Women and other sexual abuse complainants couldn’t get a fair hearing through institutions, including corporate structures, so they used a new tool, the internet. This has been very effective and has been seen as a massive wake-up call.

Michael Hobbes, journalist and podcast host, You’re Wrong About: “Cancel Culture,” June 7, 2021.

It used to be that people who got sexually harassed told practically no one. But then #MeToo happened.

The #MeToo movement started in late 2017, when American actress Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet asking people to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Millions of people did it, using the hashtag #MeToo.

Seeing all those stories helped people to realize that harassment and abuse are really common, which helped them feel less shame and guilt about their own experiences. That’s why today people are much more likely to share their stories publicly. They do it themselves, usually on social media, or sometimes through the news media, by talking with a journalist.

Here are some real-world stories of people who’ve gone public about being harassed.

  • In Edmonton in 2017, a man who co-owned a bar repeatedly groped one of the staff. She reported it to management, but nothing was really done about it and he continued to behave badly. Eight months later, she quit her job and made a public Facebook post explaining why. As a result, some of her co-workers also quit, some bands that had been scheduled to play at the bar cancelled, the media covered the story, and the bar ended up shutting down permanently. 
  • In Toronto in 2018, a woman was fired from her job at a tech start-up after she complained to HR about being sexually harassed by one of the company’s executives. In 2019, she tweeted anonymously about what happened to her, the company investigated, and the executive left. She wrote an anonymous essay about what happened and published it on Medium, which led to media coverage, and two months later the company shut down. In 2020, the woman told her entire story to a Global News reporter, who wrote a long article about it using her real name with her permission.
  • In Montreal in 2020, a woman shared on Instagram her story of being sexually assaulted, which led to dozens of other women sharing similar stories. Some did this under their own accounts, and others were anonymous. Some people named lost their jobs, others apologized publicly, and others threatened to sue for defamation. Afterwards, the Quebec justice minister assembled a group of experts to come up with ways to make it easier for victims of sexual assault to navigate the Quebec justice system.

People go public for lots of reasons. Here are some of the most common:

  • They want to warn people, so people know to avoid the harasser and/or the harasser’s employer.
  • They want to publicly shame the harasser, or make sure the harasser understands what they did was wrong and harmful.
  • They want to publicly shame their employer for not stopping the harassment.
  • They want to raise awareness of how common harassment is.
  • They want to build community with other people who’ve had similar experiences.
  • They want support, catharsis, or healing.

Those are all good reasons to go public—and, in fact, there are no bad reasons. If you want to go public, your reasons are valid, whatever they are.

But going public can have some negative consequences. Here are the most common, and how you can protect yourself against them.

If you go public, you might get sued for defamation

If you say bad things about the harasser or your employer, they might sue you for defamation. “Defamation” is a legal term. It describes what it’s called when someone publicly says something about somebody else that isn’t true and that hurts the other person’s reputation. It can be something published, which is often called “libel,” or something spoken—in some parts of the country, this is called “slander.”

Defamation is a civil complaint, not a criminal one, which means the police aren’t involved.

Anybody can file a defamation case. They don’t have to have a good case; they just need enough money to pay a lawyer.

In many ways, a defamation lawsuit is the perfect tool for men accused of sexual violence. Filing a lawsuit allows men accused of sexual violence to re-cast the narrative about responsibility and blame, and to present themselves as victims of false allegations. It is then up to the defendant to prove that the statements about sexual violence are true.

Mandi Gray, post-doctoral researcher, University of Calgary.
“Cease and Desist/Cease or Resist? Civil Suits and Sexual Violence.”

Here are some examples of situations in which people have been sued for defamation after going public.

  • In 2018, a Calgary woman wrote an anonymous blog post about being sexually assaulted by a reporter when she had worked at a TV network. While investigating her allegations, the network divulged her name. The accused reporter sued her and the network for $7.5 million.
  • About five years ago, “Laura” was sexually harassed and assaulted by her boss while on a work trip. She was fired an hour after reporting his behaviour. Her open letter about the assault that she posted on social media resulted in a defamation suit from the organization she’d worked for. The suit wasn’t pursued but she lost her housing as a result of being unemployed.
  • In 2020, people accused of sexual harassment and assault on a Regina-based woman’s Instagram account threatened to sue her for defamation. As a result, she shut down the account. The woman was never sued, but one man filed a lawsuit against Facebook, which owns Instagram, seeking $1 million in damages.

It’s impossible to know how likely it is that you’ll be sued for defamation. Your odds of getting sued are higher if you name the harasser (or if it’s obvious who they are, even if you don’t name them), if your story gets a lot of attention, if the harasser is well known, if they have a lot of money to hire lawyers, and if they’ve ever sued anyone before.

You can get sued even if what you say is true, and even if you can prove it’s true. Sometimes a harasser will start a defamation lawsuit they know they can’t win to try to get you to change your story or take it down.

If you end up getting sued for defamation, you’ll need to hire a lawyer, and the whole process will be expensive and slow—it’s not unusual for cases to take more than two or more years. A case can fall into “legal limbo,” and can’t be withdrawn for five years. So, if you’re considering going public, and especially if you plan to name the harasser, it’s a good idea to talk with a lawyer first. See How to find and work with a lawyer.

If you go public, strangers might attack and abuse you

Here’s a Japanese journalist describing what happened to her in 2017, after she spoke at a press conference saying she had been raped two years earlier by a colleague:

“The backlash hit me hard. I was vilified on social media and received hate messages and emails and calls from unknown numbers. I was called a ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ and told I should ‘be dead.’ There were arguments over my nationality, because a true Japanese woman wouldn’t speak about such ‘shameful’ things. Fake stories popped up online about my private life with photos of my family. I received messages from women criticizing me for failing to protect myself.”

What happened to her is really common. Not everyone who goes public gets attacked and abused, but lots do. Usually this means things like people yelling at you or calling you names online, but sometimes it’s worse than that, with people sending you rape or death threats; publishing your private information and encouraging others to harass you; harassing your family and friends; or reaching out to your employer to try to get you fired.

If you want to go public, but reduce the chances you’ll be harassed for doing it, here are some things you could consider:

  • You could publish your story anonymously, instead of using your real name.
  • You could try to keep the name of your current employer secret.
  • You could tighten up your digital security before you publish. (Like, remove your private information from the internet, and restrict who can see what you publish on social media.) There are some good resources for that here, here, and here.
  • You could tell your friends before you publish, and ask them to be ready to help you if you end up facing harassment or abuse.

If you go public, you might lose your job or have a hard time getting a new one

This is a real risk. Lots of people have described how their careers tanked after they went public. Companies don’t want to hire people who’ve complained publicly about sexual harassment, because they’re worried they’ll do it again. And, in general, it’s pretty common for people to harshly judge people who complain about harassment.

If you’re concerned about your work reputation, that concern is probably valid. If you want to go public anyway, here are some things you can do to try to protect yourself:

  • Don’t name your employer.
  • Don’t attach your real name to your story.
  • When you tell your story, try to keep it factual and understated.
  • Make it clear that, apart from the harassment, you like your employer and enjoy your work.
  • Make it clear that you regret having to go public, and wish you didn’t have to do it.
  • Make it clear that you are trying to help your company do a better job of handling harassment, rather than being motivated by anger or a desire for revenge.

If you go public, you might mess up any legal case you’re pursuing or settlement you’ve received

If you’re involved with any kind of formal complaint process or legal action, going public could mess it up. Here are some ways that might happen:

  • It could give the harasser or your employer a heads-up on what’s coming, giving them time to change their story or destroy evidence.
  • What you say could be used against you in court, with the other side claiming you’ve lied, or tried to influence other witnesses, or using what you say to attack your character or motivation.
  • If people attack you online, then people who might have been willing to support you (for example by being a witness) may change their minds.
  • If you’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, going public could break it. You might be required to pay back any settlement money you got, and your employer might decide to sue you for breach of contract.

If you’re involved in a formal legal process, it’s a good idea to get advice from your lawyer before going public.

By now, you probably have a pretty good idea about whether going public is right for you.

If you choose to do it, your first big question is whether to try to get a journalist to tell your story or whether to do it yourself.

The main reason to talk with a journalist is that it makes your story more credible, because most people will assume that what a journalist writes is pretty likely to be true.

But there are downsides to doing this. You lose control of what exactly gets said, and where, and when. A journalist may push you to give them embarrassing details that you don’t want to share publicly. It’s possible a journalist may make a deal with you (like, to keep your name confidential, or to not tell some parts of your story) and then end up breaking that deal. If you don’t want to be quoted when you’re being interviewed, you have to say that what you’re telling them is confidential before you start to talk, not afterward.

But for most people, a journalist isn’t an option anyway. A journalist might be interested in your story if what happened to you was especially scandalous, or if you or the harasser (or your employer) are famous. But otherwise it’s usually pretty hard to get a journalist interested, because sexual harassment happens every day, and so it’s not really “news.”

That means that if you go public, you’ll probably end up doing it alone, on social media. 

We’ll leave you now with some last things to consider.

A checklist of things to think about before you go public

  • Are there important people in your life who you want to tell ahead of time?
  • Are there people in your life who you don’t want to know about what happened to you, who may learn about it once you go public?
  • Are you comfortable with your story possibly being public forever?
  • If you have a lawyer, have you talked with them about your plan?
  • Have you done what you can to make it less likely you’ll be sued for defamation?
  • If you do get sued, are you confident you can defend yourself?
  • Are you involved with any current complaints or legal process that might get messed up when you go public?
  • Have you signed any legal agreements that might limit what you can say publicly? See How to decide whether to take legal action (and what to expect if you do).
  • Have you done what you can to tighten up your digital privacy and security?
  • Have you lined up supports to help protect your well-being and safety after you go public? See Build a support network.