Québec is currently experiencing a wave of denunciations of sexual assault and harassment, exposing the misogyny, sexism and routine sexual violence experienced by most women. What started as a local condemnation of sexism in the video game industry rapidly grew to target the province’s broader music and art scenes. Drawing significant public attention, notably due to the outing of high-profile individuals, the movement quickly grew to target Québec society as a whole.
Since the first allegations surfaced, hundreds of women have come forward on social media to publicize their experiences of assault and draw attention to the pervasive effects of rape culture—or the ways in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused. Moreover, these public and explicit allegations have allowed women to identify themselves as fellow victims of common abusers and reinforce each other’s testimonies.
Unsurprisingly, this wave of denunciations has drawn sharp criticism. Many pundits and commentators condemn these women for sidestepping the justice system by turning to social media to out their aggressors. Others have voiced support for the survivors while criticizing their choice of tactics, claiming they are engaging in a witch hunt. Much of this criticism is reflected in media coverage of the movement, which has effectively turned the public debate away from rape culture by preferring to focus on the controversy surrounding the use of social media.
Though it may be legitimate to question social media denunciations, most of those voicing these criticisms fail to take into account the experiences that have led women to turn to these platforms in search of justice. The collective discussion on sexual assault fails to understand the frustrations that are driving this movement. These frustrations stem from the failure of the justice system to protect and advocate for women and other sexual assault survivors. This systemic failure is itself a product of the power and class dynamics which underlie patriarchal societies. Any analysis of this movement that obfuscates this reality is incomplete and misleading.
The context of #MeToo
Though largely centred in Québec, this latest mobilization is in many ways a continuation of the MeToo movement which swept across the world in late 2017. The movement, which famously led to the outing of now disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, emphasized the power of collective recognition and condemnation.
The now famous #MeToo hashtag allowed women (and other victims of sexual assault) to identify their individual experiences as expressions of systemic oppression associated with patriarchy and rape culture. Further, the widespread use of the hashtag revealed the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault as well as the underlying class and power dynamics that feed into predatory entitlement.
Many of the denunciations pointed to the toxicity of workplace environments. In a significant number of cases, women were coerced into tolerating abuse because of financial dependency on their employers. In other cases, the perpetrator’s status or wealth shielded them from accountability. MeToo is a threat to impunity precisely because it undermines power by fostering solidarity. In other words, it shows there is strength in numbers.
MeToo’s effectiveness as a tool of social mobilization led to local adaptations all over the world. In France, the hashtag Balance ton porc was adopted by local activists who encouraged women to speak up about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment, leading to a national conversation on cultural machismo.
These initial mobilizations paved the way for the current wave of denunciations taking place in Québec. By normalizing public denunciation as a means of enforcing accountability, MeToo has allowed many survivors to speak up and find each other.
Though many in Québec also participated in the initial movement, this latest iteration gained more traction as local industries and celebrities became the focus of credible allegations.
From Ubisoft to activists
Québec’s MeToo movement was launched when current and former employees of the video game giant Ubisoft took to social media to denounce a toxic and misogynistic work environment. When women tried to speak out about workplace abuse, human resources stonewalled them. According to testimonies, the culture at Ubisoft protected abusers and further victimized survivors by coercing them to sign non-disclosure agreements and accepting financial payouts. As these facts came to light, several Ubisoft executives were forced to step down.
The number of social media denunciations grew rapidly, encompassing an increasing number of industries and milieux. Among those notably affected were several high-profile artists such as Bernard Adamus and Maripier Morin. Morin, who was accused of unethical behaviour by fellow female artist Safia Nolin, was forced to publicly acknowledge her conduct.
The mainstream media has focused on these high-profile cases. Though not unimportant, the misconduct of celebrities should not deflect our attention from the hundreds of testimonies that point to the ubiquity of sexual assault and harassment in all industries and spheres of society.
The growing number of allegations has led to some MeToo activists compiling lists of the names of alleged abusers so as to better corroborate testimonies. Controversially, such lists are being circulated on social media to warn other women. Among those named are several professors and self-identified progressive activists who allegedly took advantage of women during the 2012 student strike.
Accusations of mob justice
The publicization of these lists (many were in fact published on private group pages before falling into the hands of journalists) has been strongly condemned by those who see it as a form of mob justice. Several pundits have called on those named to file for defamation, arguing that it is improper and unjust to allow activists to circulate and publicize lists of names that contain unverified allegations.
Some who support the movement have expressed their discomfort at the idea of explicit public denunciations. They have highlighted concerns surrounding the presumption of innocence, stressing the harm caused by false or mistaken accusations.
These concerns, though not unfounded, miss a crucial aspect of the problem, namely that most women who turn to public denunciation do so as a last resort. Indeed, these public allegations are an implicit condemnation of a justice system which has failed time and again to hold perpetrators accountable for their misconduct. An investigation by the Globe and Mail found that one in five reported cases of sexual assault in Canada were dismissed as “unfounded” by police.
Most women now realize that institutional structures are either unable or unwilling to protect them from assault or advocate on their behalf. As the Ubisoft case showed, the agencies and institutions designed to protect women from assault are ineffective as long as they remain embedded within patriarchal culture. Women have turned to social media because there is nowhere else to turn. Speaking out on social media is now seen as the only way to redress the profound disparity in power which has kept abusers from being held accountable.
In their own words
Two women who participated in this movement agreed to share some of their reflections with Canadian Dimension on an anonymous basis.
When asked what she believed had sparked this movement, Elisabeth said, “I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that people are at home and have the time and energy to use their voice and fight for what they believe in.” Referring to the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the United States and Canada in recent weeks, she added, “If there’s one good thing to emerge from this pandemic its that we see injustices more clearly and have the time to mobilize to fight them.”
Asked about how to understand the movement, Alex stated, “I think we need to frame this in regards to power relations. In our societies power is distributed so unequally, it leads some people to believe they can do whatever they want, and that they won’t be held accountable for it.” She continued, “The justice system reinforces these relations, so that people with little power, who are, more often than not, marginalized women, can be abused without consequence.”
In a response to those criticizing the movement’s use of explicit public denunciations, Alex said, “I understand why some people are uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable, but I understand why we are here, because the justice system has failed us.”
Elisabeth also stressed the use of social media as a last resort. “We all know the justice system is against us,” she said. “If we had other ways to do it, we would […] Most people criticizing are men, and I think a lot of them are afraid to be held accountable and I think a lot of men are unaware of how difficult it is to hold abusers accountable.”
Asked about the media’s reaction, both women expressed disappointment. Elisabeth said she was disheartened to see “a lot of click-baiting around high profile cases, without much context,” while Alex charged that “The media has given a disproportionate platform to men who are reacting to the movement, rather than allowing us to hear directly from women.”
Though neither of these women claim to speak for the movement itself, their testimonies indicate that they are acutely aware of the potential harms of publicly naming alleged aggressors. Nonetheless, they highlight the impotence that most survivors of sexual assault feel as they are unable to seek justice within a system that discredits and disempowers them.
As they state, this turn to social media has arisen not out of vindictiveness, as is often suggested in the media, but out of desperation. MeToo is attempting to redress a miscarriage of justice that stems from systemic inequity and a lack of recognition. Like any social movement, this mobilization should be viewed critically. However, it must also be viewed in the context of a failed justice system that is currently unable to restore justice and dignity to survivors of sexual violence.
Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethELeier.