Before she stepped down, a Time’s Up board member told me that the organization’s mission is “workplace safety and equity.” “It’s right there on our webpage,” she said.
It’s true. The website says: “We insist upon a world where everyone is safe and respected at work. A world where women have an equal shot at success and security. A world where no one lives in fear of sexual harassment or assault.”
The mission statement says nothing about supporting sexual assault survivors after assault and harassment. And sadly that rather important distinction matches my experience with the organization. Millions of women who, like me, said out loud or in their hearts “Me too!” and hoped that Time’s Up would be a champion for survivors of sexual violence have been disappointed. So what happened? Were we survivors collectively deceived about the goals of TIME’S UP or did the powerful women founders always have a different plan — a plan to change the culture of abuse by passing laws and creating policy, but not to dismantle existing power structures, however compromised, and the founders’ role within them? Is it that they were playing a game of power “pick up sticks” where any modification to the status quo must be carefully managed so as not to bring crashing down everything the TIME’S UP founders had so painstakingly built?
When we came forward about Harvey Weinstein, the other survivors and I had no idea that this would be the tipping point (hot on the heels of the Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly cases) that would lead to the genesis of TIME’S UP. But far from acknowledging the women who dared to tell the truth about powerful abusers, TIME’S UP completely ignored our existence. It was only after some of the early staff petitioned leadership that we were even given a peripheral role, such as serving on the Time’s Up Entertainment Safety Committee — a working group that seems to have ground to a halt after one of those early staffers left the organization. If that discouraging beginning were not indication enough, after observing the TIME’S UP social media campaigns on equal pay and diversity over the past four years, many in the survivor community became resigned to the fact that the focus of TIME’S UP was on anything but the needs of survivors.
So why do I feel so betrayed by the news stories reporting that the leadership of Time’s Up did not consider supporting survivors — indeed, that they actively worked against the interests of survivors, such as by assisting Andrew Cuomo in his response to sexual harassment allegations? “Gaslighting,” like many other terms from the trauma lexicon nowadays, is overused — but I have to ask myself: Is that what happened here? Am I the only one who at some level believed TIME’S UP existed to help survivors, despite its clear track record suggesting the contrary?
Maybe that impression, my willingness to believe in the organization, goes back to my personal involvement in what became the global #MeToo movement after my survivor sisters and I made the not inconsequential choice to come forward about Weinstein. I feared the retaliation that standing up to such a powerful man inevitably entails, but I also felt emboldened by the celebrities who took up the cause by wearing black at the Golden Globes in 2018 and was on my feet cheering along with everyone else when Oprah Winfrey made her rousing speech that evening about looking forward to “the day when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.” “When that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight,” she said. Only we weren’t. The Weinstein survivors hadn’t been invited.
Perhaps, then, what I am feeling is a more general sense of betrayal, since, on this #MeToo journey, it feels as if the story has consistently moved forward without the survivors. Journalists write prize-winning books. TV shows and movies help themselves to the now-infamous details of our assaults. And wealthy, powerful women declare TIME’S UP on the entertainment industry … only to end up oscillating between campaigns to support caregivers and advocating for Scarlett Johansson in her multi-million dollar salary dispute with Disney.
This ricocheting between the interests of low-income workers and those of the entertainment world elite, plus what that reveals about a seeming lack of strategic direction at Time’s Up, has been dizzying. But as I respond to near-daily calls from survivors looking for services, for me it has also been supremely disappointing. The nonprofit I run, Echo, offers survivors free infographics and videos as well as online training courses about trauma and resilience, but where am I supposed to direct survivors for other forms of assistance, such as trauma therapy or financial help when post-traumatic stress leaves victims of sexual violence unable to work? TIME’S UP had an opportunity to advocate for resources to be directed to survivors but chose instead to champion broad equity initiatives that helped all women generally but not survivors specifically.
The recent scandal and subsequent resignations at Time’s Up has revealed the central contradiction and, to survivors, the essential flaw in the organization: survivors are not and never have been the constituents of TIme’s Up. If, Time’s Up “theory of change,” as stated on the website, is to target “culture, companies, and laws,” there is a danger that the organization will be responsive to corporate executives and lawmakers rather than survivors. The founders of Time’s Up believed they could leverage their own power and longstanding relationships with powerful allies to make them “do the right thing.” And a critical factor in making this strategy work is to maintain and increase your power—which is the consideration that seems to have confounded any original aim of the leaders to help survivors.
As TIME’S UP regroups under new leadership, it remains to be seen whether the organization can be remade in a way that’s more responsive to the needs of survivors, or whether the leaders will continue in the pursuit of power. The problem with the latter, ideologically speaking, is that it will always be antithetical to the needs of individual survivors. That is because, as we saw with Tara Reade and Lindsay Boylan, sometimes the individual needs of survivors will run contrary to the organization’s desire to maintain friendships with the powerful. Thus, certain survivors are sacrificed for “the greater good” — as determined by whichever select group of powerful women are running Time’s Up.
My hope for Time’s Up, if it can survive the recent breach of faith with survivors, is that it will return to the energy that brought it into existence. We didn’t cry #MeToo because we wanted pay equity for female movie stars. We didn’t speak out about our abusers only to have women leaders cater to them in order to retain power. Yes, survivors want an end to sexual violence and for abusers to be held accountable. But more than that, we want our expertise to be integral to finding solutions and implementing change. Every time someone else takes on that role for us, however well-intentioned, survivors become sidelined and our interests ignored.