By Matt Barnes-Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org
In March 2020, a month where the world celebrated, marched and came together in support of women’s rights for International Women’s Day, Harvey Weinstein was finally brought to justice after being found guilty of rape and sexual assault; two of the five charges he faced.
In a watershed moment for the #metoo movement, the once all-powerful ‘King of Hollywood’ was sentenced to 23 years in prison on the 11th March 2020, providing some relief and justice for the women survivors and those affected by his abusive and predatory actions. This landmark case also provides further strength, solidarity and encouragement for a community and generation of people across the world playing their part in the fight for gender equality. A step in the right direction for allyship.
Back in 2017, when details of Weinstein’s crimes began to come to light, one of his most vocal critics, Alyssa Milano, wrote: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Within days, millions of women and some men used their social media platforms to disclose the harassment and abuse they have faced in their own lives. They included celebrities and public figures, as well as ordinary people who felt empowered to finally speak out. The story moved beyond any one man; it became a conversation about men’s behaviour towards women and the imbalance of power at the top.
This direct challenge against patriarchy and the structures that hold systems of power imbalance in place, has, however, faced unscrupulous backlash, highlighting that the struggle for justice and equality will continue to be hard-fought. Attempts by Weinstein’s legal team to undermine the survivors through claims of false accusations has shone a light on the extent of victim blaming and shaming, yet it has transformed the conversation that has been building for some time around assault, harassment and gender. The trial was hailed by advocates as a step forward for assault survivors, especially given two of Weinstein’s accusers continued their relationship with him after the incidents. Such scenarios were previously considered very difficult to prosecute.
After Weinstein’s sentencing, The Washington Post (2020) reported on the ‘Open Secret’ and seriousness of sexual violence and harassment in Hollywood that was once accepted and normalised. “It happens, people know about, but don’t feel able to talk about it.” A situation created by abuse of power left ‘young, struggling artists’ with a requirement to be open and vulnerable in order to attain the unattainable. In certain situations, this unbalanced dynamic was abused, leaving people feeling that it’s part of the role, a process that they must go through.
This is what is known as ‘institutional betrayal’ – when an institution that an individual depends on and trusts mistreats that individual. This dependency and subsequent abuse lead to betrayal trauma, and how the institution acts can then be another level of betrayal if they fail to acknowledge what is going on.
This is a very similar phenomena that happens in the behaviour of a bystander to sexist and misogynistic actions and attitudes that happen so frequently in society, whether overtly or covertly. An onlooker who is present at an abusive event, or someone who is aware that abusive behaviour has occurred but does nothing to stop it, or report it is, part of the problem, and creates the foundations upon which that sexual violence exists.
Some people may be fearful of what would happen to them if they were to speak out or step in – a major conditioned barrier to being an active bystander – which is why it is so important to educate society on what ‘allyship’ really means, and what actions and behaviours you could and should adopt in order to be a good ally within your area of influence.
Allyship: “a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.” Atcheson (2018)
For men, allyship can naturally lead to personal reflection on their own behaviour, both past and current. In what ways have they contributed to a society that allows for sexual assault to occur and what can they do now to prevent it in the future? It’s making an issue that is not primarily their issue, their issue. And sexual violence against women is a men’s issue.
It’s common for men to feel confusion, anger or altogether stuck when examining their relationship to things such as the #metoo movement. These reactions are normal when a man recognises behaviours that misalign with his values or have hurt someone, regardless of their intent. It is the impact, not intent, that is important as allies. The challenge is not to remain stuck but to see allyship as an opportunity to acknowledge and address the change that is needed within ourselves and the world around us.
When the dust begins to settle on the case brought against Harvey Weinstein, what will hopefully be clearer is how allyship can mark a route towards equality in 2020 and beyond. As his accusers wrote in their joint and open letter;
“While we celebrate this historic moment, our fight to fix the broken system that has allowed serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein to abuse women in the first place continues. Abusers everywhere and the powerful forces that protect them should be on notice: There’s no going back.”
Ben Hurst of The Good Lad Project describes Allyship as ‘doing as much as you possibly can within your context. It’s about being a co-conspirator in the dismantling of someone else’s oppression when it’s not yours…it does feel uncomfortable to push yourself and challenge yourself in ways that no one else expects you to do, but that is what allyship looks like.’
So if allyship is about taking action on an individual level to support the collective, what could this look like in schools? Here are a few suggestions:
- Start a Conversation.
Bringing the subject to attention is the starting point. Many people will have never had the opportunity to unpack what some of the sensitive subjects involved mean or mean to them. It’s therefore important to create ‘safe spaces’ that these conversations can be had in. This inclusive environment will be where young people can practice emotional intelligence, speak honestly without fear of judgement, and become comfortable with engaging in these subjects.
- Adopt a “Stop It Before It Starts” attitude.
Teaching young people about what sexism and sexual harassment means, will allow them to keep an eye out for other students and try to head off inappropriate behaviour before it begins. Creating school ‘pledges’ could be one way to create this environment as well as providing safe steps to take if sexist incidents or incidents of sexual harassment do occur.
- Create a Respectful Environment.
Students and teachers can help create an environment where everyone feels respected and safe. If children laugh along with sexist or sexually abusive attitudes or behaviours or stay silent, this can provide encouragement for the perpetrator to continue. Other students can help change a toxic environment by making it clear that disrespectful, discriminative behaviour is unacceptable and making sure all students know this and feel included. They can work together to think of ways to foster this type of environment – by showing kindness to others, or putting on a school programme, perhaps around what ‘being an ally’ looks like.
More information about creating a safe space for discussion, and how schools can promote gender equality and tackle sexism and sexual harassment throughout their practice can be found in EqualiTeach’s Guide for Educators ‘Outside the Box’, available to download free of charge here: https://equaliteach.co.uk/for-schools/classroom-resources/outside-the-box/
All Done Monkey (2018) Stop Bullying: Teach Kids to Be Allies. [Online] Available at: https://alldonemonkey.com/2018/10/25/stop-bullying-teach-kids-to-be-allies/
Atcheson, S (2018) Allyship – The Key To Unlocking The Power Of Diversity. [Online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/shereeatcheson/2018/11/30/allyship-the-key-to-unlocking-the-power-of-diversity/#7bc5dc9b49c6
BBC News (2020) Harvey Weinstein accusers welcome rape and sexual assault conviction. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-51624248
Jacobs, S (2020) Harvey Weinstein sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexually assaulting two women in New York. [Online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/harvey-weinstein-sentence-trial-sexual-assault/2020/03/11/398f2cf6-630b-11ea-acca-80c22bbee96f_story.html
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Stylist (2020) How men can be better allies, according to a man. [Online] Available at: https://www.stylist.co.uk/life/feminism-male-feminist-gender-equality-be-an-ally/347991
The Guardian (2017) #MeToo: how a hashtag became a rallying cry against sexual harassment. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/20/women-worldwide-use-hashtag-metoo-against-sexual-harassment
University of Michigan (2020) Men and the #MeToo Movement: Examining Past Behaviors. [Online] Available at: https://caps.umich.edu/article/men-and-metoo-movement-examining-past-behaviors