World News

While the #MeToo backlash raged on in 2019, the movement notched up big gains

Posted December 24, 2019 4:42 a.m. EST

— Sandra Muller didn't expect her tweet to start a firestorm over sexual harassment in France, but she doesn't regret it either -- even though the stress over the intervening two years has made it hard for her to sleep.

The French journalist became a figurehead for France's version of #MeToo in 2017 after she publicly accused a man of making lewd comments toward her.

It also turned her into a symbol of the backlash against the movement this September, when a court in Paris found she had defamed the man she accused, and ordered her to pay him thousands of euros in damages.

The man, television producer Eric Brion, admitted to making the remarks and said he had apologized to Muller, but said his words were a clumsy attempt at flirting, not harassment. The court agreed with him.

"You are the Time [magazine] Person of the Year and at the same time ... a sort of a pariah facing backlash from people like Catherine Deneuve," she said. Deneuve, a French movie star, was one of 100 women who signed an open letter denouncing #MeToo in January 2018. It was one of the first signs of the counterreaction to come.

The #MeToo aftershocks matter

When allegations of sexual abuse implicating the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked the global #MeToo movement in 2017, its message was simple: Men in positions of power should not -- and will not -- be allowed to get away with using their position to harass and assault.

It worked.

Dozens of very high-profile men -- and a handful of women -- have been forced out of their high-profile jobs as a result.

More than 1,000 women in entertainment joined forces under the umbrella of Time's Up, an organization combating workplace sexual misconduct across different industries. Time's Up Legal Defense Fund has responded to the more than 3,800 requests for assistance from survivors across the United States.

Now the dust has settled, #MeToo has moved from the front pages and Twitter feeds into courtrooms, company boards and legislative chambers.

They may be happening below the radar, but experts say the shockwaves happening now are absolutely crucial -- and just as important as the initial #MeToo scandal.

"You're not going to see a front page news article about the fact that the legislature has changed the statute of limitations for harassment claims or has altered the legal standards," said Elizabeth Tippett, law professor at the University of Oregon. "But these things actually matter a lot when you're in the litigation."

Tippett, who researches employment practices and business ethics, told CNN the legal changes sparked by #MeToo are finally addressing the weaknesses in the legal system and businesses that made the culture of sexual harassment, hush money and cover-ups possible in the first place.

"They matter a lot: Whether you can even bring a case and whether a lawyer will take your case and ... whether you're free to actually talk about harassment," she explained.

These changes may not spark the same level of outrage as the initial exposés accusing Hollywood A-listers and Wall Street powerhouses of inappropriate behavior. But it takes time -- and lots of paperwork -- to change the law and adopt new employment policies.

"What you're seeing now are efforts to fix the underlying problem. And that's really important," Tippett added.

According to Tippett, the viral tweets and in-depth reports are what have made those ongoing changes possible, since they "provided the political will to make these legal changes."

The progress is not uniform though. In the United Kingdom, the number of sexual offenses reported to the police has almost tripled in recent years.

Since 2016, the number of rape cases prosecuted in the United Kingdom has fallen by 52%, according to the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate data released earlier this month. This is despite the fact that there has been a 43% rise in the number of rape allegations to the police.

The Office for National Statistics, which analyzed the data, said that even though the majority of victims still don't report the assaults, some are becoming more willing to come forward.

The ONS said that high-profile media coverage of sexual offenses, the police response to reports, and the #MeToo movement is "likely to have influenced trends in police recorded sexual offenses."

"Victims are thought to be more likely to report both recent and non-recent offenses as a result."

Some experts point out that it is not necessary to change the law to force a change in the culture.

The #MeToo earthquake has forced many companies to put in more comprehensive policies aimed at protecting workers who report sexual harassment. The companies are also raising awareness of the problem and rewriting the rules on what is and is not acceptable.

"One of the biggest examples of this is that .... the CEO of McDonald's Corporation stepped down ... and part of that was because he was having a relationship with a subordinate," said Michael Green, professor of law and the director of the Workplace Law program at Texas A&M University.

"Now, it didn't say it wasn't consensual or that they had any complaints about it or anything of that nature, but just the very nature of having that kind of relationship in this #MeToo time shows bad judgment," Green added.

This is a point Muller has been highlighting. Brion has always argued his comments were a poor attempt at flirting. Muller says she felt that the professional nature of the situation -- the incident happened at a work party -- shifted the balance of power. "I felt oppressed," she said.

"I am strong, I have a big mouth, but economically, I needed him, he was powerful," she said. "That's why I felt like I couldn't say anything, I couldn't say f*** you, I felt like I had to be professional."

Muller is appealing the court's decision. Brion has not responded to CNN's request for comment.

Backlash

The pushback has been tough to stomach.

"The backlash comes from a minority, but the minority has a lot of power," Muller said. "It hasn't been good for me, for my image, for my work." Muller runs the French publication La Lettre de l'Audiovisuel and used to freelance on the side. She said the freelance work has dried up since she came into prominence.

Activists like her have been publicly accused of waging a "witch hunt" targeting men.

Surveys show that an increasing number of men say they now feel uncomfortable mentoring women and that both men and women reported being more reluctant to hire attractive women.

Green said that reaction seems illogical. "There really hasn't been any kind of data to suggest that a lot of these [workplace harassment] complaints are unjustified," Green said.

According to Harvard Business Review, the same surveys also show that men and women have similar understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment, which weakens the argument that men don't understand the implications of their actions while women are merely overreacting to innocent remarks.

Catharine MacKinnon, the legal scholar and feminist whose 1979 book on sexual harassment helped shape the legal world's understanding of sexual discrimination, said the backlash was a natural reaction.

"There is no backlash without a frontlash," she said in a speech she delivered at Berkeley Law conference earlier this year and shared with CNN. "Anytime abusers don't get away with violating us without consequences, it will be called 'bias' or 'lack of due process.' Anytime we say what he did, making perpetrators look like who and what they are, it will be called 'defamatory'," she said.

For Muller, it's the backlash against the backlash that makes the whole thing worth it.

"I didn't expect this to happen, I didn't want this to happen ... the consequences have been difficult and some women tell me they are worried to speak up because they are afraid they'd be sued," she said. "But many more say they feel like we have to speak up. We won't shut up. I hope there will be a happy end .. even if it's not a happy end for me, there will be a happy end for other women because of this."

MacKinnon says that the backlash cannot silence the movement which she says has shifted the "gender hierarchy's tectonic plates." Instead of women who accuse men of sexual abuse being thrown overboard, she said, women's voices are now "being heard, believed, and acted on."

"This is it, this right here. It has arrived."

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.