Tag Archives: Search Foundation

Culture wars: sexual harassment. How do we know it will stop?

These are some of the thoughts I shared with a splendid gathering in Melbourne, We Revolt At Dawn, organised by the Search Foundation and the Victoria Women’s Trust, on 9 November

Let’s begin with bodies…we wake, we are ashamed and afraid; it feels awkward, creepie in a way, to be in our skin, we don’t belong to ourselves. Humans never do, of course, we belong to air and the soil, and if we are lucky we are held by love. But for some of us, sometimes day in day out, we are entombed in the memory of that man.

That man.

There are 1.3 million people in the UK who emerged from childhood having been sexually abused by the time they reach 18, according to the Children’s Commissioner’s Report, Protecting Children from Harm.


Abuse and harassment is always on the horizon.

Then there are the people who go to work expecting to work, only to find themselves snared, by a man, that man.

A man, perhaps a man like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, wakes and he knows what he wants: you! He plans his position, his props, the environment. He anticipates the predicable pleasures: he loses some, he wins some, it doesn’t matter which because he enjoys the choreography, the risk, the anticipation and finally the look on a your face when he opens the door, when you see him and shock is written all over your face.

I’m guessing this, because I don’t know what’s in his head.

He never needs to tell us, and no doubt he never will.

One morning, however, this corporate prince discovers that he is accused, and he uses his vast resources to do what powerful men have done forever, find a way of making a woman (or a child)  suffer in silence, to make her feel shame and to shut up. Shame, we know, is the greatest gag. Most of the time he wins.

When a corporate prince finds himself accused – this, it is reported, is what Weinstein did –  he employs the best sleuths he can afford to find out everything about the women who are talking about him, to make them shut up

He doesn’t just threaten them, slap an injunction on them, terrify them, he makes them spend money they haven’t got to defend themselves. He might even pay out to pay off. But it’s never enough.

He does more, he finds out about them, he delves into their lives, he wants to know all about them in order to control them.

The first strategy is to make their bodies serve his and become subordinate to his, in a context, a space, that is controlled by him, or a space that is what Prof  Liz Kelly calls conducive context.

That manoeuvre is compounded by another: to stealth bomb their lives, leaving people unable to trust anyone, to spy, know stuff that’s none of his business; all a way to have them, control them, to silence them.

The hacking scandal exposed the way the Murdoch press seized control of private lives by knowing stuff and leaking stuff that wasn’t secret, it was just private.

On both of these fronts we were witnessing corporate patriarchy at work

But one dawn a woman called Rose McGowan woke ready for revolutionary actionShe did that most radical thing: not shut up, tell her story and call a corporate king to account.

The effect has been electrifying: women, and now some men, have taken control of the body discourse. The old story told by so many men for so long is exposed and all over the world sexual harassment is broadcast as no joke but as a strategy of bodily dominion.

I was sitting in an airport the other day, on my way to Australia, talking about all this with a bloke who sat next to me. In his seemingly genial way he started a conversation. What was I doing in Oz, he said, I was doing a talking tour, I explained, about feminism, and socialism.

‘I’m a feminist, I love women,’ he said.

‘But you know some of those women knew what they were doing,’ he said, ‘didn’t they, I mean they went into those rooms, they agreed, surely they knew….’

‘Did they?’ I asked. ‘What could they have known? And doing what they had to do was not the same as doing what they wanted to do. Did any of them want to do what he demanded?’

As feminism would have it, you can’t consent to something unless you can withhold your consent.

‘Yeah, but…’

Why, I wondered, was this the first thing he had to say about the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey?

The last thing I want to say – for the moment – is this: I don’t know any women who have not been sexually harassed. We know that the culture industries harbour harassment, they have been conducive contexts. Now they’re saying they’re not. Just like that.

But patriarchies solicit women’s subordination and participation, and of course interpret women’s submission as consent.

So, the question is: how do the cultural industry institutions know that they are no longer conducive contexts? What have they done? Have they created a conducive context for women to share their secrets, to describe how all this stuff happens, to name the guilty men to someone, and for the guilty men to disclose their Modus Operandi? And how do these agencies know, all of a sudden, that the men who are sexually harassing women right now – or allowing men to do it – will stop?

I think the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport should find out.