For the past few months it’s been unavoidable. Everyone knows what the hashtag #metoo is concerned with and mainstream news shows and talk shows have been tackling, with varying degrees of success, the problem of sexual assault and consent. Hollywood first, then entertainment generally, it even spread to Westminster. For those of us who have been working and advocating in this area for years, it seemed like maybe this could be a watershed moment, a chance to start an international conversation about what consent truly looks like and the ways our cultures prepare us all poorly for respectful, reciprocal sexual relationships.
Almost immediately, though, a counter-narrative appeared, one that decried the “PC” culture of which #metoo was deemed the latest malignant bloom. Men bemoaned their inability to flirt or banter with women, some claimed they were afraid to have closed door meetings with women they worked with. Women who decried that common sense had gone out the window and that, in their day, they weren’t afraid to put inappropriate behaviour in its place with a well-placed slap or put down were given every microphone available. Broadsheet newspaper columnists worried that women, now powerful, would “crush” men rather than share power, while others decided that those supporting the movement were paving the way for a world where all women must wear the niqab and the total segregation of the sexes will be mandatory.
As prominent men began to be called out, the excuses came in thick and fast. Not, initially, for Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, deemed certifiable monsters. But where an excuse could be made, it was. Why didn’t these women leave? Why are they only coming forward years after the fact? Why are they seen smiling in photographs with this person? Why did they go to his room? When Aziz Ansari was called out by a woman who claimed he pushed sexual boundaries with her after a date the two shared, many felt that this was evidence that the #metoo movement had gone too far, that it had destroyed a man for what was ultimately just bad sex.
They were wrong. If anything, the movement has not gone nearly far enough. The media focus on individuals has side-tracked the movement somewhat, and the tabloid-esque reporting of Ansari’s behaviour did not especially do it any favours, but the reactions demonstrate very clearly what many of us have been saying for decades; this is a cultural problem. The men in question are products of the culture they were raised in, as are the women who froze in the moment, who were intimidated into silence, who would shrug off inappropriate and entitled behaviour as the inevitable rough you have to take with the smooth.
This is not to provide anyone with an excuse, but rather to state the underlying problem. We can try to identify offenders and deal with them as and when that happens, but the courts system has struggled to square the circle of securing a conviction for the most heinous of sexual crimes given the fact that cases are frequently one person’s word against another’s. At any rate, some of the reported incidents are not criminal in any way. The sheer scale of the problem has shown us that this state of affairs is endemic and cannot be fixed by blacklisting certain actors or by the resignation of a handful of MPs. A problem this big begs the examination of the whole culture.
There is a tendency to scoff at the sociological terminology of “rape culture”, especially as used by feminists. Some of it is certainly in bad faith, interpreting the phrase to mean that feminists claim that our society glorifies rape and rapists. Many, however, seem genuinely unaware of what the phrase is driving at, the disparate ways in which it manifests itself, and the ways that this culture makes itself felt in all our lives. What is rape culture? It is the part of media commentary, casual conversation and even defense cross-examination that focuses on the clothes, inebriation levels, social habits and past sexual encounters of the victims of sexual assault. It is in the objectification of young women and even girls, in dress codes that forbid spaghetti straps, in the notion that a person who complains of sexual harassment in the workplace is somehow failing to fit in with the corporate culture. Most pervasively of all, it is in our relationships. It is in the notion that it is acceptable – normal, even – to cajole and persuade someone into sex or into sexual practices that they do not want. This set of cultural notions is the real enemy – not any individual man or men as a group.
Images from the annual Reclaim the Night march in Belfast in 2017. Two women were sexually harassed during the actual march, all of us were heckled. Photos by Brendan Harkin
I work with Hollaback!, an international anti-street harassment organisation and in that line of work I am used to hearing the dismissal of street harassment as “just” catcalling. It does not come close to capturing the full spectrum of the experience for the victims, but when this fact is raised it is routinely dismissed. I believe it all falls into a spectrum of behaviour that is symptomatic of the culture we grow up in. Perhaps it begins with catcalling, with pursuing an object of affections when they have made made their disinterest clear, with sending unsolicited naked pictures. And perhaps it ends there. But in many, many cases – most unreported – it goes much further.
So where is the line? I would argue it is before the “innocent” catcalling. All of rape culture is harmful, although not all of it is or even could be illegal. We need to examine the whole of our culture and interrogate the ways we raise children, the ways we are socialised and educated, and the standards of behaviour we accept. There is still a great deal of work to do, and we must not allow ourselves to be distracted or derailed.