The #MeToo movement has focused on workplace harassment, and I keep thinking: when will #MeToo include domestic violence? I try to imagine what it will look like so I can help make it come faster.
Workplace law only recently caught up with women’s experience
Twenty years ago laws were useless in the fight against sexual harassment and domestic violence. The courts added teeth to laws preventing workplace discrimination, and the #MeToo movement followed shortly after those changes. But the laws governing domestic violence remain as useless as ever.
In 1991, courts ruled that victims of discrimination could win punitive damages for harassment, which allowed for large winnings. In 1998, courts ruled that companies were responsible for not stopping sexual harassment. But it took another 20 years for courts to define hostile work environment and retaliation so victims had language to talk about their experience. After 2010, lawyers represented women in workplace harassment cases on a contingency basis knowing they had access to corporate funds in a settlement.
The legal system is useless for domestic violence
But there’s no money in domestic violence cases because there’s no big company to sue for negligence, so this law gets tested at a much slower pace than employment law.
Without the financial winnings, lawyers have little incentive to take the case on contingency. Even if a woman does have the financial means to sue, most states don’t allow family members to sue each other, perpetrators torture their victims in court, and winning a court-ordered restraining order or conviction is one of the most reliable indicators that the victim will soon be killed.
The DA’s job is to prosecute cases that most benefit the public interest, and DAs dislike prosecuting domestic violence cases. These cases are extremely complicated and time consuming, and often the public has little empathy for domestic violence victims; it’s difficult to understand why a woman stayed if the violence was really that bad.
So both women and district attorneys think it’s not worth the trouble to prosecute domestic violence. This means there is little public discourse about domestic violence. It happens in private and it stays private.
Lack of language is always accompanied by lack of power
The #MeToo movement, on the other hand, takes sexual assault out of the private arena and gives us a common language to understand our experience. The #MeToo movement is about clarifying what sexual assault looks like by talking about it. And the more we clarify language, the more likely women are to come forward and talk.
One of the great moments of the #MeToo movement was when Taylor Swift testified against a guy who assaulted her. The testimony is amazing because Taylor puts words to events that happen all the time. She takes control of the language of sexual assault. Everyone cheered.
Taylor Swift did not sue for money, and the perpetrator had already lost his job. Her case is another type of legal action a woman can take—not looking for financial reward, or vengeance, but rather to make sure men don’t keep getting away with this behavior. But you need to have money to do that.
The #MeToo movement is fueled, in part, by women who stayed quiet about workplace harassment until they gained power, and then the women used their power to bring attention to #MeToo. Taylor Swift is a great example of using her power and money to show women how to take down a perpetrator.
Another way #MeToo has transformed society is by bringing women together. The movement was born in social media, and social media enables women to find safety in numbers. Cases against Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and Jeffrey Epstein are strong because there are so many women telling the same, horrific story.
At best, the #MeToo movement sheds stark light on the isolation of victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence doesn’t allow the victim to keep quiet while she gains power because, more than workplace harassment, domestic violence precludes the buildup of power. And domestic violence rarely involves more than one victim at a time, so the victim could not find the solace of safety in numbers.
We are in desperate need of the #MeToo corollary for domestic violence. We need laws that protect women from getting killed after they press charges. We also need a language for victims of domestic violence to describe their experience. We need to define the invisible violence of terror. We need to quantify the damages from the epigenetics of violence. And we need language to describe the illusion of love that makes the victim stay and stay until she’s dead.