#METOO, one year on: where next for feminism?

Saturday 20 October, 13:3014:45, University of Zurich, 71 Rämistrasse, 8006 ZürichBattle of Ideas Europe


This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Zurich

Since startling allegations of sexual harassment and rape were made by actresses against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, millions of women across the world have shared their experiences of sexual harassment on social media using the hashtag #MeToo. The Weinstein allegations have highlighted a seemingly broader issue of sexual misconduct, not just within the entertainment industry, but far beyond.

In Switzerland, high-profile cases include those against Yannick Buttet, the Christian Democrat vice president, who resigned from parliament following a high-profile campaign after a number of unverified and mainly anonymous accusations. According to one government survey, 28 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment over the course of their professional lives and in a sign of the issue bursting into public consciousness, in 2017 #metoo and harcèlement (harassment) were selected as the words of the year in German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland.

What should we make of all of this? Many argue that the public naming of mainly male creeps is necessary, since the judicial system has failed time and time again when it comes to dealing with women’s experiences of oppression. For #MeToo supporters, growing dissatisfaction with the status quo demonstrates the lack of progress since 1971, when Swiss women finally won the right to vote. As a remedy, various authorities and workplaces aim to legislate for change or create behavioural codes to mitigate harassment, including a federal delegation that proposes a ‘good conduct guide’ for all Swiss MPs. But when ‘harassing behaviours’ in the workplace can include jokes, teasing and flirting, is there a danger of a name-and-shame witch-hunt, with calls to blacklist named individuals for behaviour of various levels of seriousness? Does conflating a wide range of behaviours risk diluting the response to the most serious incidents? Should an accuser always be given the benefit of the doubt? After all, isn’t the presumption of innocence the bedrock of a civil society?

For some, the #MeToo campaign raises fundamental questions about the direction of feminism. While Silvia Binggeli, editor-in-chief of Annabelle, sees in #MeToo a shot of energy to today’s women’s movement, others like film producer Arthur Cohn worry that #MeToo “portrays women purely in the victim role and powerful men as perpetrators”. Indeed, since the #MeToo furore broke last year, feminism’s generational divide has grown ever deeper with older feminists bewildered by their younger counterparts’ interpretation of feminism. Germaine Greer, never one to shy from controversy or publicity, described #MeToo as ‘whingeing’, lamenting that ‘in the old days’ women would ‘slap down’ men who harassed them.

Is #MeToo a valuable way for the everywoman to show solidarity with victims and raise awareness of the broader problems of sexual harassment everywhere? Or does it stir up the gender wars, exaggerating the idea that most men are sexual predators and most women their victims? What does #MeToo reveal about deeper cultural trends?