Society, sexism, and the harasser / by Katherine Cecil

Last Tuesday, after visiting a friend in south London, I tried to get across town. I emphasise the word ‘tried’ here, because what should have been a simple task, was disrupted by a very specific socially accepted form of aggression. 

Enter the white, cisgender, heterosexual male. 

As I waited for my bus, in a public space, surrounded by others, a car pulled up and a man leant out. He loudly told me to remove my glasses. When I was non-compliant (a result of shock and embarrassment) he parked, exited the car —staring — and repeated the following over and over:

      "Take off your glasses. I want to see your eyes. I want to see more than that” 

I was objectified and humiliated, but the rabbit in the hat was the silence. My own silence and the silence of those around me. I couldn’t speak, not just from a self conscious type of awkwardness, but due to the very basic fear that this man had the potential to do me physical harm. My audience, simply dropped their heads, and pretended like it wasn’t happening. The behaviour of the entire group lead me to wonder, how far could this man have gone before any of us had said anything? 

Patriarchal convention lends itself to the male harasser. We are social creatures, and we exist in a society constructed from oppression. Anything that disrupts the social norms — like, say, — stopping a harasser at a bus-stop, would be considered radical. Echoing the words of the sociologist Erving Goffman (1963) ‘it disconfirms the selves of the participants’ i.e. it shifts the power balance, which upsets those that have majority power (white, cisgender, heterosexual males). That is not to say that I believe there's a conspiracy amongst this demographic to destroy other social groups, nor am I saying that my friends who exist within the demographic itself spend their free time raping and pillaging, rather that our society favours 'white, cisgender, heterosexual males' because they are the group that built our society in the first place. Therefore when one of them decides to express his dominance at a bus-stop, the rest of the social collective accept. 

I was aware of several children witnessing my humiliation. Kids observe behaviour, storing it as data that will inform them on how they should and shouldn’t act. In this case those present were ’mutually monitoring’ (Goffman 1963) the group, so as to be able to a find social meaning behind the actions. That way, when similar actions occur but in a different setting (and just to be clear here, in regards to harassment these setting are multiple, I mean, it could literally happen anywhere...) they will repeat past, learnt, negative behaviour. The journalist Liz Goodman recently published an article about how a man sexually harassed her 13 year old daughter, on the tube, in front of her — IN FRONT OF HER — and how as a mother, she had to grapple with that. How do you tell a frightened child that this experience won’t happen again, when it almost certainly will? 

Then there are the subtler forms of sexism, that work alongside the harasser, making his position stronger than that of the female. Social codes and rituals act as indicators to how we as individuals think and feel. The anthropologist Emily Martin (1996) investigated how language regarding gender was applied in school science text books. She specifically examined how male and female reproductive organs were described. In all her case-studies the female anatomy was portrayed using aggressive or submissive language, whereas the male body, was consistently referred to using heroic terminology.

The female body is also treated ‘lesser than’ in medicine. The male gene is used as representative of the human race, and thus is used for medical research and in the development of new drugs. This has been detrimental to the health of women both physically and mentally. Heart disease medication is a prominent example (Kourany 2010), as is the pharmaceutical companies relationship with the creation and distribution of antidepressants. SSRI’s are part of a complex history of drugs designed and tested by men, but aimed predominately for women (who are 2.5 x more likely to be prescribed antidepressants then men). (Tone 2011.) The history, and the continuing growth of the DSM, is another example of how women have been categorised as hysterical, over-emotional, and weak. 

This backlog of unconscious bias tricks society into thinking that it's somehow acceptable for a woman to earn less than her male colleagues. Furthermore, its expected that a woman should be grateful for getting a good job, and that a key feature of being grateful is to submissively accept harassment. Which is why when a wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual male such as Piers Morgan claims on twitter that the public humiliation of sports presenter Mel McLaughlin by cricket Chris Gayle is not harassment but just ‘[Gayle] being a bit cheeky,’ society accepts.

Sexism (as I see it) holds violent connotations. It is the terror and humiliation I felt at the bus-stop, the underlying and entirely irrational belief that I somehow brought it on myself. That I was asking for it. The repetition too, is nauseating. I’ve been shamed time and time again. Sexism is the acknowledgement of this collective fear. However, the catch 22, is that as women we cannot talk about these interactions because as soon as it's mentioned the label ‘neurotic’ is applied, and society returns to it's silence. (Thankfully the everyday sexism project is beginning to open the door on this).

Is there a solution? Can we fix a problem that is so deeply part of how we think and feel, unconsciously or otherwise? Talking is a good start, recognising that sexism isn’t a blanket expression or an action that happens one moment and is gone the next. It’s not a single violent gesture, it is a history of multiple ones that have been repeated so frequently, with such malevolence — both psychologically and physically — it has affected the psyche of women, and like with any trauma, this will take time to heal. Critically we need to confront harassment head on, together. If you are observing a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, help, be brave. Choose to disrupt social norms and call the harasser out for the cretin that he is. 

It will make a difference, not just to the woman under attack but to society in general.