People often ask me what the most important feminist cause of our time is. We are nearly 100 years on from the fight for suffrage, the all-important movement that brought women the opportunity to represent ourselves at the ballot box. The end of the Second World War began to sway the battle to unchain women from the kitchen sink and participate fully in the workforce as earning citizens. Then the 60’s brought us sexual liberation with the invention of oral contraceptives, allowing us to control our own reproductive health. So what is the cause that unites us now?
If you have been keeping an eye on the news, you will have been watching powerful men pop like bottles shot at a firing range. We appear to finally be willing to examine the sexual harassment epidemic in public, and the consequence for such behaviour is no longer merely a sternly wagged finger about ‘bothering the secretaries’. In Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates and is now facing criminal investigation for his misconduct with scores of women. In Westminster ex-cabinet Minister Michael Fallon resigned as Defence Secretary over embarrassing harassment allegations and Mark Garnier is being investigated by the Cabinet Office for asking an aide to buy sex toys for him. But how relevant is this issue to those women who are furthest away from the power structures of society, often embodied in places like Hollywood and Westminster? How does this relate to young women, living in poor areas, where the sources of threat are less cabinet minister, and more local gang member?
What young women in London and in fact around the world, can tell you, is that sexual harassment is simply a symptom of a much larger problem. Young women know from a young age that the world is not constructed for them, and in order to succeed, they will have to play by the rules that men set. At Leap Confronting Conflict, we have recently launched a new project funded by the Fawcett Society, Spirit of 2012’s ‘Spirit of Women’ programme, and the Battersea Power Station Foundation, working with young women who are vulnerable to exploitation or are at risk of gang involvement in London. The Power Up! Programme supports young women to develop positive relationships with their peers and community, deal with conflict constructively and build their self-esteem.
The women we work with through focus groups, one-to-one work and group training, understand the power dynamics between men and women, with one participant telling us “the way the world puts it is girls are basically made for boys”. However, more disturbing than this, is the fact that the young women who are the most vulnerable or most entrenched in chaotic lifestyles are also the most accepting of this status quo.
The reason for this is simple. “You do what it takes to keep yourself safe.” Young women are resourceful, and in the face of the deep risks associated with being female in their environment, have adapted to their reality. And the best strategies for staying safe seem to fall into two camps – staying safe by adopting a more typically masculine street persona to gain respect, or keeping yourself safe by befriending or partnering a high status man. One participant labelled this as the difference between the ‘top girls’ and the ‘wannabes’ in a gang. ‘Top girls’ work like the boys, fighting, selling and running drugs, while ‘wannabes’ get passed from partner to partner. In both instances, proximity to males or maleness seem to equal either respect or safety.
The young women we work with are all too aware of the risks they face in their day to day lives, with one participant telling us that nearly every female friend she knows has been sexually assaulted. Rape and exploitation are terrifyingly normal occurrences for these young women. However in spite of this, they split victims into ‘good’ (i.e. undeserving) and ‘bad’ (i.e. deserving) categories, thereby entrenching widespread victim blaming narratives. But it is important to remember that all of these are survival tactics, strategies developed by resilient young women to cope with the realities of the world around them.
And the reality is that sexual harassment is a symptom of a deep and endemic patriarchal culture.
However, some people think that the reaction to the recent sexual harassment scandals has been overblown. Writers like Brendan O’Neill take offense at the recent take down of powerful men, as they believe that female accusers “must conflate awkward drinks with extreme violence, in order to make their completely routine experiences seem like PTSD-inducing horror stories”. Author, David Goodhart recently tweeted that an “inability to distinguish hand on knee/sleazebag behaviour from rape/serious intimidation is typical of ideological (metropolitan) thinking” to much consternation. But calling such experiences ‘completely routine’ or normalising it into typical ‘sleazebag behaviour’ misses the point. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are two ends of the same spectrum. And no part of that spectrum should be normal or routine.
Whether you are a woman in Westminster trying to avoid getting hit on in a cab, or a young woman in Southwark navigating an exploitative relationship with a gang member, the culture that allows these things to happen should never be normalised. Let’s stop labelling this behaviour as ‘normal’ and let’s support women’s resilience by challenging the status quo.
We would like to say a huge thank you to the Fawcett Society, Spirit of 2012, and the Battersea Power Station Foundation whose dedication to funding this work allows us to support some of the most vulnerable young women in London.