Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.
The #MeToo movement has shown once again the wisdom of the adage that there is strength in numbers – even as it highlights that it is still difficult for individual women who come forth with accusations of sexual harassment or assault to be supported or believed and thus find justice.
The power of #MeToo lies in the collective experience, solidarity and action its name implies. I don’t just believe you, it says, I can relate to your own experience. We are not just here for you. So many of us are you.
Young Spanish women (and some men) sent such a message through protests and sits-ins last week that rocked Spanish cities after five men accused of gang raping a teenage girl during the 2016 Running of the Bulls in Pamplona were convicted of the lesser offense of sexual abuse (which under Spanish law assumes no violence or intimidation occurred). The accused men, who had denied wrongdoing, had recorded video of their encounter with the victim. The prosecution and defense now plan to appeal the verdict.
Crowds took to the streets in Madrid, Barcelona, Pamplona and elsewhere to denounce the outcome of the trial for a crime that resonated worldwide because of the global fame of the San Fermín festival where it occurred. “Yo te creo/I believe you” read the protest signs in front of Madrid’s Ministry of Justice and elsewhere.
That message, repeated over and over again on so many signs, makes a difference at a time when the verdict in Spain might leave some discouraged for the fate of #MeToo on the global stage.
One lone woman or man protesting would have been an oddity, but the sea of bodies made the news, leading many Spanish female politicians to tweet their disagreement with the verdict and call for a revision of pertinent laws.
Contrast this scene with the women standing on the courthouse steps after Bill Cosby’s conviction on three counts of aggravated sexual assault against Andrea Constand in 2004. More than 50 women have accused the actor of sexual misconduct over a period of more than 40 years. Yet only one woman’s testimony apart from Constand’s was heard in court at his first trial in 2017, which produced a deadlocked jury. The message? Some of us believe you. And some of us are not sure. We need more evidence.
Since that first trial in June, the #MeToo movement has sensitized the public to the financial, psychological and career costs for women who gather the courage to recount their experiences at the hands of powerful men such as Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, and the importance of having multiple testimonies. The Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, district attorney who led the Cosby retrial, Kevin Steele, requested that 19 women be allowed to speak in court – and was granted court time for five testimonies in addition to Constand’s. This time, the trial had a different outcome.
And indeed, it has taken a small army of women – famous and unknown, of all ages and races – to bring down men with resources of celebrity and wealth such as Cosby, who had developed veritable systems and protocols of abuse, enabled by male and female collaborators who protected them out of concern for company profits or to keep their own jobs.
In America, #MeToo has spawned a host of institutional responses, from mandatory workplace trainings and seminars to company retreats, all designed to encourage the identification, reporting and handling of cases of harassment and discrimination.
Yet roadblocks to being “the first one” to denounce improper or criminal behavior publicly remain. Well-meaning friends, family and colleagues often counsel women and men to “move on” to protect their careers, families and mental and financial health. And it’s undeniable that the careers, and thus economic conditions, of whistleblowers do suffer. Many accusers, even if vindicated by courts of law or their employers, don’t find jobs easily again.
In addition, American culture very often affords men the narrative of the “comeback,” something possibly in the works already, according to Tina Brown, who told the New York Post’s Page Six of a television series starring journalist Charlie Rose in which he’d interview men who have been affected by #MeToo investigations. We have no equivalent “redemption narrative” for women. The man who falls from grace through his own toxic behavior can become a “comeback kid,” whereas the woman brought down in that fall from grace is just gone forever, even in our time of #MeToo.
It’s still too easy for one voice to be disregarded or discredited. In the Cosby case, defense attorney Thomas Mesereau tried the old lines, arguing that the accusers were just making things up to get attention and money and conspiring to destroy an innocent man’s reputation. It’s much harder to make these lines stick when the stories are many and the voices keep coming.
Come out of the shadows, the Cosby verdict tells men and women who have suffered; leave the prison of your isolation and speak your truth. Others will join you if you take that first step. As the protests in Spain show us, on the streets if necessary.