Sexual assault in Hollywood has been a hot topic for a while now (Weinstein et al). I’m a bit slow to form an opinion, so I’ve kept quiet, but just when it seems the story has finished, a new victim steps forward and tells of some horror that happened to her (or occasionally him). I think I’ve finally worked out how I see this, so here’s my take.
On the whole, people have reacted to the Weinstein stories with disgust, surprise and anger which is good, although how surprised people have been that this happens has surprised me. Fortunately there are plenty of women speaking out to say that this is not an isolated problem, this is endemic to almost all workplaces, which is definitely my experience. However, I think there is a danger of the discussion getting diluted, with one line of thinking being:
But a lot of these experiences are not a big deal, why does it matter if someone puts his hand on your knee, just brush it off!
I do understand this line of thinking, because most of experiences I’ve had weren’t a big deal at all, and I wasn’t bothered by them. However, the point is
NONE OF THEM SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED.
No harassment, no matter how small, makes the world a better place, and while most instances might be nothing much, the accumulation of many many instances makes life more difficult than it needs to be, it drives a wedge between people, it wears them down. In a workplace the focus should be on the job, with a degree of professionalism as the norm. And each small instance makes the big, serious instances more likely to happen, because they normalise wrong behaviour.
For me there are two straightforward demands that should come out of this, and apply to all people of any gender and in any job:
- Professionalism should exist in every workplace, and no sexual intimidation should ever happen. No one should have to fend off unwanted advances. Focus should be on the job, it shouldn’t be sexual at all. (I realise there may be exceptions, after all many people meet their partner at work, but I don’t think it’s extreme to say that actual sexual interaction and banter should be kept outside work, so that people can choose if they are part of it or not.)
- A level of polite respect should exist between strangers in the street. No one should be demanding attention from strangers without good reason. No one should be shouting any insults, personal remarks or trying to touch a stranger. This also goes for racist or disablist comments too, or just personal comments to a stranger, why is it necessary?
I’d be interested to hear if you have some disagreement with those requests, maybe you think they’re too extreme and controlling. I believe much of how we treat each other (superficially, at least) is down to habit rather than some innate ‘rightness’ or inevitability, and so if the current habits are harmful, we need new ones.
So anyway, when people shout about the smaller incidences that have happened to them, it is not because somebody touching you on the knee is traumatic (usually, anyway), it’s because there needs to be a change to how we treat colleagues and strangers, and that includes the small stuff.
But why do the protestations have to be so shouty and demanding? Why can’t everyone make the point calmly?
This applies to not just this issue, but a few other matters of discrimination affecting small groups. It’s natural to recoil when you hear someone being unpleasant, even about a legitimate grievance. However, I believe it’s essential to be shouty in order to bring about change. The thing is this:
PEOPLE DON’T LIKE CHANGE
And altering how people work together and interact, is a massive undertaking. In the past mistreated people have reasonably and calmly expressed that there is a problem in how they are treated, which sometimes lead to others thinking ‘Oh yes, that seems unfair’. However, because people don’t like change, just thinking this didn’t alter their behaviour at all. Everything stayed the same.
It seems the only way to get people to change is by making ‘staying the same’ more distressing than making a change. An effective (if highly irritating) way of doing this is by being loud, obnoxious, demanding and unrelenting. This is what I believe we are seeing at the moment, and it seems to be working. When change happens, which certainly seems more likely now than ever before, then all the demanding can stop.
However, my opinion is always a work in progress, if you spot any flaws in my thinking, or have anything to add, please comment below, I look forward to hearing your take on this…