Op-Ed: Mexico’s #MeToo Movement Needs Anonymity in the Face of Institutional Failures

Demonstrators participate in the #MeToo Survivors' March in response to several high-profile sexual harassment scandals. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images News

The debate sparked by the #MeToo movement in Mexico came to a fever pitch last Monday, when the news of Armando Vega Gil’s suicide went public. Vega Gil, bassist for the influential rock band Botellita de Jerez, posted a suicide note on his Twitter account after allegations that he had made inappropriate sexual advances towards a 13-year-old girl surfaced. The allegations emerged in the context of Mexico’s current reckoning around sexual violence, in which hundreds have used Twitter accounts to share their stories about the writers, academics, activists, journalists, creatives, and musicians in prominent positions who are accused of harassment, assault, and murder attempts against women. Although the #MeToo movement seemed to have gained little traction in Mexico when it exploded internationally in 2017, over the last few weeks, a series of high-profile incidents have sparked public outrage, and in particular, prompted a public conversation about the need to understand violence against women as a systemic problem.

The wave was set in motion on March 21, after activist Ana G. González posted a series of tweets that accused poet Herson Barona of “beating, manipulating, gaslighting, impregnating, and abandoning (on more than one occasion) more than 10 women.” After his book presentation was canceled later that night, Barona issued a statement on his social media claiming that the accusations were false, which in turn led former partner Mireya González, a Buzzfeed writer, to answer “You sure hit me, so what’s up with that?” Since then, hundreds of women have used the hashtag #MeTooMX, initially promoted by @MeTooEscritores and then replicated by sister accounts, to share their stories of violence in all cultural spheres – film, academia, activism, the nonprofit sector, theatre, politics and more.

But why, many have wondered, is the movement in Mexico unfolding now instead of a year ago, when high-profile women like Karla Souza came forward with their stories? Although activists previously attempted to launch a larger movement through viral hashtags, this time, the accusations started in small, tight-knit communities where insiders had some insight into the veracity of the claims. “Gossip is ‘just gossip’ until it is not. Sometimes ‘gossip’ is the noise of many women who are afraid to speak up,” wrote writer Jazmina Barrera on Twitter. Previous social media campaigns — #RopaSucia [#DirtyLaundry, 2015], #MiPrimerAcoso [#MyFirstHarassment, 2016], #YoDenunciéY [#IPressedChargesAnd, 2016], and #SiMeMatan [#IfTheyKillMe, 2017] — were generally less specific in content and referred more to the experience of systemic violence. These movements gained traction online at the time but lacked attention from the mainstream media. The collective experience of gender-based violence that they managed to express certainly fueled the current momentum of the movement.

What began as a contained movement known only to insiders in the cultural sphere has sparked a national debate around the role of platforms like Twitter and Facebook as mediators of social relationships and the ethics of making sexual assault allegations anonymously. Although initially, many women opted to identify themselves and their attackers, the Twitter accounts eventually decided on publishing screenshots of the testimonies without disclosing the identity of the victims. On social media, the response to this approach was mixed; while several applauded the decision on the basis that it protects victims from harassment, others voiced their concerns about making allegations on informal platforms instead of filing police reports.

As these events continue to unfold, it is urgent to address the problem of violence against women.

The question of anonymity is particularly salient in Mexico, where rampant corruption has eroded faith in institutions that are purportedly designed to bring perpetrators of sexual assault to justice. According to lawyer and academic Estefanía Vela, the whole idea of “due process” discourages women who have been victims of sexual crimes from presenting formal charges. On the one hand, the bureaucratic nature of Mexican institutions – and deeply entrenched machismo – makes it almost impossible for women successfully process their claims in the criminal justice system. Even high-profile cases — like journalist Andrea Noel, who was attacked on the streets of an upper-middle-class neighborhood on 2017 — tend to grow cold after a while. On the other, the scarcity of legal and psychological resources makes it easy for accusers to be targeted in retaliation.

The question of anonymity has divided public opinion regarding the Mexican #MeToo movement. While critics claim that it is easy to invent false allegations that could destroy a person’s life and career, proponents who advocate for securing the privacy of accusers maintain that Mexican institutions have turned a blind eye to women’s safety.

To complicate matters, the debate took on a sinister tone after the news of Armando Vega Gil’s suicide. In reaction to the musician’s death, many detractors have used this news to discredit the movement’s efforts and undermine the credibility that it has gained over the past few weeks. It has also served to steer the debate away from the movement’s most important issues. Some women connected to the movement have been subject to doxxing and explicit threats that include the public release of their names, addresses, and current employers. Hoping “level things out,” detractors of the movement launched at least two anonymous Twitter accounts (@MeTooHombresMx and @MeTooMenPower) to showcase instances where “men have been abused” by women. Since then, several Twitter accounts, including @MeTooMusicaMx, have shut down, whether permanently or temporarily. Other accounts were already taking a break from posting accusations as the administrators revise their protocol, both to ensure the veracity of the accusations they publish and to protect the personal profiles of the women who spoke out.

In contrast to the conversation that is taking place online, the institutional response has been predictably poor. After INMUJERES, the organization responsible for developing gender-related policies in Mexico, issued a press release on the movement, the Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico’s largest publishing house, tweeted an embarrassingly tone-deaf statement expressing sadness over Armando Gil Vega’s death, saying that it should serve as a “reminder that the justified accusations of harassment, machismo, and violence against women should not turn into an irresponsible manhunt.”

With a history that can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century, lately, Mexican feminism seems to be one of the most prominent discussions in the public sphere. Now, more than ever, women are demanding change and an end to cultural, political, and domestic forms of violence. If anything, #MeToo has shown how deep the problem is. It has also touched on the question of feminism’s political objectives. While it is obvious that women experience the structures of the patriarchy in particularly oppressive ways, Vega Gil’s suicide also spotlighted the effects that this systemic violence has on cisgender men. The movement has evidenced their inability to be accountable and assume responsibility in the larger system of structural violence. The Mexican iteration of #MeToo seems to confirm an uncomfortable truth: that the patriarchy expresses itself most insidiously in the concrete, everyday violence carried out by individuals who harass women in their workplace and on the streets, beat them in domestic partnerships, rape them when they feel they are friends, or distribute power among themselves, limiting women’s access to resources and positions of authority.

By naming the culprits of these everyday acts of violence, Mexican women have been successful in breaking the pact of impunity that has forced these events to remain in private spaces instead of laying them bare in the public sphere. As the social media conversation simmers, it seems that activists are gravitating towards different mechanisms of justice. One recent statement issued by collective Mujeres juntas, marabunta reads: “[this is not] a denunciation mechanism that aims for public derision, but rather a political instrument, which exposes violence that has been forced to remain private for the convenience of those who perpetrate it. These accusations have been published because we do not want this to happen to anyone else and as a reminder that there are many more who have not yet been able to speak out.”

The statement also articulates an argument circulated by the collective PUM, or Periodistas Unidas Mexicanas: the accusations related to the #MeToo movement in Mexico were not anonymous, but rather anonymously shared. This simple, yet powerful distinction has been deliberately overlooked by critics of the movement, who seek a solution by saying that the condition of anonymity is a gateway to false claims, which diminish the credibility of the feminist cause. In a country where approximately nine women are victims of femicide each day, it is irresponsible to suggest that such claims might be unfounded. As these events continue to unfold, it is urgent to address the problem of violence against women. This can only begin once their words are taken as truth.