'd had about the feminist movement not wanting someone like me were realised.
"It's unfathomable to me how somebody like Spicer could ever claim to be a legitimate voice for the MeToo movement again," she says. "I don't think the MeToo movement is over. I think it's going to be defined by how it deals with these things."
Spicer's spokesperson stressed the disclosures made to Spicer were passed onto relevant organisations, law enforcement, media outlets and legal services only where consent was explicitly given. "However, most people simply want to tell their story, as part of an overall healing process."
Other feminists have come to Spicer's defence. Ginger Gorman, author of the book Troll Hunting, says Spicer is a decent person who has made mistakes. She finds the infighting among the MeToo movement "devastating".
"I fear that the conversation has developed into [a] vindictive and fruitless blame-game," she says. "While we're busy infighting, the man who sexually harassed me – and indeed, the hordes of men who've abused and assaulted so many women – still have their jobs."
Gorman stresses no social movement is beyond critique. However, she would like the conversation to move on to issues such as tackling Australia's defamation laws.
"We may not always see eye to eye but we can still work together towards stopping sexual violence," she says. "We need to regroup and keep our eye on the ball. In this case, the ball is primarily supporting victims psychologically and to get justice through the legal system."
Long before Milano popularised the term on social media, African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke coined "MeToo" in the mid-2000s, while working with disadvantaged girls. So many had experienced sexual violence that she felt compelled to let them know they belonged to a community of survivors, including herself.
Bianca Fileborn, an academic who co-edited a new book called #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change, says after the initial phase of survivors sharing their experiences had passed, Australia's MeToo movement quickly focused on "naming and shaming" individual perpetrators.
"It's a question of whether it's been derailed or whether it was on the right track in the first place," Fileborn says. "Yes, individual stories are important, but it also deflected from the need to have important and sustained discussion about the difficult work around the structural causes [of sexual violence]."
A spokesperson for Spicer says: "Storytelling is key to changing hearts and minds, which will generate support for the necessary structural change."
MeToo has also been complicated by some high-profile legal cases. In April, actor Geoffrey Rush won a $2.9 million defamation suit against NewsCorp, publisher of The Daily Telegraph, after it was found that the newspaper could not prove the truth of an article that accused him of misconduct. That ruling is now the subject of an appeal.
In 2018, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins launched a national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, to examine whether the fear of defamation claims was having a "chilling effect" on complaints.
From an outpouring of fury and pain about sexual violence on social media, MeToo in Australia has – at an official level, at least – largely morphed into a focus on reducing sexual harassment in the workplace. The movement has also been beset by infighting. So has MeToo been derailed?
Jenkins says she is "very positive" about the impact of MeToo. After spending 20 years working as an employment lawyer, Jenkins says she has seen real changes since the movement began.
"Some [media] articles seem to say that MeToo has failed in Australia, and I couldn't disagree more with that," she says. "But that goes to how we measure success. Is it measured by eliminating sexual harassment at work, and reducing the harm if it does happen, or is it the longer term – does this become something that is no longer tolerated, that is not normalised?"
Jenkins says that in the wake of MeToo, the federal government, businesses and union groups have thrown their support behind the commission's sexual harassment inquiry. She points to a new International Labour Organisation convention on harassment and work, and a new national action plan on the prevention of violence against women – which includes sexual harassment – as tangible wins.
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton agrees. She says the movement has performed a valuable role in raising awareness. Up to 80 per cent of sexual harassment complaints made to the commission involve people being harassed at work.
"MeToo has done two things – it's delivered women and other people who've suffered sexual harassment more confidence to speak out and it's put workplaces on notice," Hilton says. "Workplaces are requesting more education and training, but in my view that's coming from a very low base. Sexual harassment is very widespread and continues to be."
But Hilton says there is more to do.
Likening MeToo to the cultural transformation that led to the introduction of seatbelts, she argues the time has come to convert awareness into structural change. "That's what we haven't seen yet."
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or harassment you can call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732. You can also contact mental health services Lifeline on 131 114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
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