[Trigger warning: sexual harassment / assault]
We think we live in an “enlightened” society. We look back on the inequalities of the past, at how far we’ve come and I think just maybe we sometimes feel a teensy bit smug.
Don’t get me wrong – many, many things are much, much better than they were 100, 50, 25, even 10 years ago. This is a brilliant thing, brought about by countless brave pioneers and legions of unsung heroes.
But the war has not been won. There are still deep inequalities in our society and one of the biggest threats is the idea that we can somehow sit back and coast – that our society is somehow “done” – it is “equal”.
This is one of the reasons I am a feminist. Feminism is particularly important because it is an area where I think society at large is more than a little blind to the discrimination that is casually tolerated every single day. Challenging that will necessarily change the way we think, teach us to be more self-aware and to question things when we are told (explicitly or implicitly) that this is “just the way things are”. And that is a good thing for all types of inequality.
I’ve always seen myself as a liberal, open-minded individual — the kind of person who has their eyes open to injustice in the world around them. So it was honestly a bit of a shock when I realised there were significant issues staring me in the face that I hadn’t really thought twice about.
Now, I’m absolutely open to the suggestion that this was just me being a bit thick — I would be lying if I said I have never been slow off the mark with anything before. However, I think it is true that when society at large tolerates something, it becomes less visible as a problem. And, when you are on the privileged side of the equation — in this case, a cis male — it is even easier to overlook the imbalance.
I would imagine that most males have experienced a scenario something like this: a group of men are together, and discussion turns to a girlfriend / wife / sister / female colleague / friend etc. And one of the guys rolls his eyes and says something like “women, huh..?”. Personally, this kind of thing makes my skin crawl, but I suspect that the most common external reaction is for the others to stand around, laughing and slapping each other on the back as they casually belittle half of the human race, including many of those they love.
[Full disclosure: to my shame, in the past I haven’t always been brave enough to speak up and say words to the effect of “don’t be an asshole, that is sexist clap trap”. But nowadays, with a few more years behind me and a bit more confidence in myself, I will call it out when I encounter it, even if that is uncomfortable.]
Let’s consider a situation where, instead of a negative stereotype based on gender, the same attitude was taken with something else: say, race. What if the same guy was standing there rolling his eyes and saying “people with dark skin, huh?”. Now – to be clear – I am in no way trying to suggest that racism isn’t a problem, but my (subjective) feeling is that a statement like that would draw a much stronger reaction in most social groups. And, to me, that indicates that casual sexism is generally tolerated in our society in ways that other forms of prejudice are not.
Of course, there are also cases where a woman rolls her eyes and says “ugh, men!” and there are indeed examples in our society of men being characterised with negative stereotypes. However, the difference is that men are in a position of privilege and power, and have been — as far as we can tell — pretty much forever. Set against the not-very-distant-at-all history of women having fewer rights and largely being treated like mens’ possessions, comments like this from men are the tip of a much more malevolent iceberg.
Women are routinely and extensively objectified in society today. Those on magazine covers are almost exclusively shown full length, in skimpy clothing, and female politicians are described in terms of their weight or their clothing choices rather than their policies — there are examples everywhere you look, if you have your eyes open.
Now, I am not a prude. I don’t think pure physical / sexual attraction is a bad thing, by any means. It can feel great to have a mutual, “animal” lust between individuals – if you’ve felt that “we have to tear each others’ clothes off right now” thing, you’ll know that can be a pretty good feeling to have 😉 But, of course, it must be something that goes in both directions, and it has to happen in a safe, consenting way.
And taking that beyond a reciprocal, person-to-person interaction, to the point where physical appearance is some kind of yardstick for judging women in general — that is a very different thing. When that becomes the default, a woman’s body is depersonalised, reduced to an object, a possession. And before we know it, we are spiralling back to the dark ages we were so confident we had left behind.
Men – here is something you might find surprising: pretty much every woman you know has experienced sexual harassment or abuse. You can verify this anecdotally: ask the women in your life – I would wager every one of them has been catcalled, groped or worse. And I doubt any of them will express any surprise that the majority of women have experienced this.
According to the biggest study of its kind, covering more than 16,000 women across more than 20 countries, 84% of women have been catcalled before they are 18. Even more appalling, more than one in ten (13%) have experienced this by the time they are 10 years old. And once you reach the age of 40, there is practically nobody who has managed to avoid being subjected to this.
Frequently, this is brushed off by men as not a big deal, often with the implication that the woman is in the wrong for “taking it the wrong way” — that catcalling is somehow “a compliment”. It is not a compliment, it is sexual harassment.
Does anyone seriously believe that when some guy leans out of his van window and shouts “nice tits” across the street that the intent was somehow an altruistic act designed only to boost the self esteem of the woman in question? It’s obviously complete bullshit. If you really wanted to compliment a stranger on their appearance, it would look something like this:
[in a safe, public place, in a normal voice, at a respectful conversation distance]
“Hi, I hope this isn’t weird but I just wanted to say I really like your hair / hat / shirt / tattoo / etc. Where did you get it / who did it / etc. ?”
It doesn’t involve shouting, and it doesn’t involve approaching someone who is alone in a vulnerable situation. And, even then, there is still a risk of making that person feel uncomfortable. Just because no harm is intended, it doesn’t mean none will be caused and if you end up making that person feel awkward, that is your fault, not theirs.
Even if you aren’t convinced by this, even if you are of the belief that catcalling is harmless (even for 10 year olds), how about this: over half of the women surveyed globally reported that they had previously been groped. In the UK (where I live), over 60% had been groped or fondled within the past year.
Another study carried out in the US in 2014 found similar results, and also asked some more detailed questions. Here are some of the findings:
- Over half (nearly 57%) of women reported being touched or grabbed in a sexual way by a stranger in public. About a fifth (18%) said this had happened to them more than 5 times.
- Three quarters of female respondents had been followed by a stranger, with more than a quarter having been followed more than 5 times.
- Over 60% of women say their path has been deliberately blocked by a man at least once. Nearly a quarter (23%) said this had happened more than 5 times.
- More than a third (37%) of female respondents had a stranger masturbate at or in front of them at least once in public.
Look at the numbers: these are clearly not rare, isolated cases. And when such a significant proportion are affected it points to something far more systemic, something far more widespread than a handful of unpleasant individuals.
Now, I can’t rule out the possibility that I am being naively optimistic, but I still believe that the majority of men would react to all of this in the same way as me: that this situation is pretty fucking far from okay.
But the only way this changes is for people, especially men, to speak out. Tell people about these things that are going on around us, speak out against mysogyny, against casual sexualisation and objectification of women, and against negative stereotypes.
Because when this type of behaviour stops getting a laugh and instead repeatedly gets the response “dude, what the fuck?”, the realisation will eventually hit home that it is not okay. And that is the start of a change in thinking and a wider change in our society.
References / Further Reading:
[Note: this piece was originally published on Medium but I have decided to move key items directly onto my blog]