More than a decade before the #MeToo hashtag went viral, activist and sexual assault survivor Tarana Burke had coined the phrase and quietly founded the “me too” movement to help survivors of sexual violence, especially Black girls and women, heal. When “Me Too” exploded into public consciousness in 2017, it threw Burke and the cause into the global spotlight, prompting her to establish the nonprofit me too. International just two years later.
“Our work is very much about the basic need for safety,” Dani Ayers, CEO of metoo. International, told TheWrap for this week’s edition of Office With a View. “It’s not about taking down powerful men or canceling people, right? These are all the things that you hear about the movement.”
Read on as Ayers discusses the origins of the #MeToo movement, as well as the oft-misunderstood work of the global nonprofit.
Can you give me a little background on me too. International?
We’re the organization that grew out of the Me Too movement, which was first started by Tarana Burke back in the early 2000s. So what happened was essentially this [past] October 15th [was] five years since the hashtag went viral and prior to that, even though Tarana was doing this work of interrupting sexual violence and supporting survivors of sexual violence primarily in the Black community, no one knew about it. It was underfunded. She was scraping together two pennies to do that work, and as a result frankly of the Hollywood reckoning, it thrust her into the public spotlight sort of serendipitously and her work was finally recognized and the movement that she had started that no one knew about was sort of also thrust into the limelight. And As a result, we were able to for the first time put some funds together to start the organization that supports the work of the movement.
What would you say are the most significant impacts of the Me Too movement so far especially in recent years?
I think what we’ve seen in the last five years is the ability to have a public conversation about an issue that has plagued our communities forever. There have been people fighting to interrupt sexual violence for decades and decades, and often trying to address a conversation that was only happening behind closed doors in the shadows, not in public conversations. And we know that if you’re having those conversations behind closed doors and not in the public, not much is going to change, and so the hashtag going viral really brought a conversation to the masses. It elevated something that was prevalent in almost every community and made it part of a conversation. It helped people to say, “Actually, this did happen to me. I never felt comfortable talking about it. Now I feel comfortable talking about it.”
It started holding people accountable who have done harm. It started holding corporations and brands accountable for the systems and structures that they have — and any harmful practices that may exist inside of them. There’s a certain level of accountability that was made possible in the wake of the hashtag going viral and that’s an exciting development. It’s a really big part of what we’re proud of in this moment five years later. It’s all of the small and frankly large wins of the last five years. We know there is so far [still] to go, but in this moment, it’s important to sort of acknowledge that the first thing that has to happen in order for large culture changes to take place are for our communities, the masses, to sort of recognize that there’s an issue.
How did the COVID pandemic affect the Me Too movement?
We actually did a study during the early moments of the pandemic… We already knew that survivors [of sexual violence] were the most likely to be impacted by a socio-structural burden, and so we knew that there was an increase of between 23% to 25% [globally] of those experiencing [domestic] violence in the pandemic. That’s a fact that many have reported on, but we also learned that up to 60% of survivors of intimate partner violence lost their jobs as a result of that intimate partner violence because of the impact on them being locked at home and not able to actually work because of the violence that they were experiencing at home.
We learned as a result of this study as well… that Black survivors are more likely to halt their education in the moment of the pandemic as reported by the survivors that we interviewed… The data said eight out of 10 Black survivors who are essential workers would be more likely to not be able to continue their education, to be food or housing insecure compared to five out of 10 white survivors. So that differentiation to us was like, “Wow.” It was sobering. And the realization that we know the percentages of essential workers are more likely to be Black or Indigenous [or] people of color, and they are experiencing this pandemic in huge, devastating ways as opposed to their white counterparts.
What about the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and the Dobbs decision? How is that impacting the movement?
I’m in Georgia and we have an abortion ban present right now, and the reality is that that abortion ban is going to impact survivors of sexual violence the most, even in the case of an abortion ban where there’s an exception for incest and rape. Most of the time those exceptions are only allowed with a police report and so that assumes that someone is comfortable going to the police, which in many cases, survivors of sexual violence, especially those who are in the BIPOC community are not comfortable going to the police because they know they’re not safe.
And so by creating that rule and that sort of caveat, you are making it that survivors of incest and rape are actually not able to get the abortion care that they need in the space of being harmed, and so it’s hugely problematic. You know, for us, the issue of reproductive justice is survivor justice. There is no differentiation between those things. And so what we are fighting for is essentially the same thing, and that’s bodily autonomy — that’s being able to say that we… as individuals get to determine what happens to our bodies, both in the case of reproductive justice and in the case of trying to avoid being violated in the case of sexual violence or even rape culture broadly.
What do you think are the main challenges the Me Too movement has faced so far?
One of the main challenges [at me too. International] is just trying to help folks understand that we actually center under-resourced communities – Black and Indigenous and people of color, those across the gender and sexuality spectrum, those with various abilities and disabilities, like those are the groups that we center at all of our work because we know that if you center those communities, everyone gets served. And in addition, our work is very much about the basic need for safety. It’s not about taking down powerful men or canceling people, right? These are all the things that you hear about the movement.
You know, the #MeToo movement has a gotcha mentality. “Don’t let them come for you. You’re going to get canceled.” That’s not at all the work that we do and if someone goes on to our social media or goes to our website, the me too. International organization does not go after powerful men. In fact, our work is about centering survivors of sexual violence and really working to support them along their healing journey. When you hear us address the perpetrators or those who have done harm, it’s from a place of like we have to be able to acknowledge that harm happens and that healing is possible. We don’t believe in throwing people away. We really do believe that the only way to move forward from harm is to be able to take accountability, fix the issues that we have, which are very much systemic and from an infrastructure place and work toward healing. That’s for the harm doer and those who have experienced harm.