Posts Tagged Sexual harassment
‘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