Over the past month, allegations about sexual abuse have rocked Hollywood, the media and now Parliament. What was once considered part and parcel of the workplace – a grope here and a sexist comment there – is being queried and challenged. Courageous women have collectively put their head above the parapet and shared their experiences of wide-ranging abuse in professional contexts. In doing so, they are redefining the acceptability of men exercising power and privilege over women who often find themselves in subordinate positions. This has the capacity to be a watershed moment for gender equality. But, with almost clockwork inevitability, a backlash has ensued, with members of Parliament and some sections of the press branding the movement a “witch hunt”.
The choice of terminology, “witch hunt”, is highly instructive. Demeaning women’s lived experiences of abuse to accusations of a “witch hunt” is a reactionary attempt from members of Parliament to Donald Trump to conceal structural inequality. The language of “witches” and “hunts” is in itself sexist – after all, how many male witches have you come across? The term is intentionally used by the powerful to convey visceral images of hysterical women hunted, tried by death and burnt at the stake before their community.
Centuries ago, “witch” was used to describe an evil and otherworldly oppressor, who was put on trial due to people’s irrational fears that they could become victim to women’s black magic. Today, women are still portrayed as “witches” possessing sexually-potent power, condemning men to victimhood. The term is used to portray perpetrators of abuse as unwitting victims to a modern and sophisticated cult of feminist troublemakers. In an unusual twist, men who put women on trial for being witches historically are now defining themselves as victims. Victimhood in masculinity has gained currency with resounding arguments that feminism is defunct and the opposite sex is now the real victim.
But men are not victims of a moral panic; they are being held to account for sexual harassment, abuse and rape.
Two Halloweens ago now, I took a trip from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Salem. It was a surreal experience: Inordinate sums of money spent visiting former homes of witches while graveyards are transformed into tourist attractions. In the 17th century, it wasn’t such a quaint town – around 19 people were hanged after claims they were bewitched by the devil. Typically these women were unconventional; they may have been childless and unmarried at an age when such expectations were the norm; they may have had a bad reputation and “questionable” – in other words, unconventional – morals.
Joan of Arc and Anne Boleyn are two controversial women who sought power in patriarchal societies and were condemned as witches. Joan of Arc in the 15th century commanded a French army of men to many victories. Dressed as a man reportedly to protect herself from the male gaze, Joan of Arc’s defeated opponents thought she was a witch in disguise. Both women met a tragic end: Burnt at the stake and beheaded.
In the past, women were symbolically burnt at the stake or drowned in a public spectacle. French philosopher Michel Foucault contends that Western penal systems historically performed punishment in public as a method of deploying power over a community who were taught that non-conformity results in brutal consequences. In a more civilised society, women are today put on trial by media with vultures picking apart their personal history, which is transformed into sensational headlines. The purpose is to cast doubt on women’s credibility. Stale and regressive questioning of women’s conduct is the focus of all daytime talk shows, from “have sexual accusations gone too far?” to “why didn’t women speak out earlier?”
The relentless, unsparing, voyeuristic scrutiny of women’s behaviour maintains power over them, as women are expected to justify their actions when they do not conform to a script of how women ought to act when sexually abused, a script shaped by hegemonic male power. Kate Maltby experienced reprisals after going public with Damian Green’s alleged inappropriate behaviour towards her. Jan Moir, writing for the Daily Mail, referred to Maltby as a “pushy lady,” “poison” and “disingenuous”.
The cost of women speaking out is high – personal onslaughts, vitriol and threats to career advancement. It begs the question: Why would women speak out, rather than why don’t they? Centuries ago women were warned against non-conformity with the threat of public execution. Today, women who dare challenge the dysfunctional status quo do so at risk of public character assassination and ridicule.
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