Dispatches from the Potomac#24 | #MeToo and US Politics

This is a translation of an article originally written in February 2018 for publication in the April 2018 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni US Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

The 2017 #MeToo Movement

Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2017 was “The Silence Breakers.” This represents the people who have come forward to report harassment and abuse they have experienced in the past as part of the #MeToo Movement remain silent while enduring harassment began to come forward, creating an even greater movement. Within two days of Milano’s first Twitter post, there were more than 1 million tweets, and more than 12 million posts on Facebook in one day. In the following months, the effects were felt not only in the movie industry, but also in media and the political world, as many prominent people were denounced.

The #MeToo concept (spreading empathy by sharing your own experiences) was actually first used 10 years earlier by the civil-rights activist Tarana Burke in her program for black women who had been victims of sexual violence. Milano appears to have used the same phrase unknowingly. The explosive response to #MeToo this time was initially resented by Ms. Burke because white women had ignored the movement when it was associated with black people, and only responded when other white people that started last year. The origin of this was a scoop by the New York Times in October reporting on sexual harassment accusations directed at the movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Ten days later the actress Alyssa Milano called on others to share their own experiences on Twitter using the hashtag #MeToo, initiating this huge movement. Harvey Weinstein is a fervent advocate for eradication of poverty, gun regulation and health insurance reform, has donated large sums of money to the Democratic Party, and supported the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns. When the article first came out, the point that accusations had been made against Mr. Weinstein drew attention. Yet almost immediately, women who had been compelled to were involved; but, she later voiced her approval.

At the time of this writing, it has been nearly five months since the initial article, and there are starting to be voices pointing out some of the side effects of #MeToo as the movement continues to spread. There are reports of some companies making rules (or requiring self-regulation by the men) to prohibit business trips and meetings involving one man and one woman, and men inviting women to share meals. It may become necessary to consider the risk of impediments to information access and business planning imposed on women as an over-reaction to the #MeToo activity.

#MeToo and American Politics

The #MeToo movement is also spreading into the US political world. Shortly after Milano’s initial tweet, Jackie Speier, US Representative for California, made a #MeToo post revealing her own experience over 40 years ago when she was a congressional staffer. Rep. Speier’s description of being forcibly kissed by the male chief of staff created a large stir.

Within less than two months from the start of #MeToo in the political world, seven members of congress have been accused of sexual harassment. Five of them have resigned, or forced to drop out of the mid-term elections this year. Actually, in the US, sex scandals in the political world are not a new story. Famous cases of womanizers include President Kennedy (who, counting only the verified cases, had relations with more than 10 women), and Thomas Jefferson, the third president, who fathered six children with a woman who was his slave. What’s more, there has been an incessant flow of these problems since the past.

Representative Speier has not only tweeted about her experiences, but has also introduced a bill to reform the process for handling harassment in Congress. Under the existing law (enacted in 1995), a victim of harassment in Congress cannot make a complaint in Congress or initiate legal action until after a 30 day consultation period and a 30 day mediation period had elapsed, in order to comply with confidentiality obligations. During the consultation and mediation period, the victim has to continue to work in the same workplace with the perpetrator. The mediation is performed by a mediator, but it is conducted with both the victim and the perpetrator present. Even if the complaint is recognized, reparation is paid from a congressional pool fund and taxes, not by the perpetrator, so the harasser suffers no financial loss. Rep. Speier’s assertion is that this doesn’t work, just makes it harder for victims to come forward, and only protects the perpetrators. By the way, in November last year the congressional Office of Compliance revealed that the reparations paid from taxes over the past 10 years has totaled more than USD 17 million.

The revised bill was passed by a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives early in February this year, and is presently (February 2018) being discussed in the Senate. It remains to be seen whether a new framework can be built to overcome the existing mechanisms.