How many women have you met that don’t have a grim story in which a man made them feel intimated and/or acted violently against them? I pose this question without needing the answer, statistics prove that the majority will.
When I began to plan this piece, I started by unravelling my experience as a woman in a male world. My journey with toxic male behaviour is not out of the ordinary; I experienced some casual sexism in school, a sexual assault when I was 13, adolescence; and, eventually, I entered the scary world of dating. Reflecting on my experience thus far, can be at times harrowing, but what’s worse is it is totally unremarkable.
Having recently become single, I have been thrown into the deep end, naively and perhaps dangerously not truly understanding the interconnectedness between my university life, dating, travelling, and unfortunately male violence and exploitation of power. Having been in a relationship with a woman for over a year, exploitation of power came in a different form, instead, it was a hypersexualisation of my relationship, a glorification of our apparent exotic bisexuality.
I’ve even had an ex-partner claim credit for my sexuality; he was somehow proud that his awful behaviour had “put me off men”. To my deepest regret, it has not. But what this did was shelter me from what was to come when I did eventually come out of that relationship into a dating pool of men, and women.
This is not to say when I was in a relationship, I was suddenly in a bubble of safety completely amiss from inappropriate behaviour, but I had been cushioned by my monogamy. Only days into increased clubbing and meeting new people I found a fascination with the norms that have been created in society regarding male behaviour: inappropriate touching in clubs, entitlement, victimisation when they are called out for their toxic actions.
Now I should say, before the “Not All Men” hashtags start to flood in, while I am angry, unwaveringly so, I don’t hate men – but I do hate the conditions that our society has created which have meant that male exploitation and inappropriate behaviour is the norm.
Before this is disputed, I will utter one name: Donald Trump. While the US president is no apple fallen far from the tree (there’s a history of US leaders displaying toxic behaviour towards women), his election was a reminder: men in positions of power become exempt from accountability.
This locker room jail-free card is a kick in the teeth to any woman who has been on the receiving end of such behaviour. Whether men like to admit it or not, women walk home with keys between their knuckles, women are killed every week by partners, and women are scared to exist.
I was struck to talk about this when I messaged a good friend of mine, anxiously asking for advice as I walked to my accommodation in Athens (I was travelling alone). The walk was down an unfamiliar and crowded street of men eager to harass me, make comments about my appearance and even physically stop me in the street.
It was horrifying, of course, but what was worse was the normality of the conversation I had with my friend. In no way was she shocked by the comments I was making. Her response was more “these are the things you have to do in this situation”; because the reality is the power imbalances that thrive in our society teach women to learn how to protect themselves, instead of teaching men to do better. This conversation encouraged me to think about my own house. The Labour Party.
The Labour Party has a history of leading the fight for equality, ensuring women and minority groups are safeguarded in society – but I am beginning to question how long we can stand on our robust history whilst we repeatedly let women down.
I am ashamed that some people in positions of power, men and women, have decided to prioritise personal relationships over truly protecting those vulnerable in our movement. Whilst motions are passed and statements made move us in the correct direction, this has merely acted as a plaster on a gaping hole in our party’s morality.
The cracks are beginning to show, and it can no longer be justified. The exploitation of power comes in all shapes and sizes and if being in such a position strips you of your morality, then quit. Women deserve better.
If we truly want a society free of toxic male behaviour, we need to start by criticising ourselves and the mistakes we are making. The Labour Party needs an independent body to deal with sexual harassment complaints and anyone who would protect an abuser because it is politically expedient for them to do so needs to seriously question how they are at all Labour in their values.
I am angry, sometimes scared, and like every woman, I wake up in a world where I am very aware of my vulnerability. I’ll say it again:
I don’t want to walk home with keys between my knuckles.
If we sit back and let even casual misogyny permeate our own party structures, then how do we expect society to change? We must do better, or we become a spineless party, and not one I could call my political home.
Elsie Greenwood is co-chair of LGBT+ Labour Scotland
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