Closing The Gap

#MeToo founder Tarana Burke has a new hashtag to encourage presidential candidates to address sexual violence

Tarana Burke attends the VH1 Trailblazer Honors held at The Wilshire Ebell Theatre on February 20, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Tran | FilmMagic | Getty Images

In honor of the two-year anniversary of the #MeToo hashtag going viral, Me Too founder Tarana Burke has launched the #MeTooVoter movement to encourage presidential candidates to get serious about addressing sexual harassment and assault.

"I have been in conversation with several other leaders in this work, and we talked about how frustrated we are that there have been no conversations about sexual violence in the debates," Burke tells CNBC Make It, in regards to creating a hashtag that she hopes will mobilize voters and presidential candidates to treat sexual assault as a major campaign issue. "The candidates haven't offered any plan of their own on how they will deal with [this issue], yet so many people have said their lives are affected by it."

Today, more than one in three women and nearly one in four men say they've experienced sexual violence at some point in their life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Burke, who has worked for more than a decade to support sexual violence survivors, says she hopes conversations under the #MeTooVoter hashtag will now make this issue a top priority in politics.

Photo courtesy of Getty

From a legislation standpoint, Burke says candidates need to address the country's "rape kit backlog," which points to the overwhelming amount of crime labs that have unanalyzed DNA evidence that could be used to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence. Thousands of kits remain untested, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

In July, Sen. Kamala Harris proposed investing $1 billion to eliminate the rape kit backlog nationwide, making her the first presidential candidate to propose such a plan. Though Burke acknowledges Harris's proposal, she says she wishes she and the other candidates would make the issue more of a conversation by discussing it during the debates.

National Domestic Workers Alliance co-founder and executive director Ai-jen Poo agrees with Burke and has partnered with the #MeTooVoter movement to help push the issue of sexual violence to the forefront of the upcoming election.

"We represent the workforce that works in our homes taking care of kids, working as nannies, working as house cleaners or working as care workers to support people with disabilities," says Poo. "It's an industry with an overwhelming amount of women and a disproportionate amount of women of color. This workforce is hidden behind closed doors and working under incredibly isolating conditions. And even though these roles are important, the workers are incredibly vulnerable to abuse."

Data shows that workers in isolated environments such as janitors, domestic workers and hotel workers, report higher than average rates of sexual assault and harassment. According to a report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the University of Illinois at Chicago, 36% of live-in workers say that in the last 12 months they've been harassed, threatened, insulted or verbally abused at work.

To make matters worse, Poo says that most domestic workers are not protected against sexual violence by the federal government because they usually work alone or in small teams. Right now, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only applies to employers with 15 or more employees, regulating how they handle sexual discrimination, which includes sexual harassment. This means that employers with fewer than 15 employees legally have no federal regulations to follow, related to sexual violence.

Activists participate in the Take Back The Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors March & Rally on November 12, 2017 in Hollywood, California.
Sarah Morris | Getty Images Entertainment

"There is a bill on the federal level that we have been advocating for, called the BE HEARD Act," says Poo. "With BE HEARD, it protects survivors in all workplaces from sexual violence, regardless of the number of employees. So that is one example of a policy candidates can address, but there are many others including addressing the statute of rape limitations for survivors."

In addition to encouraging presidential candidates to discuss their stance on sexual harassment laws and policies, Burke says she hopes the #MeTooVoter hashtag will prompt more candidates to also talk about the culture they will create as president.

"We have a person in office who is a self-professed sex offender, and we have had several women come forward and accuse him of several things," says Burke in regards to President Donald Trump. "So the moral compass is off in this leadership and it will be great to hear what kind of culture these candidates will offer."

Before the 2016 election, tapes from a 2005 conversation between Trump and then "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush surfaced. In the recordings, Trump is heard making comments about the sexual advancements he's made on women. "I've never said I'm a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I'm not," he said in regards to the tape being released. "I've said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them."

Earlier this year, Trump also faced allegations from writer E. Jean Carroll who said he sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in New York. "I've never met this person in my life. She is trying to sell a new book—that should indicate her motivation. It should be sold in the fiction section," Trump said in a statement. Carroll is one of at least 15 other women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct.

Burke points out that 19 million people tweeted about #MeToo in the first year it went viral. Now, two years later, she hopes the #MeTooVoter hashtag will push moderators to at least add a question about sexual violence in the upcoming debates.

"That is 19 million voices, and many of them are in the United States," she says. "We want to move people to think beyond their survival and how it can be used to create long-lasting change. We want people to know this isn't just a hashtag. This is something that we think is really important and we are going to keep pushing it until the next election."

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