While we may be focusing on the notable purveyors of it, the truth is that sexual harassment has long been the norm, and the acceptable amount should be none.
The stream of allegations of sexual impropriety by men in positions of authority, from giants in the film and media industry to British MP’s and American politicians, has generated a range of further disclosures, from the unwanted touching of a woman’s knee to rape. While this has opened up a much-needed debate, some men and women have instead trivialised the non-criminal complaints, relegating those who make them to attention-grabbing #MeToo wannabes.
But those who acquiesce to the supposedly trifling misdemeanours towards women – in the street, workplace and home – create the permissive climate in which larger abuses take place. The cultural condoning of inappropriate touching and overt insinuations has forced many women to negotiate their careers with an armour-coating of tolerance dipped in shame and embarrassment.
How many teenage girls have reported flashers or their father’s weird friend to their mothers, only to hear them dismiss the incident as a normal bit of male deviancy, inside the boundaries of the accepted status quo? Treating men like little boys who know no better than to pull at their privates in public was meant to be a sign of a woman’s resilience.
Meanwhile, those women who find “harmless” groping offensive and upsetting, which includes the majority of millennials, have been described as oversensitive.
Even today, Britain’s Carry On films, which relegated sexual fetishes and objectifying to giggly double entendre, are fondly remembered. And it wasn’t long ago that Britain’s soft power icon was Benny Hill, watched by millions around the world to this day, who dispensed with words and sanctioned dirty old men with his nods, winks and chasing scantily-clad women into the bushes.
These characters now look and sound ridiculous. But it didn’t stop me overhearing two besuited men in their forties heading to work, sipping at their take-out coffees while discussing their female colleague’s attractive looks with the phrase “she’s gagging for it”. Private comments of this sort are no crime, but they are an example of continued social dysfunction.
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Donald Trump dismissed his Access Hollywood tape about grabbing women’s genitals as “locker room talk”. More worryingly, but no less typically, so did his wife Melania. When sexual harassment is still defined by “it depends on what you mean by sexual harassment”, it feeds people’s biases and reluctance to believe fact from fiction. The incontrovertible truth is that all forms of sexual belittling are unacceptable. And when performed by someone in authority they should be legally liable.
I wondered recently how the 10-year-old boy sitting next to me in the cinema was processing the juxtapositions of a woman’s full lip pout with the roaring of a car engine and her come-on eyes with her driver’s hand gunning on a leathered black gear stick.
A woman’s sultry and seductive looks and body parts continue to sell cars or stereo systems, perfume and chocolates. These are not concepts of luxury, nor of romance, or inverse sexual empowerment, but of clichéd sexual fantasies best kept private between consenting adults. Finishing off the insidiously sexist portrayal of women in advertising today would go a long way towards rewiring unconscious and stubborn male favouritism in the workforce.
Often childhood bedrooms that are vacated by grown daughters remain frozen in time. Favourite toys and peeling posters become Dorian Gray reminders of their younger selves. On the walls of such a room I stayed in a few weeks ago, magazine cut-outs of tousled-haired women – lips parted and erotically-poised – vied for space with images of family members and baby photos. The absence of boy bands, or modern-day equivalents of David Cassidy, reflected this 14-year-old’s preoccupation with her physical identity.
Now 24, however, she told me that she would not choose the same images if she were a teenager today. Selecting individualised content through her mobile uploads allows her to focus more on friendships and on capturing what she naturally relates to. Sealing her decision is the snowballing effect of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
When I asked what made a woman sexy today, she said confidence and a sense of humour. And how did one achieve that? Through her job, she replied without a moment’s hesitation, and with a boss who now knows that to whisper in her ear, in passing, “you look great by the way”, is plain creepy. If he likes her hair cut, then he should be equally comfortable telling a male employee the same thing.
If, on the other hand, he thinks it might be misinterpreted, well, that’s the point.
Societal wrongs can stretch over decades, but today, tethered to the masts of social media, they can be righted at fibre-optic speed. Add the political will, and the guilty will be punished by law. Even so, it is equally important not to disregard the seemingly minor sexual transgressions of an era that should be remembered with head-shaking condescension.
Understanding this, once and for all, might help shorten the World Economic Forum’s prediction that it will take another 170 years to reach gender pay parity. Those who roll their eyes at pathetic over-exaggerations of sexual harassment should know that what is truly pathetic is that time-frame.