We should aim for a society that allows young people to choose a life, not constrained by artificial gender stereotypes and free from gender driven policing – girls not defined in sexual currency, men free to nurture.
#MeToo is everywhere – how much is there and what is sexual harassment/bullying
"It does happen a lot, but people don’t think much of it anymore. It’s just like , Oh, that’s happened again’. People just kind of accept it.
Sexual harassment is everywhere, many women say that it is such an everyday event that it has become normal. I am writing about all sexual harassment wherever it takes place, in public spaces, in the workplace, in schools, in Universities and online. Much of the shock around the online collation of women's experiences that is #MeToo was the revelation that something most women knew from personal experience was in fact common to all. For those who had not experienced it (generally but not wholly men), the shock was in how it affects so many women around them. The birth of #MeToo came from the lack of anywhere else for women to tell these stories and certainly from a lack of reporting mechanisms through workplaces, the police and other institutions with a duty of care, that do any good.
Research survey data confirms international rates of with 80-90% of women report having ever experienced sexual harassment, including around 80% in the UK. This is a direct expression of how women are valued (how attractive they appear) and is experienced at different levels in different places but all part of what we can be described as a continuum of objectification. For many, it was only hearing or reading other women tell their stories that allowed them to see what has happened to them is not OK, normal or something to be excuse or explained away but something to be called out and stopped.
The way in which this continuum of objectification of women expresses itself in all our surroundings makes it hard to highlight individual acts from the background noise or cumulative effect of constant harassment that women say they experience. Importantly, it connects the milder forms of sexual bullying and threat such as cat calling or wolf whistling to the more serious sexual assaults, one is a direct reminder of the possibility of the other and a reminder that women are not safe and that they simply represent to the perpetrator a sexual object.
“ its also like, is sexualised street harassment a gateway? If you’re that type of person where you’re gonna say that, what would you do to me in a dark alley?”
Controversy often arises around the more ambiguous behaviours.
What does it look like?
As soon as definitions come into the frame, views tend to polarise around if ‘a hand on the knee’ is meaningful or menacing. This in turn makes the study of the field fraught with disagreement about what constitutes harassment and does not reflect how these acts were ‘meant/intended ’ or ‘felt’/experience. ‘Alright love’ can be expressed to mean 'shut up' or 'how are you'.
"I shout back ‘Keep dreaming.’ He answers back, telling me to ‘steady on’ and he calls me ‘love’.
It is something that can range from ordinary interruptions by male strangers, verbal intrusion, sexualised language (not necessarily ‘complimentary but also abusive e.g. 'slut'), non-verbal intrusion, staring/following, leering and blocking to overt sexual behaviour. Often, it is the mundanity of the behaviour that causes women problems in reporting and being taken seriously, was it 'just being friendly'?
"A few seconds later, he was standing next to me so he had run and followed me. He walked with me as I politely told him to “go away”. He asked where I was from and said I was being rude. He asked where I was going and I just said I was shopping and again told him to go away. He said he was going the same way as me so he decided to walk with me."
The majority (61% of men and 52% of women) of both sexes feel it is always/usually wrong for men to make unsolicited comments to women in public places and the younger or more educated you are, the more you hold that view. However, women and girls are taught to mistrust/ignore or play down their own instincts and question themselves when it happens, many saying they had told for example their mother whose reactions were often, 'it's just something that happens, get used to it'.
It follows that work to report and prosecute such behaviour is undermined by difficulties in definition. Recipients of such behaviour will talk about ‘creepy’ behaviour and it is hugely important to recognise the role of non-verbal communication in any human interaction but it is particularly neglected in the field of sex, sexual harassment and consent, dominated as it is by legal and therefore, very concrete or black and white attempts of defining or codifying offences.
"The offence was deemed as suspicious circumstance as opposed to assault as the man brushed against me as opposed to pinching me (that apparently was the difference). I was terrified of going home that night – convinced that I was being followed. I lived alone and was frightened of being home and frightened of going out too. I changed my behaviours and began walking beside or behind other women or families so that I wouldn’t be alone"(5)
What does it feel like?
That nature of the interaction that feels intrusive resists tight definition but is difference from normal social interaction in both the intruders intention and victims experience in being made to feel uncomfortable. Powerful reframing of standalone acts or ‘he said she said’ approaches has come about through the introduction some parts of the UK of misogynistic hate crime based on Macpherson definitions of a racist incident, i.e. what is the perception, harm and impact. These require police to consider the experience, from the point of view of the person to whom the behaviour was directed. Fifteen police forces are trialling misogynistic hate crime, that can encompass ”Being catcalled, whistled at or stopped for conversation by men who make me uncomfortable". Evaluation however points to a lack of publicity around the changes therefore limiting the initiatives ability to change perceptions until women come to actually report (10) so the evidence base for this work is not yet strong enough to prove any benefit.
Evidence of a lack of recognition of what makes behaviour sexual harassment and attempts to shift the focus to the victims perspective through terms such as 'unwanted behaviour' may have more meaning and as they can include the construction of the situation and non-verbal information. Others say this shifts the burden to victims to identify something as 'unwanted' which does not recognise intent on part of the perpetrator. The follow up question is therefore, if it was unwanted why did the victim not say so. There is something unspoken about the quality of sexual harassment that benefits from something very instinctive.
So let’s keep this simple,
"If it feels wrong it is wrong"
What do we call it?
Interruption, intrusion, confusion (did I invite that, should I react and escalate or ignore and get away) and discomfort. The impact of receiving such attention across all spaces and circumstances is examined in greater depth later. What shall we call it? Others have examined the history and meaning of what we call this set of behaviours so there is no need to reproduce this work but I prefer a term that communicates some of the intent behind it, Sexual Bullying and in case anyone doubted what why, sexual bullying to police gender. However, I use this interchangeably with sexual harassment. This is what I want to call it and my choice reflects where I am coming from. The same is true of others working, writing, policing and prosecuting and as such their words tell us about how they think about sexual harassment and bullying. No one has to use my words but me.
Whatever it is, the label should also encompass what men mean by it; as an expression of women as objects to comment on, have sex with and if they do not fit readily in to these two categories, then sexually bully. If we begin to dig underneath the broad brush prevalence statistics the fault lines of how such behaviour is targeted and where it is more prevalent begins to tells us more about an underlying story of gender and power.
Here is the crux of the matter and the intersection of by whom and where takes on a powerful dynamic. By those in power ‘mainly men’ against more vulnerable ‘mainly women’ (not exclusively and this does not take away from the reality of female perpetrators and male victims.
What to read the evidence? Click on the hyperlink.
Women and Equalities Select Committee Report on Sexual Harassment in Public Places
Rachel Parish/comedian - What is Sexual Harassment - https://youtu.be/TMfStd3v330