Thursday, 25 January 2018

A tide is turning

Every other day it seems some new scandal of sexual harassment comes out. It’s interesting. Or tiring. Or dull. Or scary. It depends on your perspective.

Most people agree that the serious sexual offenders who have used women’s sexuality against them, manipulated them, blackmailed them with jobs for favours, should be discredited. They shouldn’t get away with it (although it disconcerts me that people are being sentenced without a trial).

Then there’s #MeToo – with women across the world using social media to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment. Some call it standing up for ourselves, others call it whingeing.

A lot of men, and maybe some women are confused by this. I can see why. Do men feel that women are looking for any excuse to take them down? Is this a chance to get at men? Are we blowing things out of proportion? 

Maybe there will be the odd false accusation – isn’t there with everything? But I think the truth of it is that there is and always has been a horrible culture of treating women and their bodies as objects. It’s something that every woman experiences to a greater or lesser extent. And now we are at one of those rare moments in history where we rise up and shout that it’s not fair, that it shouldn’t be like this.

I once knew someone who admitted to occasionally copping a feel in the odd nightclub crowd. And then someone else did it to his girlfriend. That put a different perspective on it, and he stopped. The problem? He hadn’t thought it through. It simply hadn’t occurred to him how his actions affected the person, and how he would feel if someone did the same to the women he was close to.

Legs by dsasso, via Flickr Creative Commons

Having your bum pinched isn’t as significant as other forms of sexual assault. It’s a long way from rape. I mean, it’s really not that bad. You feel a sense of indignation for about ten minutes and then you move on, because you don’t know who it was and your bum has basically recovered from the affront. Where it’s scary is not in the action itself, but when it’s used as manipulation, to imply that you’re getting a job because you’re pretty, or worse, that more is expected of you. Or a dress code that says you have to wear black underwear and stilettos to do this job. It’s a sign of a culture where men see women as objects for their delight and delectation, not as people like them.

If people feel confused and threatened by the turning tide, is it that they don’t understand how widespread and unpleasant sexual harassment is? Do they understand that their wives and daughters have experienced it? Do they think it doesn’t matter?

I'm delighted that there is now a chance my daughter could grow up in a culture in which no one thinks it’s their right to touch her body without her consent, to see her as an object. I want what she does with her body to be her decision, not somebody else’s right.

But this is a dramatic culture change in the way that women are perceived, both by ourselves and each other. It was never going to be an easy transition. Maybe the current vogue for harassment stories will be just a tiny chip in the iceberg of inequality. But, just maybe, it is helping us get to a place of greater freedom and respect for ourselves and our bodies.