Originally published: 20.10.17
Sparked by the exposure of Harvey Weinstein as an alleged serial sex offender, a mass confessional has taken place recently via social media, in which women everywhere have held up their hands and said, me too: the things that Weinstein did to those women have happened to me too. I hope to goodness it was cathartic and useful for the women who took the brave and exposing step of outing their private pain to the world, and I hope to goodness there were as many women reading who felt less alone, less ashamed as a result. But the outpouring is slowing and I, for one, am relieved. A collective boil has perhaps now been lanced, although I still cannot see through the pus.
The pus gathers in the responses, which can be divided into three broad categories. First is blanket denial, whereby men and their cheerleaders deny that sexual abuse on such a massive scale exists at all. Women are fanciful, lying, exaggerating for effect. There is a bandwagon onto which women are joyfully leaping in an attempt to malign men and revel in their perceived victimhood. Second, we have the more modern form of denial which concedes that yes, sexual abuse is a common problem, although not a gendered one. There are simply some people that abuse other people and all abuse is equally bad. The inconvenient and statistical truth that 98% of all sexual crime is committed by men, and that the overwhelming majority of their victims are female, can be pasted over with obfuscation and the politics of individualism. In other words, if we focus in carefully enough on all the tiny pictures, the big picture will begin to fade into the background and eventually disappear altogether. In the face of this manipulative myopia I can find myself longing for the first, more traditional trope. It is, at least, straightforward. Lastly, we have the outraged hyperbole. The shock! The fury! Whoever could have imagined such horrifying evil existed in the world?!
When confronted with a woman’s detailed account of a date with his comrade, Sam Kriss, Guardian columnist Owen Jones plumped squarely for the third option. The account describes an evening of boundaries pushed, ignored, and ridden roughshod over, which Jones has referred to as “harrowing”.
Having been a woman on this earth a decade or two, I can definitively say that I did not find the description of events harrowing. This is not in any way to dismiss or minimise what the woman concerned went through — it was unequivocally wrong and she is entitled to call it as she sees it — but rather to demonstrate how utterly desensitized I am to such behaviour through repeated exposure. My overarching feeling in response to her story was one of passing, mild disgust. I squirmed a little with embarrassment along with her in the theatre. I empathised with her reticence to tell him to just get lost, due to fear of social consequences, in the pub. I winced as he slapped her arse on her way to the loo, and cringed at his unwanted pawing. But find it harrowing? No.
Because the truth is that Sam Kriss’s conduct that night was really quite ordinary. Indeed, it is the ubiquity of the whole sorry tale that ought to merit shock value. This sort of behaviour is normalised to the extent that I imagine almost all women can relate; certainly I could relay many similar stories of my own, none of which I experienced as harrowing, but are instead stored in the mental file marked ‘annoying’ and possibly ‘a bit disquieting.’
We are used to it. I think then, that what is important to understand is Kriss is no kind of aberrant monster, but rather a creep of the garden variety. A bog standard, run of the mill kind of pest. To demonise him is unhelpful and skews the bigger picture. In the account I read him as socially inept, an arrogant boor, who plays at radical politics while boasting of his “massive house” in the belief it will make women want to sleep with him, and who presumes consent without bothering to check due to a deep sense of his own entitlement. A pushy little man who either deliberately and sinisterly ignores women’s signals, or genuinely fails to pick them up: either way it is because he does not care to receive them.
I wonder though, whether Jones really does find his friends behaviour “harrowing”, and if so, what this says about his understanding of the female experience. I suppose it was a word chosen in the hope that it would prove how seriously he took it all, a word chosen to save his skin, tainted as it is by association. But with its use he has struck a strange note, rather like a tone deaf actor; one who has searched through his vast collection of adjectives until landing on the one he feels best dramatises the occasion. To me he just sounds clueless; inauthentic.
And so it is in this context that I would like to consider why so many men on the left refuse to accept women’s concerns about the new gender identity law that will allow any male to access women’s sex segregated spaces, regardless of presentation, or hormonal/surgical status. You have read our painful disclosures, our universal cries of me too! You have had a taste of what it might be like to try to navigate a male dominated world as a woman, and of how a socially conditioned fear of male bodies might ingrain itself. You have read the stories at the thinner end of the wedge, the ones we can stand to share, and have judged them harrowing. So tell us again how our desire to retain our safe spaces and sex based rights are bigoted and unreasonable? Tell us again how we should willingly get changed next to a stranger with a penis while focusing on ensuring our fearful body language doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable. Explain to us how you reconcile your smears of TERF and fascist with your dismay at how we are continually treated by male bodied people.
Because this is what I know: you have not heard the half of it. For every story told, there is another far uglier, buried far deeper. We women deserve to feel safe. We deserve some peace of mind. We have already been through enough.