The treatment of sexual assault throughout the years has been regarded very differently depending on the societal norms of that time. In the past, victims of sexual assault have generally kept silent about their harassment out of fear of social retribution. As recently as two years ago, accusations of sexual assault were trivialized or disregarded by society. But in 2017, American culture regarding sexual assault was changed with the creation of the #MeToo movement.
Before the #MeToo movement’s emergence in society, there were notable sexual assault allegations against President Bill Clinton, with three women accusing him of sexual assault and one claiming that he raped her while he was the attorney general of Arkansas.
Only a year before the explosion of the #MeToo movement, then-candidate Donald Trump was accused of sexual assault by at least seventeen women: Jill Harth, Bridget Sullivan, Cassandra Searles, Tasha Dixon, Jessica Leads, Rachel Crooks, Mindy McGillivray, Natasha Stoynoff, Mariah Billado, Temple Taggart McDowell, Lisa Boyne, Summer Zervos, Cathy Heller, Karena Virginia, Jennifer Murphy, Jessica Drake, Ninni Laaksonen and Kristin Anderson. Around the same time, an Access Hollywood tape of Trump from 2005 resurfaced, in which he details in vulgar language how he sexually assaults women. While the fallout from the tape was immediate, with many senators and congressmen retracting their endorsement of Donald Trump, he still won the 2016 Presidential Election a month later.
In 1991, 26 years before the #MeToo movement, Anita Hill, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual assault during his Supreme Court nomination hearings. Hill testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had assaulted her while she worked for him at the Department of Education. Thomas was ultimately approved to a life term on the Supreme Court, which he currently holds.
The #MeToo movement picked up most of its momentum in 2017 with multiple accusations of sexual assaults coming from women against prominent entertainment figures. Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey and others were disgraced, resulting in their positions being stripped from them.
In November of 2017, seven women alleged that Senator Al Franken (D-MN) groped and kissed them without their consent. Franken’s resignation in December 2017 came in the midst of the #MeToo movement and had general bipartisan support. Around the same time of Franken’s resignation, Senator John Conyers (D-MI) was facing similar allegations against him. Buzzfeed News reported that he had settled a sexual assault case with an employee after she was fired for refusing his advances, causing Conyers resignation from his position on December 5th, 2017. The end of his congressional career was also met with general support. Before their resignations, both Franken and Conyers were facing criticism from activists and supporters of #MeToo. Tim Murphy (R-PA), Ruben Kihuen (D-NV), Trent Franks (R-AZ), and Blake Farenthold (R-TX) are some of the other government figures who were disgraced in 2017.
Despite the general change in mentality that the #MeToo movement has caused, such progress trickled to an unexpected halt in early 2018. Although people in positions of power were still being accused of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement still existed, the attention surrounding the issue in the media died down, especially in reference to political figures. According to a list published by the Atlantic on July 26th 2018, there are 10 congressional members that remain in office after sexual assault allegations and are seeking re-election. There are four in office but aren’t seeking re-election. Two have resigned or been forced to resign but are running for new positions. Lastly, there are four who were accused and sought re-election but lost. Although there are fewer people with sexual assault allegations in Congress now than before the #MeToo movement, the #MeToo movement has lost momentum, allowing for more people accused of sexual assault to remain in office.
The allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas draw a parallel with Judge Brett Kavanaugh. “The context has changed since the original Anita Hill deposition, but in a lot of ways we saw similarities [to the Kavanaugh appointment]” said B-CC Women’s Studies teacher, Caitlyn Trimble.
“I think that after this public reckoning that came out of the #MeToo movement we’re going to see a lot stronger reaction politically and in other ways too,” said Trimble.
Brett Kavanaugh was appointed by Donald Trump to be the replacement of Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. As of October 3rd, Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault by three different women: Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick. All of the allegations come from when he was in high school or college. Kavanaugh has repeatedly denied these allegations and testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he has never committed sexual assault. The amount of media coverage and support from celebrities and congresspeople for either President Trump or Kavanaugh to withdraw the nomination is reminiscent of the attention that the #MeToo movement received. Due to the similarities in atmosphere, there is a possibility that the Kavanaugh hearings could start a second wave of the #MeToo movement.
In light of the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, women have been sharing their stories of sexual harassment online and directly to Senators at the confirmation hearings, similar to the outpouring of stories during the #MeToo movement. However, many people still feel as if there are ways in which women’s rights are lagging.
“I think that in some ways things have improved slightly for women, but I think that there are veiled ways that women deal with being persecuted. It’s maybe more subtle. So in an obvious sense, we’ve made some strides in women’s rights, but I think that we still have a lot of room to grow,” said Trimble.