Why do we teach women how to avoid and protect themselves from gendered sexual harassment? The societal acceptance of sexual harassment must change.
Sexual harassment is an endemic and deep-rooted issue in society. The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to the widespread societal acceptance of this issue and the injustices that it engenders. Individuals have been encouraged to share their stories both online and in real life, which has exposed just how normalised the sexual harassment of women has become. As highlighted by the Mayor of London’s Strategy for Tackling VAWG, “misogyny is exhibited all around us – through the objectification of women in the mass media; through commodification and exploitation of women in online pornography; through everyday harassment and cat-calling”. Although most men are not perpetrators of sexual harassment, most sexual harassment is performed by men. Fuelled by the persistent gender inequalities, cultural attitudes and norms about sexuality and gender, the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude perpetuates the vicious cycle of toxic masculinity. However, men are not inherently degrading or violent, while women are not naturally victims; these views and behaviours are learned. So, why does society accept, and even excuse sexual harassment? Although the context may differ, this culture is rooted in patriarchal beliefs, power, and control. The societal acceptance of sexual harassment must change.
Globally, women are often taught not to talk to strangers, not to walk alone at night, and not to drink too much, in order to protect themselves from sexual harassment or violence. This has encouraged many women to adopt certain daily behaviours and measures to feel safe in public spaces, including taking different walking routes or changing the clothes that they wear. An individual’s mobility should not be dictated by safety concerns, yet these are the measures that many have to take. Street harassment can also cause feelings of fear among victims. Not only does experiencing sexual harassment profoundly impact the victim, but it also influences the daily behaviours and sense of security of the wider community, out of fear that it could happen to them too.
A report in 2018 found that one in five people working in Westminster had experienced sexual harassment. This draws attention to the alarming scandal of Westminster’s ‘Dirty Dossier’ in 2017, where 36 Conservative MP’s were accused of “paying women off” in an attempt to silence accusations of inappropriate behaviour or non-consensual relations. This scandal highlights that working environments in politics and the media industry encourage the abuse of power.
Sexual assaults reported on the tube have risen by 42% between the years 2015 and 2018. In response to this, Chris Williamson, an MP at the time, suggested a system of ‘women-only’ carriages on London’s Underground service. However, to introduce segregation on public transport in response to sexual assault is to suggest that it is inevitable and perpetuates the message we must constrain women’s mobility to protect them from sexual harassment and violence.
A 2018 survey by the Unite union of hospitality workers in the UK found that 89% had suffered sexual harassment, while 60% of women thought that reporting the incident was of no benefit. Why are women’s experiences of sexual harassment not being listened to? As highlighted in a previous blog by JAN Trust, feminist activist Beatrix Campbell claims that it is due to the “knowledge of and tolerance of sexual harassment”, whereby women have come to accept such experiences as a part and parcel of being in the workplace where their complaints have all too often fallen on deaf ears. Victims of sexual harassment will not report or share their experiences if they do not believe that it will improve the situation or bring justice or that they will be taken seriously. Societal acceptance and normalisation of sexual harassment has enabled the issue to go ignored for too long.
The intersections of oppression mean that some women are targets of harassment due to multiple factors, including gender, race, and religion identities, for instance. LGBTQ+ and poorer women in our society are likewise victims of discrimination on all sides. BAME women have long been known to face further barriers when it comes to equality or safety than other women, in being heard, protected and supported. As highlighted by the Mayor of London’s Strategy against VAWG, “the case is more likely to be ‘no-crimed’ – meaning no further action will be taken – if the accuser is BAME, has mental health problems or has learning disabilities”.
Our founder, Rafaat Mughal OBE, recognised these imbalances thirty-one years ago and sought to do what she could to improve them. Today, we still realise that BAME women and their families are at more risk of sexual violence and radicalisation. Here at JAN Trust we are dedicated to giving the most vulnerable women in society a safe space to learn and feel part of the community through our workshops and classes. We will continue to call on others to do more to make all levels of society safer for everyone.