As a feminist, I tend to be in favour of women raising their voices on the topic of sexual harassment. Nonetheless, there are moments when I can’t help wishing that certain women would just keep schtum.
Take Anne Robinson, for instance. In response to increasing numbers of women speaking out about sexual harassment, the presenter has complained of “a sort of fragility among women who aren’t able to cope with the treachery of the workplace”. The implication seems to be that some of us just need to toughen up and, um, not say anything (always the most courageous course of action, I find).
Then there’s Julia Hartley-Brewer. In response to Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon admitting to touching Hartley-Brewer’s knee in 2002, the radio presenter has said she does not consider herself to have been a victim of sexual harassment. In a written statement, she has argued that it would be “absurd and wrong to treat workplace banter and flirting – and even misjudged sexual overtures – between consenting adults as equivalent to serious sexual harassment or assault. It demeans genuine victims of real offences.” Well, thanks for that, Julia. I’m sure knee-gropers everywhere appreciate your support.
While it’s for every woman to decide for herself how much an incident has affected her, there’s something quite dismaying about hearing a woman accuse others of overreacting to sexism. The groundswell of women’s voices saying #MeToo has all too quickly been met with claims that we now have a “witch hunt atmosphere”, in which innocent men can fall victim to women intent on over-interpreting each and every gesture.
Yet as many of us can testify, the problem isn’t over-interpretation at all; it’s that we spend our lives normalising speech, acts and images that ought to be challenged more often.
To some this appears to be a generational issue (Robinson is 73, Hartley-Brewer 49). Their exasperation seems to be aimed at younger women in particular, these special snowflakes who apparently complain at the slightest provocation. If Robinson and Hartley-Brewer can cope, why can’t you?
I’d certainly agree that age plays a part. Then again, women signal their supposed nonchalance regarding sexism in different ways according to generational norms. There’s not just the older woman who tells you “no one made a fuss in my day”; there’s the younger woman who dismisses anxiety over pornography and exploitation as out-of-date prudishness. As Ariel Levy puts it in Female Chauvinist Pigs, “nobody wants to be the frump at the back of the room anymore, the ghost of women past”.
A recent piece by the Times’ Janice Turner explores this tension beautifully. Turner describes meeting with a younger companion who “abhors a man’s hand resting on her wrist” yet “sees no harm in aggressive porn being pumped unfiltered into every home, or men visiting German legal mega-brothels for an ‘all you can f***’ deal of unlimited women”.
Which of the two is the sell-out? The older woman who laughs off leering, groping colleagues, or the younger one who won’t dare say a word against the billion-pound porn industry? Or could one not say both are simply forced to pick their battles, and do so in response to the cultural conditions around them?
There’s a scene in Emma Cline’s The Girls when the narrator, Evie, tries to persuade Sasha, a younger woman with whom she thinks she has bonded, that Sasha doesn’t have to bare her breasts for her boyfriend Julian and his friend:
“You don’t have to,” I said to her.
Sasha flicked her eyes in my direction. “It isn’t a big deal or anything,” she said, her tone dripping with cool, obvious disdain. She plucked her neckline away from her chest and looked pensively down her shirt.
“See?” Julian said, smiling hard at me. “Listen to Sasha.”
Here Sasha is every cool girl feminist who glibly dismisses concerns over pornification as middle-aged prudery. She’s also every middle-aged feminist who dismisses the odd grope from a colleague as “just the way things are”. These are two sides of the same coin. The winner, in both cases, is the man who gets to insist, like Julian, that all women ought to be as chilled about misogyny as this one (as for me, at 42 I seem to be at that intersection where a woman can get annoyed about everything or nothing – and quite clearly I’ve plumped for the former).
However tempting it is, there’s no point in hating the woman who seems to undermine the feminist cause by announcing that she’s not bothered by sexism, so why should you be? It might look like she’s winning approval by mocking other women’s pain, but when it comes to patriarchy, we’re all in this together.
As Levy noted: “Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will still always be like a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too.” This applies to Anne Robinson and Julia Hartley-Brewer as much as it does to the rest of us.
The truth is that men will cheer you on when you make light of their entitlement. Maybe next time they’ll even pat you on the back before they reach for your breast or inner thigh. The gain is short-term only.
For real change we need to be willing to ask for more and the only way we can gain the courage to do this is by supporting one another. So yes, sometimes I think I’d like certain women to be silent. But really what I’d like is what we’d all like – just for men to stop.
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