Join the conversation

On Wednesday 7th March, Sheffield Hallam University will be hosting a conversation on sexual harassment with a special guest lecture by Professor Vanita Sudaram; a conversation that is vitally necessary. 

Our Mel are also joining the conversation the previous evening, with a women’s empowerment event as a response to the #MeToo movement. Five months on since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were first raised, women have been making it crystal clear that our tolerance of a sexually abusive culture has finally run out. From the 84 Weinstein tormented, to Westminster’s tired MPs, to women in every office across the West. Time is indeed up, and in solidarity we stand. The #MeToo movement highlighted the universality of the experiences detailed in Hollywood, and now organisations such as TimesUp are working to offer the movement a social and financial voice. Women are stepping up.

Yet active conversations, such as SheFest’s upcoming events, are still crucially needed. Why? Because men are, by and large, still failing to step up.

The male reaction has been, to say the least, underwhelming. At home, talking to male friends on the subject will get you a shake of the head, and a “um yeah… these women’s stories are important…”. In the media, we’re faring no better. January’s Golden Globes saw men opting to wear black suits and TimesUp pin-badges – a courageous act indeed. Or perhaps a well-judged choice to remain passive.  Similarly, February’s Brit Awards had attendants wearing white rose badges, but support of the TimesUp movement clung stubbornly to these performative actions, never pushing for more.

Some have been more agitated to act. Indeed, Matt Damon even deemed his reaction so important that he thought it acceptable to mansplain the situation. His December summary of the “spectrum” of sexual harassment, and subsequent revelation that the media should be celebrating the marvellous work of men who’ve somehow found the strength to refrain from harassing women, is pretty disturbing. Ian McKellen’s comments were equally destructive, claiming at an Oxford Union talk that he knew of women offering sex in exchange for roles in the 1960s. Woody Allen and Liam Neeson’s repetitive use of the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ is, again, offensively frustrating.

Whether passive or engaged, all such reactions are simply inadequate.

Such reactions underestimate the effect systematic abuse has on women.

Such reactions contrive a world in which women are equally at fault for men’s actions.

Such reactions hold absolutely no consequences for men’s reputations or careers.

Such reactions neglect the universality of the experiences detailed by the women in Hollywood.

Such reactions are not apologies.

Damon’s attempts to compare rape to the act of groping demonstrates how far he is from understanding the conversation. Whilst we are ever so grateful to Matt for explaining such a difficult concept, the fact that is that most straight white men haven’t experienced the daily grind of oppression, and therefore will find it difficult to truly empathise. A daily attack on your identity is toxic, insidiously generating a universal acceptance of the subjugation of women as sexual objects. The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson’s comparison – “death by a thousand cuts”- perfectly encapsulates the exhaustion sexual harassment induces.

McKellen’s claims imply that the male abuse of power is rooted in a time when women themselves used sex as a part of the industry. Are we supposed to believe that male-dominance was not prevalent and aggressively raging in these industries back in the 1960’s?  Are we supposed to be blaming such women, these immoral figures who created the atmosphere that women today must live with? I think not. A world in which we blame women of any generation for men’s actions is not a world that ensures men take responsibility for changing their own behaviour.

Speaking out against or rejecting sexual harassment has cost numerous women their jobs (take Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd), thus making women’s solidarity seen first at the Golden Globes a triumph of courage. Indeed, Natalie Portman’s swift attack on the institutional sexism of the Awards– “and here are the all-male nominees” – could have very easily cost her vital relationships with production companies and directors alike. Women have shown themselves to be unapologetically willing to gamble their careers for the greater good, and yet men have consistently failed to use their moments in the limelight to do the same, despite the onus being on men to enact change. Yes, men have worn black, displayed ‘TimesUp’ badges, and politely applauded the women speaking out. But they don’t deserve a pat on the back. A half-arsed cheer of support is not quite the same as Natalie Portman’s massive ‘fuck you’ to the establishment. A nod of commiseration as a reaction to decades of institutionalised sexual harassment doesn’t change anything.

The existence of this abusive culture affects too many daily decisions for too many women, from outfits chosen to colleagues avoided. It’s holding keys between your knuckles as you walk in the dark and the thousands of texts you’ve sent telling your friends that you got home safe. If these are daily decisions for women, it is male behaviour that’s causing it. Why, then, aren’t men addressing recent revelations in the context of their own relevance? Celebrating a man’s ability to not harass women does not even compute when it is clear that only a tiny percentage of men are actually engaging with their own behaviour.

The majority of women have experienced the feeling of being humiliated, uncomfortable or trapped. Yet the scope of the male reaction doesn’t equate to such wide scale abuse. We are currently waiting on many an apology. Harvey Weinstein is not a bad apple. We are not in the process of weeding out the few vicious men who don’t know how to behave themselves. We are in the process of establishing that our culture is one in which many men are capable of abusing their power. So where is the #ThatWasMe, or how about a #I’mSorry?

The reaction we really, truly, need is a commitment to progress. An active effort to listen. The ability to realise that if a woman is saying she feels/has felt uncomfortable or sexually exploited, the correct course of action is to focus absolutely on aiding that woman.

The problem is that, currently, the conversation we’re having on sexual harassment is very one-sided. Women are screaming for change whilst men fail to engage. Defensive excuses and wilful ignorance change nothing. The ‘witch-hunt’ complaints only establish that men are focusing primarily on the consequences for themselves, and not on the voices of abused women.

If we are to make progress and prevent future decades of the same behaviour, women need to be listened to. Carefully. And men need to fully accept their transgressions, whatever the consequences.

So please, stop standing around with your dicks in your hands, and join the conversation.

ALEX KINCH

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHORS AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT OR REFLECT THE VIEWS OF SHEFEST

Katy Carlisle