Consenting to…what? The #MeToo challenge is difficult by definition, panelists say in Morris Township

Francesca Deguili of Fairleigh Dickinson University speaks about the #MeToo movement, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley
Francesca Deguili of Fairleigh Dickinson University speaks about the #MeToo movement, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley
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By Stephanie Crowley

On October 15, 2017, actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted to the world asking victims of sexual harassment and assault to respond using the hashtag #MeToo.

More than 200,000 people tweeted the hashtag that day. Within 24 hours, 500,000 had posted.

A movement had begun.

Will it continue?

Jill Hersh of Montclair State University at #MeToo discussion in Morris Township, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley
Jill Hersh of Montclair State University at #MeToo discussion in Morris Township, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley

A panel of academics joined the CEO of an online training company to ponder the question Tuesday at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township.

The Morristown Area League of Women Voters and the nonpartisan Network for Responsible Public Policy hosted the talk.

Jill Hersh, professor of women’s studies at Montclair State University, said online activism often gains widespread support and sparks productive dialogue for victims.

But it can be hard to keep an issue front and center without traction from a celebrity or someone with clout.

Jordan Nowotny and Francesca Degiuli of Fairleigh Dickinson University are researching what sexual consent looks like, and how to convey this understanding to incoming students and university staff alike.

Shockingly, they said there really isn’t a clear picture of what consent is.

Jordan Nowotny of FDU discusses #MeToo movement, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley
Jordan Nowotny of FDU discusses #MeToo movement, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley

Sexual assault is a force of power. For change to occur, the researchers said, the culture and social character of the campus/workplace must change. But how can that happen when consent is not completely and universally understood?

Hersh cited a popular internet meme called, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

It’s a parity on a hard topic, delivered with British manners. You could desire a cup of tea later but not NOW. You could desire a cup of tea next week. The meme is ambiguous.

This is similar to the rules of consent. It’s a moving target, subject to the smallest nuances and changes in desire.

And loudly “saying NO” puts all the burden on the female in a sexual assault encounter. Men are just as much a part of this issue, the researchers said.

Without men and women learning what consent is, the movement cannot be effective.

Most uplifting, perhaps, were insights from Mike Pallatta, CEO and co-founder of Traliant, a leading provider of online sexual harassment awareness training.

He said his company is evolving almost faster than he can keep up with. Traliant has seen an 800 percent increase in business compliance training.

Sexual harassment training has gone from important to urgent, he said. Before the #MeToo phenomenon, companies were throwing standard programs at employees and checking the box off annually.

Mike Pallatta, CEO of Traliant, at #MeToo discussion in Morris Township, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley
Mike Pallatta, CEO of Traliant, at #MeToo discussion in Morris Township, March 20, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Crowley

Employees were bored, and went through the motions.

Today, Traliant uses short interactive videos with scenarios that employees never had considered as harassment.

The #MeToo movement has pushed Traliant to modernize and customize its training, for businesses with 10 employees and corporations with 100,000 workers.

New hires now are asking companies about their harassment policies, and about what training is offered.

Harassment complaints are a big risk to any company, and the #MeToo movement is reshaping our daily interactions. There is even a #MeToo K-12 movement, to stop assault in schools and curb harassment.

If the culture must change, the panelists indicated, that change will need to start very young.

Stephanie Crowley of Morris Plains is an active community volunteer and Morristown Green contributor.

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