Millions Said ‘Me Too,' But The Presidential Debates Have Largely Ignored Them

Activists say that some major Democratic contenders haven't unveiled sufficient plans to fight sexual harassment and assault.

Since the last U.S. presidential election, the Me Too movement has exploded worldwide as survivors of sexual harassment and abuse have pushed people in power to combat these systemic problems. But so far, it’s getting very little attention in the Democratic presidential primary — and disappointed activists want leading candidates to step up. 

“Centering sexual violence in the 2020 election is critical because it’s been two years since millions of people spoke out and said ‘me too,’” Tarana Burke, who created the Me Too movement in 2007, told HuffPost in an email. “Those people are still waiting for a response from our national leaders.” 

Burke created the hashtag #MeTooVoter ahead of the fourth primary debate in October to galvanize other survivors who also felt overlooked in the 2020 conversation. She wrote an op-ed for Time titled “Survivors of Sexual Assault Are Voters Too. So Why Aren’t the Presidential Candidates Paying Attention to Them?” Three months and two debates later — and on the eve of actual caucus and primary votes — Burke still has the same question 

“Survivors are fed up, but we’re also gaining clarity ― we’re becoming clearer around how this country chooses to deal (or not deal) with issues that affect women in large proportion ― more specifically women of color, migrant women and trans women,” Burke said. 

The four front-runners in the Democratic primary have proposed policies to combat violence against women. But not all of those plans address sexual violence specifically and none are getting the attention the issue demands.

The relative silence is even more baffling given that Democrats are running against President Donald Trump, a man who has been accused by over 20 women of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to assault and rape. 

The #MeTooVoter hashtag has bubbled up on Twitter before the last few debates but garnered little attention from debate moderators. Out of the 200 questions asked in the first six primary debates, only one has been about Me Too, according to an analysis by the anti-sexual harassment group Time’s Up.

During the fifth debate in November, NBC moderator Kristen Welker asked what specific actions former Vice President Joe Biden would take on the topic of sexual assault if voted into office. In true Biden debate fashion, his answer was a bit nonsensical and ended with an inappropriate pun that the country has to continue “punching” at domestic violence. 

“No man has a right to raise a hand in anger other than in self-defense and that rarely ever occurs,” Biden said during the debate. “So we have to change the culture. Period. And keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it.” 

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Biden are the only two candidates who have somewhat fleshed out how they would address sexual and domestic violence if elected president.

Buttigieg announced a $10 billion proposal in October to seek to end sexual harassment and discrimination against women in the workplace. That money (which would come from closing the so-called Gingrich-Edwards payroll tax loophole, a Buttigieg campaign spokesperson told HuffPost) would fund measures to make employers accountable for protecting female workers. The proposal also advocates a law banning forced arbitration in cases of harassment or discrimination.

Biden has repeatedly noted on the campaign trail that he helped create the original Violence Against Women Act in 1994 and co-founded the anti-sexual violence organization It’s On Us in 2014. Biden’s commitment to ending sexual violence is often overshadowed, however, by his mishandling of the Anita Hill hearing in 1991, his continuous campaign gaffes (like “punching” at domestic violence) and his old-school approach to protecting women. 

Hill, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings nearly 30 years ago, commented in October that she was surprised there hadn’t been any discussion about gender violence during the current presidential debates. Survivors are a “powerful force” who need to be recognized by presidential candidates, the law professor said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. 

Survivors deserve to see a candidate stand up for their rights, and vow to invest real time and energy into understanding how their lives are impacted, and what sexual violence prevention through a trauma-informed lens looks like. Tarana Burke

While Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) mention combating sexual harassment and domestic violence in their policy plans, both proposals lack any real depth or detail in those areas. 

Burke created the Me Too movement more than a decade ago, but it gained notable traction in October 2017 after a tweet by actor Alyssa Milano. Nearly 5 million people shared their stories of sexual violence, commented or otherwise reacted on Facebook in the first 24 hours after Milano’s tweet. In less than a week, the conversation had reached 85 countries. The Me Too hashtag was used more than 19 million times on Twitter in the following year ― that’s around 55,000 uses every day. And the movement saw results: At least 425 prominent people were accused of and faced consequences for sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape in the first year alone.

Jennifer Klein, chief policy and strategy officer at Time’s Up, said she wants to see more specifics. 

“Politicians who ignore this pervasive issue do so at their own peril,” Klein said. “Any candidate for president should have clear and robust policies for combatting sexual harassment and assault, and promoting equity and dignity for working women,” she added later. 

Former presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) ran on a platform of gender equality, centering sexual assault as a major policy issue. But she never gained traction and dropped out in August. It seemed that no one wanted a Me Too candidate for president.

“I would like to see a candidate that is ready to roll up their sleeves, listen to those who have been harmed, and help shift the focus from accusations to accountability,” Burke told HuffPost. “Survivors deserve to see a candidate stand up for their rights, and vow to invest real time and energy into understanding how their lives are impacted, and what sexual violence prevention through a trauma-informed lens looks like.”

Actor and activist Rose McGowan, who accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of raping her in her early 20s, told HuffPost that she’s astounded so few candidates have centered violence against women in their campaigns. 

“The time is now,” McGowan said. “Women are a huge base and we, once again, are being ignored by politicians. I strongly urge the candidates to speak out and let us know they are not only willing to talk, but to take action.”