Valeria Sinisi García is a Spanish and Italian student, in her last year of a BA in International Relations. She is the Regional Editor for Latin America in the student-led magazine ‘Dialogue’. Her main research interests include climate change and its intersection with human rights, as well as issues regarding Latin America, international law, feminism, and current affairs.
[Featured Image: Illustration by Annalisa Grassano. A woman stands, with hands grasping at various parts of her body. Source.]
Sexual harassment is not a new concept. It has been around since the beginning of time, with women being far more likely than men to be victims of it. A national survey in the US showed that 81% of women aged 18 and older had experienced some form of sexual harassment at some point in their lives. Many other women have also experienced it before the age of 18. In my own case, I have been experiencing sexual harassment since I was about 12 years old, whether it was through cat-calling, unwanted deliberate touching and leaning, unwanted sexual advances, unwanted sexual looks, unwanted texts and photos of sexual nature or unwanted sexual teasing and remarks (please note that these are only the ones I can remember right now, I’ve surely missed a few as there have been many in the eight years since they began).
Some of these instances have been less traumatising, offensive or intimidating than others; however, I still classify all of them as despicable. I’ve been lucky enough never to experience any of these acts in my university community. No student or staff at my institution has been the perpetrator of these behaviours, and none of these have happened to me on campus, which makes my university a safe place for me. However, this is not the case for everyone. A survey conducted last year found that 56% of UK students said that they had faced unwanted sexual behaviour, and more than half of these respondents have stated that the perpetrator was another student. Furthermore, almost a third of these incidents (30%) took place on-campus.
I knew about sexual harassment in the workplace since long before the MeToo movement exploded with the myriad of accusations against the A-list Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. I had never personally experienced it (I was still very young and thus I had not really worked yet), but it was a reality that I knew could affect me as a woman. However, this episode opened my eyes to how much it truly happens and how many, mostly, women have been affected by it. Studies have shown that unwelcome sexual behaviour is more prevalent in male-dominated fields. This includes industries such as film, politics, academia and the military, amongst many others. So, if a woman decides to pursue her passions and ambitions and work in any of these fields, she is choosing to be sexually harassed. At least that’s what a male friend of mine recently tried to point out to me.
Needless to say, I met this statement with complete horror, shock and disbelief. How can someone of my generation, who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community, and incredibly left-wing, say and believe this? To provide some further context, he said this in response to a comment I made on a video that I had just shared in a group chat. In the video, you could see a woman who looked incredibly uncomfortable because of a male colleague who was standing right behind her. The video was a promotional opportunity for this woman, who is running for MP of her constituency for the Conservatives, alongside a more famous and powerful member of her party, explaining her plans if she were to be elected. My comment on this scene was “poor woman.” That’s it. No politics involved. Just simply a normal empathetic response to a person who is obviously feeling uncomfortable and intimidated enough to move away and use their briefcase as a barrier between them and the person who is making them feel this way.
Having experienced similar situations in the past, I immediately recognised this as sexual harassment. In fact, the UN officially defines it as “unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” including “unwanted deliberate leaning over,” which is what this man was doing in the video (I also had to point this out to the friend who made the offensive remark as he didn’t believe this was harassment). If you’ve never experienced something yourself it is often difficult to know how you would react or how you would feel in certain situations. You can only imagine, but until you experience it firsthand you can’t know what it will really feel like. This is probably why my friend had such little regard for this woman’s feelings. Nonetheless, he did not say explicitly that she chose to be sexually harassed, he instead implied it by saying: “she’s a conservative MP she f*cking chose this.” He then went on to explain that “if you join an organisation of old creepy white men because you have a hard-on for power” you shouldn’t be surprised when these things happen to you. Moreover, according to him, “her lack of morals makes her willingly engage with people that are uncomfortable.” He tried to save this by saying that it “doesn’t make their behaviour okay, it just means she could avoid it.”
Therefore, the assumptions and logic behind his statements were that firstly, because she is a member of the Conservative Party, she lacks morals. Secondly, by choosing to pursue her ambitions and join a party which she resonates with, she is liable for anything that might happen to her within that party as she could perfectly “avoid it” (I wonder if he would have the same opinion were we talking about a Jewish person joining the Labour party, considering its anti-Semitic history). Thirdly, according to him, by joining the Conservatives she could not have possibly been following her ambitions, she was clearly just joining because she “has a hard-on for power.”
The latter point not only completely disregards her ambitions, it also undermines her whole career and capabilities. It adds to the narrative that women aren’t really made for politics, or that they don’t have the capacity to understand it. Therefore, if they decide to engage in it and follow a career in this field, it isn’t because they want to support a certain ideal or further policy proposals that they believe in, it’s because of a sexual fantasy they want to fulfil because they don’t truly comprehend the consequences of their actions in governance. Another negative effect of his assumptions and reasoning is his perpetuation of rape culture without even realising it. By responding that she “chose” this, he is making the same kind of statement that people often make when referring to harassment or assault by saying ‘she asked for it.’ No one ever asks to be harassed or raped, and they surely don’t choose it either. As a victim of sexual harassment, my friend’s comment caused further emotional turmoil in the part of me that hasn’t yet recovered from an episode that happened over a year ago. I still sometimes suffer when remembering that incident, and his insensitive remark just added to my trauma. Regardless of a woman’s political affiliation, sexual orientation, anatomy, skin colour, or even class, we have to want to protect all women and make sure that episodes like the one this particular woman suffered are not normalised and do not continue to happen in the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter.
Personally, I really dislike the Conservative Party, but something that I hate even more is sexual discrimination. In this case, my friend was showing me that he wasn’t a feminist, that he didn’t respect all women: he only respected the ones that had the same views as him. He was degrading and trivialising everything this woman had ever done to get to where she was at until that moment, convinced instead that she was the one who wasn’t a feminist, simply because she is a Tory. It might just be me, but she looks like more of an opposer to the patriarchy than my friend. From my point of view, a woman who decides to fight through the fact that her ambitions reside in a male-dominated field and political party, knowing that that exact same party has a history of sexual misconduct and sexism, indicates more feminism than my male friend, who is only open to respect and regard as equal any other person that views the world from his same point in the political spectrum. This incident just served to remind me that the MeToo movement still has a lot of ground to cover, but most importantly, that there are still so many people that misunderstand even the basics of feminism.
Batty, David. “More than half of UK students say they have faced unwanted sexual behaviour,” The Guardian, February 26, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/feb/26/more-than-half-of-uk-students-say-they-have-faced-unwanted-sexual-behaviour.
BBC. “A guide to Labour Party anti-Semitism claims,” BBC News, June 26, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-45030552.
Catalyst. “Women in Male-Dominated Industries and Occupations: Quick Take,” Research, February 5, 2020. https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-male-dominated-industries-and-occupations/.
Center for American Progress. “Women Disproportionately Report Sexual Harassment in Male-Dominated Industries,” Gender Matters, August 6, 2018. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/news/2018/08/06/454376/gender-matters/.
Chatterjee, Ritu. “A New Survey Finds 81 Percent Of Women Have Experienced Sexual Harassment,” NPR, February 21, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/21/587671849/a-new-survey-finds-eighty-percent-of-women-have-experienced-sexual-harassment?t=1596294788640.
Chira, Susan. “Numbers Hint at Why #MeToo Took Off: The Sheer Number Who Can Say Me Too,” The New York Times, February 21, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/21/upshot/pervasive-sexual-harassment-why-me-too-took-off-poll.html.
Kantor, Jodi, and Megan Twohey. “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades,” The New York Times, October 5, 2017.
Lakritz, Talia. “Jobs that are still dominated by men,” Insider, March 8, 2020. https://www.insider.com/male-jobs-women-underrepresented-numbers-2019-8.
New America. “Breaking Into the Blue-Collar Boys’ Club: Male-Dominated, Low- and Middle-Wage Sectors,” Sexual Harassment: A Severe and Pervasive Problem, Last updated: October 10, 2018.
Norris, Sian. “Tory policies have hit women hardest – it’s no wonder they are turning to Labour,” Politics.co.uk, December 5, 2017. https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/12/05/tory-policies-have-hit-women-hardest-it-s-no-wonder-they-are.
Siddique, Haroon. “Westminster sexual misconduct allegations: the MPs accused so far,” The Guardian, November 6, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/nov/06/westminster-sexual-misconduct-allegations-the-mps-accused-so-far.
Stop Street Harassment. “A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault – Survey Questions” Survey conducted by GfK, February 2018. http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Survey-Questions-2018-National-Study-on-Sexual-Harassment-and-Assault.pdf
Stop Street Harassment. “The Facts Behind the #MeToo Movement: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault,” Report, February 2018. http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/2018-National-Sexual-Harassment-and-Assault-Report.pdf.
Syal, Rajeev. “Tories attacked for restoring whip to MPs accused of sexual misconduct,” The Guardian, December 13, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/13/tories-attacked-for-restoring-whip-to-mps-accused-of-sexual-misconduct.
UN. “What is Sexual Harassment,” Women Watch, Accessed August 17, 2020. https://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/whatissh.pdf.