‘Finally the tables are starting to turn…’
Listening to Jumoke Fashola singing Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’ as I write, and it almost feels like we could be at one of those moments when things do change, when the weight of our fury, unexpressed or suppressed for so long, can bring about real and lasting change.
Ask me in a few months or a year, and I may have to acknowledge that, despite my 60 years, I am still hopelessly naive and idealistic. But today it feels like the tables are starting to turn.
There are of course plenty of voices raised against us. There’s talk of witch hunts. There’s talk of how of course this sort of thing was fine 15 years ago. There’s talk of how this is all down to the collapse of the established moral order (because feminism) in which men and women could mix happily (it’s unclear whether the argument is that such things didn’t happen then, or that women knew their place and didn’t make a fuss about it). The women who speak up are labelled as pushy, ruthlessly ambitious, or as having a political agenda (derailing Brexit, undermining the Party, whatever). Or we’re just belittled as ‘squawking and flapping‘.
Let’s remind ourselves of what a witch hunt was. It was when the powerful in society attempted to pin the blame for bad things on to someone who was isolated, who was weak, often old, and almost always female. Not quite what’s going on here. Some are invoking McCarthyism (always linked to the witch hunt since Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) but again that’s not really what’s happening. In the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities investigations and trials, powerful people were encouraging the denunciation and punishment of those who were rumoured to or indeed actually did have links to left-wing politics.
Now the anonymous spreadsheet does have a whiff of injustice about it – the inclusion of extramarital affairs suggests a ‘moral’ agenda which is really not relevant to the issue of sexual harassment. This is likely to be more of a distraction than anything else. Its cowardly anonymity is in sharp contrast to the accounts we are hearing daily now, where women are going public about their own experiences, their own hurt and humiliation and damage, and about exactly who did that to them.
These women aren’t plotting with each other to overthrow the patriarchy, or to revenge themselves against men who’ve done them wrong. They’re only linked to each other by that common experience, and they’re only powerful now because they have given each other the courage to speak about that experience, and because there are so many of them that they can’t be silenced or ridiculed into shutting up. Not any more.
And let’s nail this nonsense about how ‘a hand on the knee’ was perfectly fine 15 or 20 years ago. My working life goes back to the late 1970s, and although such behaviour was very much more common then, we weren’t ok with it. Really, we weren’t. If we didn’t say anything it was for the same reason that people don’t speak out now – because we were less powerful than the people who were harassing us. In the mid-’80s people did talk about sexual harassment in the workplace. It was most definitely a thing. From the very early ’90s I was a harassment officer at a University, dealing with complaints of sexual and racial harassment and of bullying, so I’ve heard all the excuses.
‘It’s just banter’. ‘It was a compliment.’ ‘She’s so over-sensitive.’ ‘Yes I said that, but that wasn’t harassment.’ ‘It’s all a fuss about nothing.’ ‘It was all consensual.’
It happened, and we had policies to deal with it, and people to support the complainants, and we ran training sessions for line managers so they were aware of those policies and support structures.
Workplace harassment is about power – always. Whether that power rests in seniority, in majority, in gender, age or ethnicity, the harasser holds power and uses it to get what they want, to silence, and to punish if they don’t get what they want.
As is the case in other types of violence against women, sexual harassment is
inextricably linked with power. Whether the perpetrator is abusing a position
of power by harassing someone they see as less powerful, or whether the
perpetrator feels powerless and is using sexual harassment as a means to
disempower the target of their harassment and thus increase their own
power and status in the workplace. Several studies have found that
perpetrators of sexual harassment tend to be in a position of power over the
target of the harassment. The disempowering impact of sexual harassment
was a recurrent theme in union members’ responses to a TUC survey on
sexual harassment. Shame, humiliation, and a sense of being undermined
professionally were all cited by respondents.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the stories which are coming out now are for the most part stories of workplace harassment. They are stories about actors auditioning for film roles, writers meeting with TV executives to talk about a script, journalists meeting with politicians. Even if the place where it happened is not a workplace per se (a bar or a restaurant or a hotel room) the context is that of someone doing their job, or trying to get a job.
None of us are really surprised that the women who are finally telling their stories – stories they may never have told anyone before, or only shared with a few close friends – are labelled as pushy. Any woman who speaks out, any woman who disagrees publicly with a man, any woman who challenges a man is pushy, strident, aggressive. I know this. In my almost forty years in the workplace, I’ve often been the only woman on a committee, and I rapidly discovered that if I wanted to be heard, I had to be determined, I had to not be deterred by being interrupted or talked over, I had to raise my voice (increased volume rather than higher pitch – heavens, mustn’t be shrill…). So I’ve been told, over and over, that I’m pushy, strident, aggressive.
If we stand up for ourselves, that’s what we get. If we don’t, we are assumed to be compliant and complicit. In reality we are engaging in a constant process of evaluating and avoiding risk. Looking for escape routes, for allies, for witnesses. Warning each other. Assessing at what point and how loudly we protest or refuse. Wondering what that protest or refusal may cost us.
There’s a clip circulating on Twitter of the magnificent Jo Brand on HIGNFY telling the blokes about how we feel under siege, how the constant, if low-level pattern of harassment wears us down. From the looks on their faces, I’m not sure they really got it.
I suspect very few men do and that’s because their experience of life is likely to be so different to ours, but also because we don’t often tell them what it’s like for us. We don’t tell them because we’re embarrassed, because we fear we may be blamed (what were you wearing? were you drunk? why did you share a taxi with him?), or because ‘our’ man might feel obliged to go and be manly and challenge our harasser to some kind of duel… And it’s no good asking them to imagine it happening to them, unless we make it clear we’re not asking them to fantasise about Lupita N’yongo or Romola Garai stroking their knee without asking permission first – we’re asking them to imagine someone they don’t fancy, someone they’re intimidated by, someone who has power over them – someone like Weinstein, trapping them in a hotel room and pinning them down, using physical as well as social power against them. We’ve been telling each other, for years (watch out for that one, a bit handsy, NSIT, etc) but now we’re telling men. Some of them are listening.
Some of them, of course are worried. Worried because they know damn well that even if they’re not and never have been as monstrous as Weinstein, they have crossed the line in their behaviour towards women, and they are wondering whether and when those women might speak out.
Charles Moore is worried for a different reason. He acknowledges that this is all about power. And he sees this as a moment when power has shifted.
This scandal shows that women are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us
I think he’s being over optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on your point of view). I don’t think the patriarchy is history. It’s pretty resilient, and I think it will survive, overall. But I do think something has shifted. Some men are questioning their own behaviour, and some are questioning their own failure to challenge the behaviour of others.
What we’re asking for, really, isn’t so very radical or scary. It’s that men treat us as if – just imagine! – we are real people, as real as them, whose wishes and intentions, whose fears and hopes, are as real as theirs, and who can make choices, even choices that don’t suit those men. If over half of the world’s people are being subjected to varying degrees of harassment, abuse and assault because of their gender, isn’t that something about which we all ought to care? And if all this is happening in the context of equality legislation and harassment policies and so on, one can guarantee things will be so so much tougher for women in countries where there are fewer protections and a culture that reinforces prejudices against them.
The thing about speaking out, when you’ve spent so long not doing it, is that it can be exhilarating, liberating, intoxicating. We’re not going to be shutting up any time soon. And that has to mean that we – the privileged, who have access to power and the means of communication – speak out for the many girls and women who can’t.
Cause finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin’ bout a revolution