Since Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as an alleged serial sexual predator, women of all walks of life have felt encouraged to share their experiences of sexual harassment via the #MeToo social media hashtag. It has been used millions of times on social media. Breaking the silence on sexual harassment and abuse has been mostly welcomed but a recurring question has been asked - why has it taken women so long to speak up?
It is almost a century since women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote in the UK and almost 90 years since women over the age of 21 were permitted to vote. In 1919, when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed, women were also allowed to practice law and The Equal Pay Act 1970 prohibited any less favourable treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment.
Yet, despite all these advances in equality, it still takes a multitude of women to report the sexual abuse of a single man before it is acknowledged and investigated properly. Understanding that silencing victims is part of the abuse is key to ensuring the recent heightened awareness is sustained, and that we will one day be able to look back on current events as a turning point for victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
Following the public revelations in 2012 about the decades of abuse by Jimmy Savile, Dame Janet Smith’s review into the BBC’s serious failings found that girls who dared to complain about being sexually assaulted were regarded as a nuisance and that the culture of reference and fear towards celebrities still exists today.
Since then, a host of other celebrities have been accused of sexual harassment and abuse by women whom we can assume were previously afraid of reporting the incidents, for fear of their allegations not being taken seriously. Certainly, the high rate of abuse cases that have not led to investigations, disciplinary actions, or prosecutions, or have resulted in the accused being acquitted, reinforces victims’ fear that the system is not on their side.
Mr Weinstein allegedly silenced his victims with threats to ruin their careers, promises to boost their careers, or with large pay-offs. Whether it is the money, promises, fear of retribution or not being believed, the result has been the same: fear and silence. Even when the women concerned are in prominent, high-profile positions, they fear their careers and reputations will be ruined if they speak out.
The denial of the Roger Ailes’ allegations at Fox News, accompanied by assertions that the victims continued working with him and publicly praised him, demonstrates the power wielded over victims - forcing them to shut their experiences away to continue to work in a male-dominated world.
Organisations ignore victims, bully them into silence, shut them down with settlements and turn a blind eye to the perpetrators, falling back on excuses that “boys will be boys” or “It’s just a bit of fun”, normalising the victimisation of women at work. The latest revelations of abuse of women victims in Parliament who until now have also remained silent, shows how overpowering this form of oppression is - silencing those whose central role is to give voice to the voiceless. Sexual harassment is happening to women in every workplace. A 2016 study by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) in the US found that 75% of workplace harassment victims experienced retaliation when they spoke out about the abuse. In the UK, a poll conducted by Opinium Research revealed that although over a quarter of women claim to have been victims of sexual harassment at work, it is still widely unreported.
As Arundhati Roy said: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”*
We all have a part to play. To not turn a blind eye to, and to call out, abusive conduct. To support victims but above all to listen.
Useful helplines and websites:
- Victim Support - Visit victimsupport.org.uk or call 0808 168 9111 Sexual Abuse Referral Centres - Find a SARC
- Rape Crisis - Visit rapecrisis.org.uk or call 0808 802 9999 The Rape and Abuse Line - Visit rapeandabuseline.co.uk or call 0808 800 0123 (answered by women) or 0808 800 0122 (answered by men).