I have been harassed. On numerous occasions, by numerous people, in numerous locations, against numerous contexts. Some, I remember distinctly. Others, I’ve forgotten. That is not to say that those experiences were not disturbing, or significant; rather, only that my life, like many women’s lives, has been, almost routinely, punctuated by acts of harassment. The findings of the Fawcett Society’s Sex Discrimination Law Review (SDLR), though at first blush depressing, do not surprise me. But, despite being depressing, the findings are extremely important; not to mention, timely.
The SDLR found that half of all women have experienced sexual harassment at work and, an even greater proportion, 64% of women have experienced sexual harassment in public places. A study by the Trades Union Congress, sometime ago, in 2016, found that 80% of those experiencing harassment in the workplace would not report it. These findings are bleak.
Whilst bleak, these findings do offer a sense of validation. The findings show we are not alone in experiencing harassment – it is, to use the study’s language – ‘endemic’. Validation is, as I see it, the propelling force behind the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement. Harassment is often about control. To control, in the context of harassment, requires isolation. The ‘victim’ (I struggle with that word and its connotations) is, nearly always, intended to feel that they are on their own; that they are, in some way, to blame for the harassment to which they are subjected. Made to feel that there is nowhere to turn and no one whom will help or will, most importantly, believe. It is only the victim; and, their word.
Therefore, one of the most important challenges to surmount – if not, the most important – is to demonstrate to victims that they are not alone. That their experiences of harassment are not unique. And it is precisely this validation that movements such as #MeToo offers.
Although I am a barrister, I am well aware of the difference between law in theory, and law in practice. Legislation, well meant in its drafting, can be, for a myriad of reasons, difficult – impossible, even – to enforce. Yes, there are laws in place to protect victims; but I am sure that many would agree that the law, for whatever reason, seems to fail to protect victims: let alone prevent women from finding themselves victims in the first place.
Whilst movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have attracted criticism – in particular, the cries of a witch hunt – that criticism is misplaced. It is precisely movements such as these that will go the greatest distance in changing the landscape of equality. This is because the problem of harassment – in particular, the harassment of women – is embedded within our society; embedded, within the minutiae of our thought processes.
As an example, the SDLR found that 34% of women, and 38% of men, said that if a woman goes out at night, in a short skirt, becomes intoxicated and is the victim of a sexual assault then she is, in whole, or part, to blame. It is no wonder that victims will often blame themselves.
Now, I might say that beating sexual harassment is, in some part, about changing attitudes and about dissuading the 34% of women and 38% of men from such an outmoded and dangerous view. Or, that we must educate. Both would only ever take us so far. Those who harass, in my mind, have problems that will not be solved by attempts to change their attitude, or educate. At the risk of sounding dismally judgemental, we cannot improve them. What we can do is challenge, and resist, and speak. Time’s Up and #MeToo have encouraged women to speak. It is a measured and long-awaited response to the harassment to which women have been subjected. This ‘witch hunt’ is the most important women’s movement of this century.