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In the past few weeks, although there have been many useful conversations about sexual harassment, we can’t help but notice that some men still don’t seem to get what all the fuss is about. Others seem to be making attempts to engage, but can’t seem to do it in a productive way.
After taking stock of many recent responses to the issue of sexual harassment and assault, we have created a list of five ways it has been minimised in popular culture over the past few weeks, with explanations about why they are not ok. This isn’t about chastising men but helping them see why these remarks may hurt women in their lives – women who very likely have been harassed or assaulted themselves.
Example 1: John Humphrys
When interviewing Conservative peer William Hague about accusations that members of parliament had behaved inappropriately towards staff and others, the Radio 4 host asked if a “witch hunt” was underway, leading to a culture of accountability that has “gone too far”.
Why that’s a problem: By asking if “there is a danger that we could go too far in the other direction” and get to a point where “people will be afraid to ask somebody else out for the evening” or even get married, Humphrys can’t seem to see the seriousness of the problem here: not that society has ignored the systematic harassment of women, but that it is taking it too far, to the harm of men – the very ones who are doing the bulk of the harassing.
This is a classic tactic of denial and reversal. It’s difficult to see how a culture that is not actually accountable to rape victims has gone “too far”. The reversal, to turn men into victims, seems to be increasingly common via the spread of Men’s Rights Activist hate speech, particularly on social media.
Example 2: Alec Baldwin
Talking about the Harvey Weinstein case, the actor questioned whether a women who accepts financial settlements in return for her silence about an attack “sets back the cause” for others.
Why that’s a problem: Justice is not a straightforward concept. While most victims of sexual assault or harassment will no doubt look for this in one form or another, what this actually means can change from person to person.
As scholars have found, sharing their experiences, naming and shaming perpetrators, or in this case, accepting financial compensation, might in fact make women feel empowered, and give them a sense of justice – even one which sits outside normal state or legal frameworks. Indeed, perpetrators such as Weinstein – and their victims – are likely to be familiar with the dismissal of rape in criminal justice systems and turning to other means of testimony online through social media. Baldwin even acknowledged that he heard rumours about the case he was discussing in the interview. He did nothing to support the victim but still felt it legitimate to pass judgement on her and other victims.
Example 3: Ian Hislop
Dismissing “low level” harassment as unimportant has happened again and again, but most famously on quiz show Have I Got New for You when panellist Ian Hislop joked that some of the incidents being reported were hardly “high-level crime”.
Why that’s a problem: As comedian Jo Brand responded to Hislop, the acts themselves need not be “high-level” to have a serious impact on a person’s mental wellbeing. Our analysis of more than 800 posts to sites such as The Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback!, shows the harsh toll that sexism and harassment has on women. Through these sites, women report quitting their jobs to avoid being harassed, taking different routes to work or school and feeling afraid to go outside – no matter the time of day, or what they are wearing.
Example 4: Peter Hitchens
In his contribution to the debate, the Daily Mail journalist suggested that this situation has got so out of hand that the only safe way for men and women to socialise with each other will soon be for the former to sign consent forms or wear a niqab.
Why that’s a problem: As feminist activists have been saying for years, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex or lust, but power, control, domination and entitlement. These sorts of comments which sparked the global SlutWalk movement, which challenges the idea women can be blamed for being assaulted because of what they wore. Women are assaulted regardless of how they dress or look. Claims that “modest” clothing will protect women are simply wrong.
Example 5: Michael Gove
The environment secretary joked that being in the Today show studio with John Humphrys was like entering a bedroom with Harvey Weinstein – “you hope to emerge with your dignity intact”.
Why That’s a Problem: Rape jokes minimise the seriousness of rape and sexual assault, and the way it harms its victims. Gove’s joke above in fact blames victims by implying the women who spent time with Weinstein knew what might come, but carried on regardless. The phrase “dignity intact” is also sexually loaded linked to ideas of women’s sexual honour and virtue needing to be “intact” to have value.
This is really worrying, given Gove’s former role as education minister and recent figures which show almost one-third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school..
Rape and sexual violence are never funny. It. Is. Never. A. Joke. When we are thinking about the news reporting we see on sexual violence we need to try to ask the question: Who stands to gain by minimising or dismissing the allegations of women? The answer is simply their attackers.