THE BLOG

Solidarity And Speaking Out Are Vital, But It's Not Women's Responsibility To End Male Violence

18/10/2017 08:32 BST | Updated 18/10/2017 08:32 BST
Eric Gaillard / Reuters

Hollywood's celebration - dare I say, beatification - of Roman Polanski has long been a go-to rant topic for me. The idea that a man known to have drugged then orally, vaginally and anally raped a 13-year-old child should be publicly fawned over, despite never having served a sentence, makes me sick to my stomach. Indeed, my feelings about it are so strong that they almost led me to do the unthinkable this week: agree with Piers Morgan.

When I saw Morgan had called out Meryl Streep, one of Polanski's more vocal and visible defenders, for her hypocrisy in denouncing Harvey Weinstein, I couldn't help but feel he had a point. And of course, Donna Karan's references to women's behaviour as provocations to sexual violence were indefensible. And while I have respect for Mayim Bailik, her New York Times op-ed with its strong suggestion that only women who conform to societal ideals of beauty are at danger of sexual harassment and assault made me squirm. Because not only am I myself a wonky-toothed, five-foot-tall, not conventionally beautiful or skinny woman who's been on the receiving end of more unwanted and unsolicited sexual comments and behaviours than I can recount since adolescence, more importantly, after 13 years in the Rape Crisis movement, I know too well how sexual violence can and does affect women and girls, and indeed people, of all descriptions.

But my involvement with Rape Crisis has taught me other things too. Perhaps chief among them is the lesson that women are not responsible for male violence, or for ending it. Please don't misunderstand me; I entirely believe that sisterhood, solidarity and feminist activism have transformative powers. The Rape Crisis movement's vision is a world free from the fear and experience of sexual violence and Rape Crisis Centres across the country and indeed the world work towards that goal daily, by raising awareness and understanding and through specialist prevention and education work around consent, healthy relationships, respect and empathy. If I didn't believe this work effects real change, I wouldn't devote so much of my time towards it.

And when women and girls speak out en masse about their everyday experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as they have been doing over the last 48 hours through the #MeToo action, the effect is overwhelmingly powerful. Plus we know that when a survivor talks even to one person - a friend, a Rape Crisis helpline worker, a parent, a partner - and is truly heard, it can make all the difference to their well-being and recovery.

But I've always been wary of insisting survivors 'must' speak out, not least of all because Rape Crisis work is about supporting and empowering individuals to make the decisions and take the steps that feel right for them, not telling them what to do. And I refuse to draw distinctions between the 'brave' who are willing to speak and the silent or anonymous survivors, because there is no right or wrong way to be after sexual violence, and simply to survive it requires great strength and courage.

The #MeToo campaign and others like it undoubtedly expose and disrupt a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and male violence against women in which non-violent people of all genders have arguably been complicit. But survivors didn't cause that culture and they're not obliged to make sure it gets dismantled - only those who've contributed to and upheld it for their own benefit have that responsibility. In the same way, I might disagree with the Streeps or Karans, even feel they've made a bad situation worse, but I need to remember that they are not the abusers, the harassers, the assaulters, and that ultimately it's only those perpetrators who have the power to end sexual harassment and violence, by stopping it.

Footnotes:

• The #MeToo campaign is exposing the enormous scale of male violence against women and girls - the fact that the vast majority of women (as well as trans* and non-binary people) in our society have had multiple experiences of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault in their everyday lives, overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. This betrays a sexist, patriarchal culture that is to the detriment of all of us, regardless of sex or gender. It's in no way a denial that sexual violence can and does happen to men and boys, and just as serious and damaging. I'd personally be happy if those who don't identify as women or girls wanted to use #MeToo to speak out about their experiences of sexual violence. I would suggest, however, that a 'not all men' response to this campaign is an unconstructive one; of course it's true that not all men perpetrate sexual violence and harassment but what does derailing important conversations to state this achieve or add?

• Anyone whose lives have been affected by sexual violence of any kind at any time, regardless of whether or not they've told anyone, can find information and support at: www.rapecrisis.org.uk