Posts Tagged Everyday Sexism
‘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
It would be difficult to find a girl or a woman who couldn’t say, yes, me too. As someone said on Twitter, those of us who are referring only to harassment rather than to assault or rape are the fortunate ones – often we barely even recognise what we’ve experienced as being what it is, it’s just the way things are, it’s just what being a girl or a woman means.
Of course, it happens to boys and men too and some are using the #MeToo hashtag to share their experiences. I know that we find it easier to tell each other about the things that happen to us than men do. We may make a bit of a joke of it, or frame it as a warning about a colleague who’s all hands after a few drinks or whatever, and we may not be able to talk to anyone ever at all. But one burden that men carry that we don’t is the need to be strong, and to be seen to be strong.
Nonetheless, primarily I am talking about girls and women. About the fact that we learn to expect a degree of harassment, verbal or physical. And the fact that whatever our age, size, however we dress, wherever we go, we must learn to always be aware that there are predators – predators in dark alleys, predators in smart suits, predators in our homes and workplaces. There are men who think that what they want they can have, and that what they want is all that matters. There are men who will punish with violence or in subtler ways someone who says no.
I’ve got no heartrending stories to tell. My experiences of sexual harassment have been so very ordinary, which is a story in itself, I guess. The guy on the bus, the group of lads in town, the pushy sales rep with his sleazy comments, all normal, all ordinary. I have been made to feel afraid. I have, when cornered on a train by leery groups of lads drinking Special Brew, been thinking furiously about how to get away, whether there’s anyone else around who might be an ally, whether I should be friendly and risk them thinking I’m up for it, or cold and risk triggering overt hostility.
But that’s all normal and ordinary, and a long time ago. Something happened a few weeks back, though, which reminded me of some of those earlier ordinary, normal incidents. Sitting having a drink with my friend, catching up, enjoying each others company, when two very drunk middle-aged blokes come in and try to engage people in conversation. We avoid eye contact but to no avail. One of the blokes comes over and asks if he can join us. We say no, very politely and with smiles because we’re nice people, but we say no. He carries on talking to us, we continue to (politely) assert that we are fine as we are, and that we don’t want him to join us. And quite suddenly he makes some remark about our size. That’s our punishment for saying no. It reminded me of the man at a party (decades ago) who when I turned him down (despite his incredibly seductive promise to ‘destroy’ me) gave me unsolicited feedback on my weight. They felt entitled – whether to sex or just to attention – and when that entitlement is denied, they hit back, physically or verbally.
What can we do? We can stop blaming ourselves for someone else’s vileness. We – women and men – can stop implying that someone asked for it, or was stupid or naive to find themselves in that situation, or was cowardly to not speak out sooner. We can challenge the entitled mindset whenever we encounter it, we can not join in with the comments or laugh at the jokes, we can stand with someone in a difficult situation and back up their account when they’re being called a liar.
Remember that every time a man commits a violent act it only takes one or two steps to figure out how it’s a woman’s fault, and that these dance steps are widely known and practiced and quite a bit of fun. There are things men do that are the fault of women who are too sexy, and other things men do that are the fault of women who are not sexy enough, but women only come in those two flavors: not enough, too much, and it is the fate of heterosexual men to endure this affliction.
And what’s happening to me as I write this is that incidents I had forgotten – not suppressed because they were traumatic, just forgotten because they were ordinary and normal – are coming back to me. I hadn’t realised that there were so many.
Yes, me too.
What “me too” does is bring it back into the home, the school, the shop, the street, the office where women have been harassed. It makes it small screen not big screen. It makes it ordinary and everyday and seen. … Many have waited a long time for this. Don’t let it go now. Keep saying “me too” because we are fighting not one guy here, but a system that can only be challenged by collective rage, not individual shame. Suzanne Moore, The Guardian
I’ve been aware of the Everyday Sexism twitter account for some time, reading with anger and despair the seemingly endless reports of verbal and physical harassment, and of the host of ways in which women and girls are dismissed, disparaged and excluded. I thought things had, maybe, got a bit better during the course of the last forty-five years, since I became a teenager and realised that there were men out there who thought I existed in order to please them, and if I didn’t (either by being insufficiently attractive or by spurning their advances) then rather than being ignored I could expect to be insulted and threatened. It appears that little has actually changed.
I’m middle-aged now, past the age of invisibility, and so I don’t get catcalls any more – apart from the odd occasion when someone approaches in a vehicle from behind, and only realises as they draw level with me that they’ve just catcalled someone older than their mum… I do get shouted at sometimes when I’m out running, by people who think it’s hilarious to point out that I’m fat. I have been tempted to respond that whilst I know I’m fat, I’m clearly attempting to do something about it, and ask what they’re doing to address their own evident stupidity, but it’s early in the morning, no one else is around and I feel vulnerable. These things are idiotic, laughable, rather than hugely intimidating, but they anger me still. What makes someone think that because I am female and in a public place that they have the right to insult me, or to intrude on my thoughts?
I have never been the victim of violence of any kind, domestic, sexual or whatever. And yet I have to qualify that, because by the legal definition of sexual assault, of course I have. According to the law (not according to some deranged feminazi), sexual assault occurs when person A
- intentionally touches another person (B),
- the touching is sexual,
- B does not consent to the touching, and
- A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
I’d guess that any girl or woman who has ever been in a crowded pub or club could tick all of those boxes.
I can’t say I’ve been traumatised by my own experiences – I’ve been bloody annoyed by them, however, and at times unnerved and frightened. Even when there’s no physical contact, being shouted at in the street or from a passing car at the very least disturbs, as it’s meant to, and makes you feel more exposed and vulnerable. Cumulatively, these ‘minor’ incidents add to all the other ways in which we (women/girls) are told that our choices are irrelevant, that our bodies are not our own, and that our negative reactions to those messages are inappropriate, humourless, hysterical. And of course, I know plenty of women who’ve been on the receiving end of violence, and am certain that many more have been, but do not talk about it. If we call these experiences ‘everyday’ sexism, we’re not saying that all women experience these things every day, but that all women have experienced these things and, crucially, that they do not regard them as extraordinary.
I’ve never been told that I can’t do the jobs I want to do because I’m a woman. But I have been told that I’m too pushy, too strident, too aggressive. I have had men explain things to me about which I know far more than them, and I’ve spoken up in meetings only to be interrupted, or to have my contribution dismissed or totally ignored, and I’ve seen these things happening to other women in the workplace too. And, on the whole, I’d say I’ve had it pretty good. But many years working as a harassment officer, and as a manager with a predominantly female team of staff, have shown me what lots of women encounter. I’ve had to call men out on the toxic use of ‘banter’ to undermine women’s professional standing and their confidence, or the use of status to bully and demean women, or to pressurise women for sexual favours.
The nature of workplace harassment is that it often involves incidents which in isolation would seem minor and trivial, but which cumulatively have a serious effect on the recipient – this is recognised in harassment policies. The same is true in other contexts. The effect of once having someone shout at you in the street about what they want to do to you might be insignificant (assuming all they did was to shout) – the effect of this happening over and over again is to make you feel constantly insecure. When I was a young teenager, I remember initially feeling quite good about getting appreciative looks. Until I realised that the corollary of the appreciative look is that the looker may well feel that they have the right to do more than look – to comment (favourably or otherwise), to proposition, to touch, to grab, to threaten with rape. Within a very short period of time, the potential for receiving even the look as a compliment was massively diminished as I learned to quickly assess my safety, look for escape routes or potentially sympathetic bystanders.
None of that means that I want to ban men from looking at women. Any sensible and sensitive man, however, knows the difference between a look and a stare, between a look that encompasses a person and one that is riveted to a chest. Similarly with compliments – there are ways of saying you like the way someone looks that are OK. But sensible and sensitive men bear in mind that they have not been asked for their feedback, and that they have no automatic right to give it. They will realise that having given it, they do not then have the automatic right to follow it up and insist on a conversation that the woman may not wish to have, and they will be tuning into the woman’s response, to ensure they don’t intrude or offend. They not only won’t ignore a clear and unequivocal ‘no, I’m not interested’, they won’t pursue it unless the woman does give a clear and unequivocal signal that she wants to talk to them, and will accept it without argument and walk away if she changes her mind. And they will know that the fact that they have noticed a woman does not entitle them to tell her what is wrong with her body, her face or the way she is dressed. It’s really not that tough to get it right. Most men know this, and also recognise how daily interactions between men and women are messed up by the dickheads who don’t get any of this, and/or don’t care.
Whilst I’ve been writing this, two notable things have been happening. First of all, the #NotAllMen trope has been everywhere, initially as the all-too predictable response from so many male readers to women’s accounts of their own experiences, and then as the ironic riposte to that response, showing how it – intentionally or otherwise – derails and interrupts, making yet another conversation about men rather than about women. And the #YesAllWomen hashtag asserts that the more important fact is not that ‘not all men…’ but that ALL women experience everyday sexism, and ALL women are influenced as they go about their daily lives by the knowledge that SOME men represent a threat.
The other major development, of course, has been the Isla Vista shootings and the misogynistic (and racist) manifesto published by the killer. I don’t intend to weigh in with more analysis of this. I’m not qualified to diagnose his mental state from what I’ve read. I know that more of his victims were male than female, that some were stabbed rather than shot, which seems to complicate the simple narratives that emerged initially. But there’s no doubt that (a) his manifesto is overwhelmingly driven by a hatred of women – his hatred of men is linked to it, he wants revenge on men who have had more ‘success’ than he has with women, that (b) he was looking for women to attack and (c) three of his victims might be alive if he hadn’t been able to supply himself with guns and ammunition. It’s also clear that those who are trying to make him a hero, a ‘legend’, see him as someone fighting back against the bitches, the monstrous regiment of women. Sarah Ditum’s blog puts this well:
I know completely that not all misogynists are spree killers. It is self-evident that misogyny is a necessary but not sufficient condition for cases like this to occur, and that sufficiency must include the availability of weapons (a hammer will do) and the existence of particular psychological states. This is obvious. In fact, it is so obvious that I wonder why anyone would think it in any way complicates our understanding of Rodger’s motivation, because none of it alters the fact that misogyny exists and causes violence.
Not all misogynists kill. But all misogyny creates the conditions in which women are killed, raped and abused, and in which women fear being killed, raped or abused. This is not complicated. It is simple, it is deadly, and it is the reason feminism is necessary.
Not all dickheads are misogynists, but on the whole, men who like women, like them as people, recognise them as being human in exactly the same way they are, don’t behave like dickheads towards them. The men who represent a threat to us are the ones who don’t like women because they’re women, whether or not they are sexually attracted to them. Those who aren’t interested in women sexually and who don’t like them probably represent less of a threat to us in terms of violence but a considerable threat in terms of institutionalised sexism. Those who desire women sexually but do not recognise them as people are extremely dangerous, as the Isla Vista killings have reminded us (as if we needed it). One has only to read below the line on any article on any remotely feminist topic to be stunned by the venom directed at us, and how it is expressed in such highly sexualised terms.
The internet, which has allowed misogynists to vent their vileness at any woman who speaks out publicly, with anonymity and a potentially vast audience, may seem to be a threat. But it is also enabling us to support each other, to hear others’ voices and experiences, and to spread our challenges to sexist and misogynist views out to that same potentially vast audience. It’s scary to do so – just think of the kind of attacks that were meted out to Caroline Criado Perez who had the temerity to propose that a woman might feature on just one of our bank notes, or those who supported her campaign. But we can use it, and we must. And if the men who might be tempted to jump in with a ‘not all men’ instead focus on challenging the behaviour of those other men, the ones who catcall and grope and harass, the ones who belittle and dismiss and demean, the ones who hate women, then we really could start changing things. If the men who might be tempted to criticise our tactics and our priorities when we decide to speak out, back us up instead, then we really could start changing things.
Drawing attention to everyday sexism is not about embracing victimhood. Quite the reverse. We accept the status of victims when we keep quiet, internalise our fear and distress, blame ourselves for what others do to us – which we do for a host of reasons that are all too easy to understand. When we shout back, when we say out loud and in public, on our own behalf or in defence of others, THIS IS NOT OK, we reject victimhood, we become ourselves and take charge of our lives.
To quote Maya Angelou, who died today after a life of bearing witness and fulfilling her own ambition ‘not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style’,
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
She also said that
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
To quote Laura Bates, ‘the thing about sexism is that it is an eminently solvable problem’. The first step, which is the focus of the project, is to force people to recognise that it’s a real problem. That recognition in itself could be a huge cultural shift. And if anyone thinks such huge cultural shifts don’t happen, or take generations, just think of civil partnerships/gay marriage. Ten years ago I would not have believed that such a change could come about in my lifetime, and the amazing thing is not just that these things are now enshrined in law, but that there has been so little fuss, so little outrage, and that most of what fuss and outrage there was has been perceived by most people as, more than anything, daft.
To redirect the flow of a river, you start by moving small stones. That’s what this project is about – small stones such as each individual testimony that appears on the website and on Twitter, each moment when someone challenges sexism in the workplace, the family, on the street.
We’re speaking out, we’re shouting back, we’re reaching out to each other, we’re choosing not to be victims, or bystanders. We’re saying that whilst these examples of sexism are ‘everyday’, they’re not normal, and they’re not OK. Everyday resistance, everyday solidarity.
Laura Bates – Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster, 2014)