“Don’t make such a fuss…” “It’s not a big deal…” “Stop overreacting.”
These objections are a huge part of the reason why gender imbalance remains so entrenched in UK society. We do not take it seriously. We are not prepared to listen to its victims. We would rather dismiss its very existence than tackle it at its roots.
A recent entry to the Everyday Sexism Project reads: “I have become so used to cat-calls, offensive jokes and even being followed that it doesn't really register as a serious thing to me any more. I've been trapped by guys who have pushed me up against walls or grabbed my wrists in order to get attention. You can't go out without being grabbed or have comments made about you or your friends. Even writing this now I am embarrassed because I feel like I'm making a big deal about nothing.”
A YouGov survey for the End Violence Against Women Coalition earlier this year revealed that nearly half of young women in London have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. And yet, in a country where 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year, a popular daytime television program ran a debate last month asking whether men pinching women’s bottoms was actually just “a bit of fun”. That an activity that some victims would clearly describe as sexual touching without consent, (the UK legal definition of sexual assault) can be debated and potentially dismissed as ‘harmless’ on national television in this flippant manner is testament to the public acceptability of sexism.
Meanwhile even as the BBC grapples with claims of a former culture of endemic harassment, its Cumbria division saw no problem with producing a debate this week on the topic “If you could have a Filipino woman, why would you want a Cumbrian one?” Confronted with hundreds of complaints, it still took the broadcaster hours to issue an apology, which utterly missed the point, expressing regret not for the topic itself, but merely for the lack of context: “Our earlier tweet was inappropriate. It did not explain the context of the programme and was offensive. We sincerely apologise.”
Producer Steven Greaves even helpfully elaborated, explaining “it’s come from a Cumbrian man…he thinks…that if he stays in the UK and uses dating sites all he’ll end up with is a 50 year old widow with six kids. Filipino girls are…better and younger. He can get himself a 20 year old.” Using no quotation marks, these explanations suggested that for the publicly funded broadcaster to entertain and debate the racist and sexist premise was not offensive in itself – as long as listeners understood the opinion was that of an interviewee, not the corporation. Greaves later tweeted: “I apologise for causing offence today on Twitter. I did not intend to cause upset and they were in no way my personal views or the BBC’s.” Yet it was the very act of picking up the prejudiced notion and suggesting it was a valid opinion for public debate that was so offensive, something the BBC utterly failed to acknowledge.
In the same week, a new Playstation Vita advert appeared in a French magazine, featuring an image of a woman with two pairs of breasts, one on her front and one on her back. The advert’s creators clearly felt a head was surplus to requirements. Meanwhile, Ryanair launched a new series of adverts near-identical to those ruled against by the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland just nine months ago, featuring an image from its all-female bikini cabin crew calendar, with the tagline “Red hot fares and crew!” And ASDA unveiled its Christmas television advert, with the tagline “Behind every great Christmas, there’s Mum”.
Meanwhile, Labour MP Austin Mitchell directed public sexist abuse towards former MP Louise Mensch in a tirade reading: “Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn't disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn't lie about why she quit politics”. The message appeared on the politician’s Twitter feed, Facebook page and official website, yet despite the horrified reactions of hundreds of voters contacting the Labour party there has been no public apology or withdrawal. Indeed, Mitchell later tweeted his apparent amusement at the public anger, saying “Calm down dears”; presumably a deliberate reference to David Cameron’s sexist comment to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons. He later added “Has the all clear siren gone? Has the Menschivick bombardment stopped?”
Not all of these events are devastatingly serious. Objections to several of them might meet with the ubiquitous “Don’t make such a fuss…” “It’s not a big deal…” “Stop overreacting.” Yes, the TV show discussing bottom pinching might have gone on to have a sensitive discussion defending women’s rights; BBC Cumbria might have showcased opposing views in its show; Mitchell might have been making a dismal attempt at ironic humour. But what other prejudice could be aired so clearly and frequently with so little redress? It is hard to imagine Mitchell’s ‘joke’ going un-rebuked by his party leaders had it featured a comparably vitriolic class slur (such as that which led to the recent resignation of another Mitchell), or the Wright Stuff debating whether or not a crime like theft or drink driving was just a ‘bit of fun’. A week like this one is unremarkable. It simply confirms that sexism is a socially acceptable prejudice.