Content notice: this article mentions sexual violence, sexual harassment, and rape.
I want a rant. I want 2 hours with a microphone and some PowerPoint slides. But I have a sneaking suspicion that’s exactly the kind of reaction you wanted from a snowflakey-leftie-feminist-killjoy like me when you wrote your article on the failures of the
#MeToo movement. Also there’s this very generous part of me that’s saying I should keep things civil, because I genuinely do want you to learn something about sexual violence before you try writing about it again. So here goes. The response. The polite, calm, logical breakdown of exactly where and when you missed the point by a country mile. This is me, asking you very nicely not to expect the entire feminist movement to revolve around your experience of the world.
First things first, let’s talk about hysteria. Or rather, ‘unnecessary hysteria about sexual harassment’ that risks ‘instilling fear in men’. I’m pretty hysterical, shocked, distressed, and outraged at the widespread normalisation of sexual harassment, so pervasive that it has infiltrated industries from comedy to politics. I am hysterical that the victims of rape and sexual assault have remained unheard for so long. I am hysterical that powerful and wealthy men used their power and wealth to abuse and silence them. I am hysterical that they are forced to share their stories on Twitter because they have been routinely and systematically failed by the mainstream media and our judicial systems. This outrage is not only perfectly reasonable but necessary, if we are to counter the historic indifference to what you call ‘trivial’ acts.
And here’s the perfectly terrifying part of your original piece: your separation between the ‘true victims – of domestic rape, of child abuse, of genuine sexual violence’ and the ‘trivial’ ones (people subject to ‘knee-brushing, staring and wolf-whistling’.) The argument is that we should all ignore the latter in order to help victims of the former. But what the article seems to classify as ‘genuine sexual violence’ (and I assume by this it is meant something dramatic and cinematic – dark alleyways and physical scars) does not occur in a vacuum.
It’s the little things – a hand on a knee, a comment that makes your skin crawl – that may seem superficially minor, but which contribute to a culture in which boundaries are transgressed, women aren’t believed, and men aren’t held accountable. #MeToo was started to demonstrate the scale of the issue: the majority of women have felt threatened or exploited or violated to some degree in their lifetime. It revealed a trend – a culturally ingrained normalisation of sexual assault and abuse.
A 2017 study from the Office of National Statistics estimated that more than 443,000 women had experienced at least one sexual assault involving indecent exposure or unwanted touching in the previous 12 months. An estimated 144,000 experienced rape or an attempted rape or assault by penetration. These rape figures do not even include non-heterosexual cases of rape or sexual assault. According to RAINN, one sixth of American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. The rates are higher for women of colour (according to a 2014 study, about 22% of Black women reported being raped and 41% experienced other forms of sexual violence.) On a more local level, Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room reported that across 153 UK universities, 62% of all students and recent graduates have experienced sexual violence, the majority of whom identify either as female, non-binary, or as having a disability.
These are not one-off incidents. These statistics reveal a systemic violence. They’re indicative of a wider culture of ignoring the need for consent, especially, it seems, when that consent is coming from a marginalised person. When the issue is so pervasive, so entrenched in our society, cases cannot be fought on an individual basis, by ‘sticking your middle finger up at him and moving on with your life’.
And this leads me to another fairly dangerous implication of your article: that victims and perpetrators of sexual violence are ‘other,’ and ‘normal people’ shouldn’t have to worry about such issues. It divides the world into groups: ‘the perpetrators get away with it scot-free… while the rest of the male population (who aren’t sexual predators) end up feeling paranoid, vilified, and afraid’.From this perspective, there are perpetrators and ‘the rest of the male population’. In the red corner ‘struggling victims of rape’ and in the blue corner ‘Hollywood actresses or Westminster MPs,’ as if the two categories are mutually exclusive. In the final words of advice (that we should ignore sexual harassment), you literally address ‘all men’ and ‘all women’ and then pass off the responsibility onto ‘the true villains who don’t care’. Who do you suggest these ‘true villains’ are?
This attitude is a by-product of rape culture, which serves to trivialise and normalise incidents of sexual assault. We insist the stories we hear were misunderstandings – ‘affectionate’ and ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour misconstrued by ‘paranoid’ women. When confronted with undeniable statistics or evidence of physical harm, we assume it must have happened to another kind of person, on another planet. If people conflate sexual violence with evil, they don’t identify themselves, their friends, or ‘good people’, as part of the problem.
The world is not divided into rapists and good people. This binary that we cling to is incredibly damaging: it stops people educating themselves about consent, it stops victims from coming forward, it stops us from believing accounts of abuse because we know the accused is a ‘good person’. It should not be shocking that someone who gives to charity, makes entertaining films, or has daughters is also capable of inflicting irreparable physical or psychological damage. To deny that a person can be both is to deny the scope and power of rape culture.
We cannot overestimate the power of seeing a victim speak out against a seemingly untouchable man and watching him fall. Far from hurting the ‘genuine’ or ‘struggling’ survivors you mention, high-profile cases like Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and Jimmy Savile remind us that rape culture persists in all walks of life. They give us someone to point at and say ‘Look! Will you believe me now?!’
And this brings me on to my final point about victim blaming and the article’s fear that a woman coming forward may ‘cost a politician his job’. This argument bizarrely credits the #MeToo movement with the failings of the legal system, a politician losing his job, and a woman having to go through a traumatic hearing. Whatever #MeToo has done (and there’s a valid argument to be made that it has overwritten black voices, or allowed media outlets to make salacious gossip out of victims’ pain) it did not ‘pressure Christine Blasey Ford into testifying’. It did not ‘force’ Damien Green to resign.
The article asks ‘What sort of a world are we living in when a casual show of affection is labelled as sexual harassment and costs a politician his job?’ To which I say, what kind of world are we living in when a man’s job (or even his misguided fear that he cannot ‘flirt, be gentlemanly or affectionate towards women’ in case he is ‘branded as [a] sexual predator’) is privileged over another’s right to live and work free from sexual harassment? It says to women, ‘don’t tweet ‘#MeToo’, don’t think to yourself I’ve been sexually harassed’. I suggest not telling victims how to process and express their experiences. It says it was ‘ridiculously’ just a brush of the knee. I refer you back to my paragraph on rape culture.
So, I maybe didn’t achieve my goal of keeping things friendly. In fact, reading this article you might be worried that the doom and gloom is going to ‘accentuate divisions and even encourage women to be afraid of the opposite sex’. Personally, I don’t think it’s Twitter that makes women afraid of sexual assault; I’m fairly certain it’s the rapists that are doing that. Your article blames ‘the view that sex is a danger’ on the #MeToo movement, forgetting that fear of emotional discomfort or physical pain in sexual experiences long predates 2017. It’s a fundamental part of the stories we share, the warnings to avoid certain creeps, the protective huddles in clubs, the looks we give, the promises to text when we’re home safe. All #MeToo has done is bring these whispers into the mainstream.