The founder of the global Me Too movement Tarana Burke is being honoured in Sydney this week during a difficult chapter in its history. Australia’s laws are “debilitating”, she tells SBS News, but the campaign needs to shift its focus.
Content warning: this article contains references to sexual assault
Tarana Burke doesn’t want to talk about the sexual violence she experienced as a child.
She didn’t want to in her early 20s either.
While working as a youth worker in Alabama she was approached by a girl of about 12 or 13 who had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend. She froze. She cut the girl off. Only later realising all she wanted to say was, “me too”.
“Just saying ‘me too’ would have been just a modicum of empathy that could have changed the trajectory of her life,” she told SBS News.
That would be the last time Burke would see her, but ‘Me Too’ would become the name of a campaign she’d start in 2006 as part of a non-profit organisation to help bring together survivors of sexual violence.
Years later, as allegations swarmed around Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein, US actress Alyssa Milano would ask women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply with the same phrase publicly, and Burke would later be acknowledged as the founder of the global movement.
The MeToo hashtag had more than 19 million respondents in its first year alone, with many survivors disclosing their stories for the first time.
It became, as Burke puts it, “one of the biggest stories of the decade”.
The 46-year-old from the Bronx, New York, is in Australia for the first time this week to collect the Sydney Peace Prize on behalf of the Me Too campaign.
But in a city that’s been referred to as ‘the libel capital of the world’ - in reference to Australia’s high number of defamation cases (twice as many as the UK) - it doesn’t sit comfortably.
“I think the law, in being so strict and stringent in the way it is [in Australia] is definitely debilitating to the [Me Too] movement,” Burke says.
“And not just around the idea of suing somebody.
"It’s not about the ability to take somebody to court … or even to call somebody out.
"It is hindering them, people who have had this experience, it is adding more fear on top of the fear that already exists in coming forward.
"It’s adding more shame to the shame.”
Australia’s defamation laws mean the legal pressure is on the person making an allegation to prove it is true, as opposed to the US where the accused would need to prove an allegation was made with malice.
It has resulted in huge payouts for some accused publicly - including of Me Too-type crimes - coupled with some women who came forward anonymously later being named.
Burke is familiar with the legal sensitivities in Australia, letting rip with her thoughts on Weinstein and Donald Trump - none of which we can print.
“I can say that, I’m American,” she says with a laugh.
Both men have denied numerous allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
When asked whether she thinks Me Too has failed in Australia, Burke doesn’t respond directly.
“Not just in Australia, but I think because of the way Me Too went viral, because in America the initial centring of the movement was around Hollywood, and famous actresses, and it was framed as ‘workplace sexual harassment’,” she says.
“The accusations against Harvey Weinstein were not just harassment - they are accusations of sexual assault - so when we couch it under this ‘workplace sexual harassment’, there’s a way in which it waters down [the allegations of] what happened.”
Burke’s visit also comes at a tricky time in the Australian Me Too movement. She is receiving the peace prize alongside journalist Tracey Spicer - who is credited with spearheading the movement in Australia.
Like Milano, Spicer also put a call out on Twitter for women to share their experiences in October 2017: “Currently, I am investigating two long-term offenders in our media industry. Please, contact me privately to tell your stories”.
She went on to establish NOW Australia with the intention of linking survivors with support services and won a major journalism award for her part in exposing sexual harassment allegations made against TV personality Don Burke.
But a Buzzfeed News investigation last month found women who reached out to Spicer hadn’t heard back and were concerned how their stories were being handled.
“I acknowledge that as one freelance journalist, as a volunteer trying to answer thousands of messages, I was wholly inadequate,” Spicer said during an event with Burke on Wednesday.
Spicer has also stepped back from Now Australia.
She also apologised this week after a preview version of a forthcoming ABC documentary about Me Too, which she presents, revealed the identities of two women she had been in contact with who were meant to be kept anonymous.
Burke has said previously she doesn’t know enough about Spicer’s work to pass comment.
While she supports calls for Australia’s laws to be changed, what’s important now, she says, is that the movement shifts its focus.
“This may be less popular for some people … There is a part of this movement and a part of this work that isn’t about naming anybody, it’s about naming what happened to you.”
The next phase, she suggests, should be about giving a voice to marginalised communities, and not necessarily publicly, or in court.
“I don’t think Australia has missed the mark, I think it has space for expansion. There are probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Australian people who have experienced sexual violence, who have said ‘me too’, who are ready to do the work now to expand this movement,” she says.
“We don’t talk enough about child sexual abuse, we don’t talk enough about rape on college campuses, we’re not talking about spousal sexual assault ... LGBTQ folks, Aboriginal folks, we’re not talking enough about the people pushed to the margins.
“Here’s the thing about sexual violence … it doesn’t discriminate.”
For Burke, her sights are set on getting sexual violence to be a talking point in the 2020 US presidential campaign.
There’s even a new hashtag, #MeTooVoter, and plans for a more official support network for survivors.
That, she says, and perhaps trying to find the young girl who inspired it all, will keep her busy.
“I just started trying to look … she would probably be about 30-something now, which is crazy to say out loud,” she says.
“Perhaps in the next year I can try and find her.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.