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COMMENTARY: Me too, but now what?

People have been saying "me too" on social media to share their experience with sexual assault and harassment.
People have been saying "me too" on social media to share their experience with sexual assault and harassment. Global News

It’s been eye-opening to see just how many people in my network have said “me too” this week.

The sheer volume of such admissions has made it impossible for anyone to look away, which, frankly, is the point.

Created in the wake of mounting allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and rape by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo campaign has motivated people to share their own experiences.

READ MORE: Why you’re seeing ‘me too’ all over your social media feeds

It isn’t exclusively for women, though some critics and supporters have charged that it is. Anyone can find themselves harassed sexually, though women undeniably bear the brunt of it. I’m writing this column with that in mind.

Women are already painfully aware of the pervasiveness of these problems, so #MeToo is very much directed at men, who fall into two categories – those who are part of the problem and those who aren’t.

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Those in the former category have already disregarded or rejected boundaries and standards of decency. Sadly, I doubt two words – no matter how many millions of women utter them – will change that.

WATCH: #MeToo: Just the tip of the iceberg

Click to play video '#MeToo: Just the tip of the iceberg' #MeToo: Just the tip of the iceberg
#MeToo: Just the tip of the iceberg

We men who don’t harass, abuse or assault women don’t know what our role should be in this dialogue, beyond calling out harassment and assault if we see it.

Should I ask women if anyone is giving them trouble? That sounds patronizing. Should I tell women they can come to me if someone says something? That sounds paternalistic. Is it about drafting up strict human resources policies? That sounds impersonal.

Beyond #MeToo, there is a need for a greater dialogue.

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This week, a number of feminists have expressed their frustration with the campaign because they think everyone should already know this.

READ MORE: Canadians Mia Kirshner, Erika Rosenbaum join legion accusing Harvey Weinstein

While that may be true, there’s a far more captive audience now. Without awareness, change is impossible. But even so, change isn’t guaranteed.

I said earlier that #MeToo has erupted so significantly that it is impossible to look away. Except we will.

Within a few days, we’ll all have moved onto the next “Pray For _____” or “Je Suis ______”, and #MeToo will be a distant memory.

Women will – hopefully – feel comforted by the support of those around them. Men will pat themselves on the back for giving a cousin or co-worker a “love” or “sad” reaction on Facebook. But what led to the #MeToo-ers opening up in the first place will remain.

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Even though #MeToo reveals a problem, there isn’t a consensus on what it is, or what caused it. This campaign opens the door to those questions, but it doesn’t solve them.

There’s a spectrum of sexual affronts: on one side is a flirtation that is deemed unwanted, and on the other side is violent rape.

Legally and, I would argue, morally, there’s a progression in severity and wrongness as we move from one end of that spectrum to the other.

READ MORE: Statistics Canada report finds self-reported sexual assault rates steady over 10 years

People experience pain in their own way, undoubtedly. But is a woman saying “me too” after someone glanced at her chest in a café dealing with the same phenomenon as one who says it after being drugged and date raped?

No, but #MeToo lumps them all in one category.

It’s possible that I’ve contributed to someone’s “me too” admission without knowing it, in today’s climate. Especially in the age of microaggressions, where intent is secondary to one’s interpretation of a situation.

The popular blog Everyday Feminism contends that even complimenting a woman on her smile is an act of harassment.

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Chatting up a woman you encounter in the world, if you know nothing about her, is sexualizing because you implicitly judged her on her appearance, one piece argues.

“When you approach someone in public, it’s often based solely on their physical appearance,” the author writes. “Whether or not you make an explicit statement about their appearance, there is an implication that their body is on display for your approval or disapproval.”

Fortunately for me, it’s always been a lack of confidence rather than feminism that has prevented me from asking women out in coffee shops or grocery stores, but I know men and women who have had tremendous success with these serendipitous encounters.

This is not to trivialize those who have been on the receiving end of crude and lewd drive-by “compliments,” or those who are the victims of persistent, unabated come-ons. But as a man, the boundaries of acceptability seem to be changing so quickly that I’m glad to be married already.

I don’t aim to deny anyone their own feelings. I realize that a stranger approaching a woman on the street could end any number of ways – and she doesn’t know which outcome will arise until it does.

There are real concerns. Critics of #MeToo can’t dismiss it as feminist tripe, and supporters can’t expect that a trending hashtag will solve the problem without further explanation to people who, for whatever reason, don’t get it.

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Talking about a problem is important, but only the first step.

And, by the way, me too.

If you, or someone you know, has experienced sexual assault or harassment, the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime has several resources for survivors. If this is an emergency, call 911.

Andrew Lawton is host of The Andrew Lawton Show on AM980 in London and a commentator for Global News.