Sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement: Catalyst for change or fleeting moment?

When Stacy Bohrer first started reading the #MeToo posts shared by millions on social media, the sexual assault victim from Deerfield felt encouraged by the number of women speaking out on a topic often relegated to hushed tones and private counseling sessions.

But as the hashtag campaign continued, she grew discouraged by the conversations that ensued. Women wrote about hiding from sexual predators instead of changing the culture that allows their behavior.

Others dismissively chalked up catcalls, inappropriate exposure of body parts and other harassment to just typical male behavior.

“The dialogue that I saw on Facebook was well-intended, but it underlined and illustrated just how far we had to go, and just how much people don’t understand,” said Bohrer, 35. She said she was assaulted in 2002 and has since become a vocal advocate for victims.

Now many women like Bohrer are debating whether the current groundswell will spur a permanent shift in the culture of sexual misconduct or prove fleeting.

Sexual harassment and abuse have received unprecedented attention following bombshell allegations earlier this month that Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted or harassed dozens of women. Since then, new accusations against other powerful, high-profile men seem to surface almost daily. The worldwide social media campaign to confront the issue under the hashtag “MeToo” continues on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms.

In Illinois, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan introduced a measure Thursday to require sexual harassment training for government officials — and to publish the names of those who don’t comply — after an outpouring of complaints from women in Illinois politics and government.

“It’s a powerful moment in time,” said Ann Russo, associate professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul University. “What happens in the future, how we step forward, that’s a bigger question.”

‘Not a moment but a movement’

Jessica Scheller, an organizer of the Women’s March on Chicago, predicts the burgeoning discussion will ignite more concrete progress for women.

She believes the #MeToo campaign and recent high-profile sexual abuse allegations are all part of a larger resurgence of the women’s movement that began roughly a year ago amid the 2016 presidential campaign. Women have galvanized in part to combat political messages seen as “anti-feminist, anti-progressive, anti-woman and anti-tolerant in general,” she said.

“I think it is all related,” she said. “Women are stepping up. They are showing leadership in new ways. They are announcing proactively that women are demanding equality.”

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The Women’s March unexpectedly drew a crowd of about a quarter-million people to downtown Chicago in January, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. It was one of hundreds of similar demonstrations in cities across the globe, held in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. A similar demonstration in Chicago is planned for this coming January.

“We are convinced as the organizers of the Women’s Marches that it was not a moment but a movement,” Scheller said. “The #MeToo campaign is yet another example of that. The feminist movement has been re-energized. You will see progress on a whole host of issues affecting women such as reproductive rights, equal pay, freedom from violence and hopefully more.”

Heather Lowe, who told her own story in a recent #MeToo post, hopes the collective voices will have a lasting impact, particularly by opening the eyes of many men who might not have seen sexual harassment and violence as it’s experienced by women.

“I think you are starting to see a broader realization,” she said.

On Twitter, Lowe recalled walking alone in Hyde Park as a college student in the mid-1990s when she heard a group of young men nearby. They kept following her, laughing loudly as she sped up, crossed the street and finally ran to her parked car and locked the doors.

To this day, Lowe does not know if they had intended to harm her or thought the chase was a joke.

“It was this feeling of fear,” she said. “It was just terrifying.”

She describes this general sense of anxiety as “just a part of life” for most women, a burden not all men inherently understand.

“I get very jealous of my male colleagues,” said Lowe, 42, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and often travels for work. “They can go out alone and see a new city all lit up at night. And I can’t do that, because it’s very dangerous. That’s so limiting for me. I don’t get to experience life the same way they do.”

Some advocates for gender equity say change is already happening.

Not in Our House is a Chicago advocacy organization formed two years ago to help address sexual harassment in the theater community after a longtime culture of abuse at one local venue was exposed. Co-founders Lori Myers and Laura T. Fisher have fielded weekly calls from women either seeking support for harassment they endured or encouragement to start a new chapter in another city.

At the Chicago Foundation for Women, a 100 Day Fund launched in February and inspired by the Women’s March on Chicago led to the creation of 29 new initiatives — from a group that raises awareness about the issues Muslim women face to one that empowers low-wage immigrant working women.

The immediate response seemed like a clear demonstration of the public’s interest in working on the way women are treated, said Emily Dreke, vice president of development and communications.

“It feels like we are at a cultural moment where women are speaking out about sexual harassment and sexual violence and it’s reaching a cultural mass,” she said. “The connective tissue in Chicago is getting stronger every day. People really care. They are really feeling a lot of emotions right now, I think it’s really important that we keep hope at the forefront.”

Whispers, microphones

While most advocates agree that the current public discourse has the potential to make meaningful strides, some, like Bohrer, caution that sexual harassment and violence is a pervasive problem that will require ongoing vigilance beyond a few weeks of national headlines.

“It feels like a whisper, in the midst of a world that needs a microphone,” Bohrer said.

Attempts to end sexual harassment and violence against women have been ongoing for decades, said Christina Perez, a professor of sociology and director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Dominican University.

The first concerted efforts came in the 1960s, when women were included in the civil rights legislation that also barred discrimination against people because of race. But it took until the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s for many of the tangible examples to surface: Rape and sexual assault awareness became a topic of discussion; domestic violence shelters were opened; women became vocal activists about women’s rights.

In the decades that followed, women enjoyed greater protections and support systems, and amendments to the Civil Rights Act made greater strides. The federal Title IX law brought more equitable opportunities for women in sports and more broadly in education.

Still, Perez said, many women didn’t speak up, or use the policies designed to protect them, because an institutional culture of tolerance for sexual harassment and violence remained.

“People allow it to happen in spite of the laws and protections that we have,” Perez said. “The laws and protections are one level, but we also need to implement them.”

Perez said she thinks the recent spotlight on sexual harassment may finally give the fight for gender equality the boost it needs to continue moving forward.

“What we have the opportunity to see is how this kind of behavior is patterned and embedded in the larger society,” Perez said. “It is very helpful to have the spotlight. It shines a light on how pervasive the problem is.”

Law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer considers the current climate the start of a conversation rather than a watershed or turning point.

Tuerkheimer, who teaches criminal law and feminist jurisprudence at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, says it can be easy for the public to accept recent accounts of sexual violence or harassment because there have been so many victims, many of them white women with resources.

“But the more typical case involves not 56 women, but one,” she said. “What I hope for the future is that one woman’s allegations will be judged fairly, in a way that I don’t think they often are in today’s society. And that it will be judged fairly whether it’s made by a famous actress or it’s made by a poor woman, a woman of color, an undocumented woman, a trans woman — women whose accounts are more likely to be met with skepticism.”

She hopes for a “trickle-down” effect that expands to help cases where there’s a single accuser or women who are typically more marginalized.

“But this is a process that takes time,” she said. “And part of what allows us to move forward is recognizing that we haven’t reached the endpoint of progress. We can’t congratulate ourselves and think that we’re done. Because we’re not.”

Pattern of behavior

Some who participated in the #MeToo campaign remain pessimistic. Erin Shank recently tweeted a #MeToo post about getting groped on the Brown Line after work years ago.

“I just moved to Chicago, I was a naive girl from Cleveland,” said Shank, 38. “I thought I could wear a cute outfit and get to work without getting my butt grabbed.”

While she says it’s helpful for individual women to free themselves of shame and share their stories, she does not believe these conversations alone will alter the culture of sexual violence for the long term.

“I think the big picture is that no, I think this has been a pattern of behavior for a long, long time,” said Shank, who moved back to Cleveland a few years ago. “With our current administration and the way our country is going, no, I don’t think things will change permanently. Maybe Hollywood will change. Maybe.”

Dreke added that society must remember that sexual misconduct is just as egregious when the victims are regular folks, even as the accounts of A-list Hollywood celebrities provide a platform for discussion.

“We can’t have this just be about the experience about famous white women. This is about all of us,” Dreke said. “There’s no liberation for me if my sister who doesn’t look like me or come from the same neighborhood as me is not liberated.”

vortiz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @vikkiortiz

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