When the movement moves us: How #MeToo succeeded

The #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the Make America Great Again movements have all sparked discussion designed to drive social change. They each have supporters and dissenters arguing for change to the current attitudes, norms, and even policies surrounding their cause. Some movements propel us toward social progress and attitude change more broadly (Szekeres et al., 2020), some lead to policy change in support of their cause (Enos et al., 2019; Madestam et al., 2013), and others lead to belief in conspiracy theories and anti-democratic behavior (Sternisko et al., 2020).

So what do movements like these actually accomplish? And is it worth the backlash? Sexual violence is all too common (World Health Organization, 2013), but often survivors of sexual violence do not speak up and report their assault (Garrett & Hassan, 2019). This kind of violence can lead to problems in many areas of life including mental and physical health issues, and even issues with work (Harned et al., 2002). #MeToo is a social justice movement that was founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 that seeks to bring awareness of sexual violence into the public sphere and drive societal and policy change. By 2017 it had gone viral online and become a global rallying cry for sexual assault survivors and their allies.

Research lead by Dr. Hanna Szekeres at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary found out how the #MeToo movement changed attitudes. The authors, Dr. Szekeres, Dr. Shuman, and Dr. Saguy, surveyed folks in the U.S. before the movement went viral, during the peak of the movement in November of 2017, and 6 months later. They measured a number of personal beliefs including the participants’ tendency to dismiss sexual assault, their gender identification, and something called their Social Dominance Orientation, or SDO. This measured whether their participants thought that superior groups of people should dominate inferior groups. So, when we’re talking about gender roles, it’s measuring whether people think there should be equality between the sexes, or if they think men should dominate women.

It turns out that the #MeToo movement did have some interesting effects on these personal beliefs. When survivor after survivor began to speak up through this movement, people noticed just how many people experienced sexual violence. Because of the volume of these real stories being told, and the openness and honesty showed by the survivors, people were less likely to dismiss sexual assault as uncommon and not worthy of attention. Instead, they began to see it as a problem that needs to be addressed (Szekeres et al., 2020). Their thinking shifted and they were less likely to see these survivors as simply out to hurt men. Importantly, this wasn’t just during the height of the #MeToo furor, this attitude change persisted for months afterward, which might just mean that the social change intended by this movement has taken root.

The #MeToo movement changed attitudes because it raised awareness of sexual assault, especially about how common it is (Leopold et al., 2019; Szekeres et al., 2020). This was especially true for women who endorsed a high social dominance orientation. Six months after the peak of #MeToo, these women were much less likely to dismiss sexual assault, likely because they were now made aware of the issue and empathized with these women. The same pattern was found for men who endorsed more equality between the genders – but not the men who endorsed this social dominance – because they gained awareness of the problem through the #MeToo movement. It is often easier for us to empathize with a story than a statistic, and this movement brought individual stories to the forefront.

But what about similar movements, like the Women’s March? One of the researchers on this #MeToo project, Dr. Szekeres, said that surprisingly, the Women’s March didn’t seem to affect women’s attitudes at all (Saguy & Szekeres, 2018). This might be because identifying as a woman can be gender role or feminist based, making it hard to lump all women into one ideological box. With men there was some backlash such that “exposure [to the movement] decreased gender equality attitudes among likely non-sympathizers.” Those non-sympathizers being men who consider being a man a very important part of their identity. These men may have felt pressure to change their attitudes when faced with this strongly opposing view, and this may have led them to instead become defensive and counterproductively strengthen their original viewpoint.

This same backlash was found with the Black Lives Matter movement as well (Selvanathan & Lickel, 2019). According to Dr. Szekeres “students who believed racism was not a problem at [their college] campus… and were exposed to racial protest, had lower support for anti-racist efforts in [their] campus than those who were not exposed to the protest.” Movements like these get attention drawn to their cause, but whether – and how – they change attitudes is not guaranteed to be in the intended direction. Researchers and activists often make progress in changing minds and should keep in mind that backlash isn’t always something you can predict or prevent. Anticipation of backlash is important to prepare themselves for this work, but it shouldn’t stop them from beginning.

Interestingly, this kind of backlash was not found with the #MeToo movement. Seeing these viral messages with the hashtag #MeToo and the conversations surrounding them didn’t drive people in the opposite direction despite all the criticism it received. Even for the men who adhered strongly to gender roles. While these men may not have changed their minds, they also did not harden in their stance further. Also, this interesting gender difference Dr. Szekeres and colleagues found in their study – that women who endorse social dominance, and men who endorse more equality, both had their attitudes shifted by this movement – “can be informative for social change actors in how to build targeted messages and campaigns.”

Movements often change attitudes about the issues at hand, and can even lead to supportive policy change (Enos et al., 2019; Madestam et al., 2013). For example, in 2018, France extended the statute of limitations for sexual crimes, and created new laws around cyberstalking as a direct result of the #MeToo movement (Stone & Vogelstein, 2019). The #MeToo movement certainly brought issues of sexual assault into the mainstream, and lead to many people empathizing, understanding, and changing their minds about the prevalence and problems with sexual assault. These attitude changes at a societal level led to policy changes (North, 2019), giving hope to future social change activists.



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Harned, M. S., Ormerod, A. J., Palmieri, P. A., Collinsworth, L. L., & Reed, M. (2002). Sexual assault and other types of sexual harassment by workplace personnel: A comparison of antecedents and consequences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 7(2), 174–188. https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-8998.7.2.174

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Selvanathan, H. P., & Lickel, B. (2019). A field study around a racial justice protest on a college campus: The proximal impact of collective action on the social change attitudes of uninvolved bystanders. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 7(1), 598–619. https://doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v7i1.1063

Sternisko, A., Cichocka, A., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2020). The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories. Current Opinion in Psychology, 35, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.02.007

Stone, B. Y. M., & Vogelstein, R. (2019). Celebrating #MeToo’s Global Impact. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/07/metooglobalimpactinternationalwomens-day/

Szekeres, H., Shuman, E., & Saguy, T. (2020). Views of sexual assault following #MeToo: The role of gender and individual differences. Personality and Individual Differences, 166(June), 110203. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110203

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