It has been a difficult few days on the news front, with several high profile stories giving me pause to reflect on how hard life can be for women. Harvey Weinstein once again grabbed headlines, as he has finally been charged with rape and sexual assault. It is always mind-boggling how many women have to come forward before action is taken against high-profile, powerful men.
By far the most heart-wrenching story was of a 12-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by her foster brother in Australia. Fearing that she might be pregnant, the boy’s father responded by murdering and dumping her young body on the banks of a nearby river. The family denied any connection to the grim killing, and it was only when an anonymous tip-off came in that the girl’s foster family was finally brought to justice.
On a more positive note, it looks like the ‘yes’ vote in Ireland will win, paving the way for safe and legal abortion. However, even this wonderful news raises serious questions about women’s autonomy over their own bodies. These stories are each concerning in their own way, highlighting how women are constantly denied basic rights: the right to live safely, in good health, with respect and dignity. Or that most basic of rights, the right to life itself.
I would hope that most people see the problem with Weinstein’s behaviour, and certainly will abhor the senseless murder of a young girl. My heart certainly aches for her lost years. These people have been charged with crimes and, if found guilty, we will easily be able to point to their wrongdoing. However, it becomes much more difficult to negotiate the murky, grey areas beyond the world of police and lawyers and courts.
When sexual assault claims against Aziz Ansari surfaced in January, opinions quickly became polarised. Most of the conversations seemed to have a very narrow focus on whether or not he had committed rape, or otherwise done something illegal. But why does a bad situation have to escalate to rape to be taken seriously?
Without wanting to dredge up all of the details, it is probably enough to say this: if someone goes home distressed and in tears at the end of the night because of your sexual advances, you have likely crossed a line. The conversations I heard in relation to the Ansari incident were disheartening and disappointing. It felt like a missed opportunity to talk about consent and coercion, beyond merely looking at legal definitions of rape (although this is obviously important too).
We are all familiar with the anti-rape slogan ‘no means no’. The idea that a woman saying ‘no’ to sexual advances should actually be listened to was no doubt a radical shift from what had come before. Now, happily, the idea of consent has progressed even further, with received wisdom being that we should seek an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ from each and every one of our partners, each and every time we are with them.
In the case of Ansari, it seems clear that there was no enthusiastic yes, but rather his date that night asked to take things slow, said that she did not want more to happen that night, kept moving away from him, and so on. These were all forms of saying no. It is important to recognise the unequal power dynamics at play in different situations. It can be difficult for women to give an outright ‘no’. Women are conditioned to be people pleasers, and all too often we end up feeling guilty for disappointing someone who is in fact treating us badly.
These pressures equally apply in the working world. Sexual harassment, unequal pay and a lack of advancement are just some of the ways that employment can be difficult for women. But there are others, and many of these go unacknowledged, just like the grey(er) areas of consent mentioned above.
In my own working life, I think I have been relatively lucky. I have certainly heard horrific stories from female friends that top anything I have experienced. Having said that, I have still been sexually assaulted, harassed and intimidated by male colleagues. Isn’t it odd to frame this as ‘lucky’? Surely we should be able to expect more from our places of work or study.
While we clearly and with urgency must stamp out the worst and most violent forms of abuse against women, we also need to recognise that misogyny comes in many shapes and forms. There are a range of toxic behaviours we currently view as being very normal, from a dating scene heavily steeped in rape culture, to a working world where women face constant harassment and unwanted sexual advances.
It is no longer good enough to use the tired arguments ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t mean to.’ I was disappointed to see news this week that Morgan Freeman has been accused of sexual harassment by eight women. His response? ‘That was never my intent.’ The key point here is that intent does not outweigh the outcome. He may not have meant to hurt or offend anyone, but his behaviour did just that.
It is vitally important that we have public, nuanced conversations about consent, coercion and sexism. After all, bad behaviour extends beyond what is enshrined in law. By making clear what is and is not acceptable, we also make it so that no one can hide behind the excuse that they ‘didn’t know’. At the end of the day, the grey areas are just as much a part of the problem as the more obvious and odious ones.