The Conversations Women Need to be Having with One Another

By March 12, 2018 Essay

If you’re a woman, this has been a big news week: While the first Academy Awards in a post-Weinstein Hollywood was not the black-clad, subdued affair of January’s Golden Globes that some anticipated, one of its viral highlights saw Frances McDormand asking every female Oscar nominee in the room to stand, in acknowledgement and camaraderie, during her acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Halfway around the globe, Saudi Arabian women were making news again this week for enrolling in driving schools: Long seen as a hallmark of female oppression, Saudi had, until recently, been the only country in the world that completely banned women from driving. In June, women will be allowed to take to the road as drivers for the first time in decades after the ban was lifted by Prince Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman late last year; this is a massive move forward for the ultra-conservative country. This past week also saw the celebration of International Women’s Day, the 2018 theme for which was ‘Leave No Woman Behind’.

Globally, the idea of what it means to be ‘left behind’ is closely tied to imposed expectations of female gender roles, which universally dictate what is considered, among other things, acceptable behaviour – even for us in liberated countries. Yes, here in Australia we can vote, but according to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, only just over 25% of CEOs are female. A much darker statistic indicates that on average one woman per week is murdered by a former or current partner.  And the impacts of gender expectations can create a different kind of life-or-death situation in developing countries.  According to UN Women, more girls perished in the Boxing Day tsunami than boys. Why? Boys had tree-climbing abilities, which allowed them to quickly ascend to safety.  For women in Saudi Arabia, the highly anticipated freedoms associated with finally being able to drive is a huge step forward in their not being left behind, both literally and metaphorically.  For the women in the microcosm of Hollywood, not being left behind means more gender-balanced representation across all aspects of filmmaking, which McDormand’s speech echoed – and, of course, not being attacked by sexual predators while the rest of the industry turns a blind eye would also be a good start.

For us in developed countries, it can sometimes feel like we hardly have anything to complain about in comparison to the hardships faced by many women globally, particularly those who endure sexual slavery, forced marriages, acid attacks, sweatshops, clitoridectomies. In another world, yet one equally as foreign, it can be tempting to look at the glamourous Hollywood starlets who have been victimised and trivialise their accusations as first-world problems. While the details (and the breadth) of the allegations were confronting – as was the fact that this behaviour was an open secret – was anyone was really shocked in an industry notorious for launching careers via the casting couch?

Although initially #MeToo broke inside the privileged milieu of Hollywood, it awakened a sleeping tsunami. In the months that have followed, similar allegations have taken down the careers of men across a variety of industries including those in comedy, journalism, sports and medicine just to list a few.  Long regarded as a place to spot trends, Hollywood proved to be no exception on this deeply emotional issue.  Once its women started speaking out the floodgates opened, with the hashtag popping up on social media posts of women everywhere – including those of women I knew. Its ubiquitousness made me wonder if there was a woman alive who hadn’t, at some point, been a victim of some form of sexual harassment. [1]

In a survey of 100 women, 85 per cent said they had experienced sexual harassment at some point. I was actually surprised that that figure wasn’t higher, but that may be due to how people interpret the definition of sexual harassment[2].  Of those who answered yes, over 60 per cent said it occurred in a workplace, where 53 per cent of the time, the male harasser was their supervisor and/or significantly older. If you are a woman reading this, there are probably no real surprises in that data; but what I did find surprising was that some of the respondees were women I know, and know well. And we have never really talked about this, either privately or collectively. It is not something that I can ever recall being a topic for a deep and meaningful; instead it is something that is briefly mentioned in passing before being labelled as inconvenient or annoying, or quickly dismissed as a humourous anecdote. Case in point: having my bum grabbed, at the age of 42, by a drunk twentysomething, who got the shock of his life when I turned around and he realised I was old enough to be his mother. While I made light of this to my girlfriends afterwards, I was rattled at the time: This was no quick pinch, but a menacing grope where he slid two of his fingers between my legs and used the rest of his hand to squeeze – a technique he had probably practiced countless times before. I remember feeling disgusted, then vulnerable, and then angry for being so – it was a tiny reminder of what womanhood sometimes brings. This brief encounter in a pub does not come anywhere even close to replicating the repercussions of those who experience the horror of sexual assault, but the fleeting swirl of emotions was enough to remind me of another sad fact: most victims of sexual assault don’t come forward. The reasons why, sadly, are many and complex.

But the most confronting information in my survey revealed that 40 per cent of the women who responded have been sexually assaulted. While this is only a small data pool, let’s just pretend for a second that it is an accurate reflection of the whole.  It means that almost half of us have been sexually assaulted. Look around you right now, wherever you are. These statistics indicate that if there is more of three of you, at least one has been a victim of sexual assault. Being in the lucky 60 per cent, that result shook me. But once I let that statistic sink in, I began remembering: A much older (and creepy) colleague forcibly kissing a friend of mine, despite her giving him absolutely zero encouragement other than the accident of being attractive.  The male teacher at our all-female high school who left literally overnight when allegations surfaced that he had had numerous sexual relationships with students – and over an extended period of time.  The stories of virginities lost to date rape.  Some of the women who responded to my survey were brave enough to share parts of their stories. The accounts were sad and harrowing, the perpetrators doctors, step-fathers, family friends, fathers of friends. Not one respondee reported being sexually assaulted by a stranger; it was almost always men who were virtually unavoidable in their immediate or social circles. The repercussions for some were self-abuse in the forms of promiscuity or addiction, while for others it was a self-imposed life sentence of worthlessness.  These feelings of shame, worthlessness, guilt, and vulnerability are precisely why we still – despite all of our post-second-wave feminist advantages – can’t talk about this. Just today, a New York Times article on the Australian politics in the wake of the Barnaby Joyce scandal concludes that for this boys’ club, there is still a long way to go: ‘The culture of harassment and protection of powerful men, women say, has prevented accusers from speaking publicly about encounters with politicians. It has also, they say, stymied a more robust #MeToo movement…’ While here the focus is on the political arena, it is not an impossible leap to assume this also applies across other areas, professional or otherwise.

‘Leave No Woman Behind’ clearly means – and will continue to mean – different things to women in different parts of the world, and as such it is subject to different applications globally. Because we’re all fighting different battles on different fronts, and the layers that hold these systemic barriers in place are myriad and complex. What is important is that we don’t become complacent regardless of how #firstworldproblems our issues may appear: The progress being made on whatever front is in front of us inevitably has an empowering ripple effect. But nothing can happen if we don’t talk about it. We need to start having more of these conversations. Divide and and conquer feeds on a culture of silence.

 

Notes:

 

[1] I created a short survey which I shared on social media. All results were anonymous. Thank you to those who responded. A huge and special thank you goes out to those who courageously shared deeply emotional and painful memories.

[2] According to humanrights.gov.au, sexual harassment is defined as ‘an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated’.  While this definition was not included in the survey given to participants, and it is therefore subject to their personal interpretation, note that the definition does not indicate that is must be a repeated pattern of behavior over an extended period of time, as it refers to ‘an unwelcome sexual advance’