I, like thousands and thousands of others across the world, have been repulsed by the almost never-ending allegations levelled against Miramax co-founder and Hollywood big wig Harvey Weinstein over the past few weeks. It’s utterly horrible to ponder what these brave women endured at his hands and unchecked whims, and how they scared they must have been of his lasting influence on their careers and identity to feel as though they couldn’t speak up for so long. Almost all of these women were propositioned, many touched or manhandled. Some were even raped. All of this harassment, from even the mildest of discomfort and undesired persistence, are symptoms of a terrible misogyny and tyranny pervasive not only throughout the ranks of Hollywood, but worldwide, in almost every workplace environment. The sexual exploitation of women as a means to frighten and subjugate us is one that is ancient, endemic and, unfortunately, seems to follow us almost everywhere we go. A poll conducted by the BBC only a couple of days ago in the wake of the Weinstein scandal found that almost 55% of women have been sexually harassed at work or their place of study. Almost fifty five percent. A similarly disheartening statistic from Opinium’s polling reveals that 58 per cent of women who have experienced sexual harassment did not report it to their company. The poll goes on to document that the prevailing reason why so many women felt as though they couldn’t report the abuse was intimidation, with 57% citing that they have felt unnerved by the way they have been spoken to at work by their attacker following the incident. In turn, such issues also bring up yet more questions regarding many people’s understanding—or disregard—of consent. Just one little word – yes – or inviting action makes all the difference, and holds so much power.
But that’s the very issue. At its core, sexual harassment and molestation is not so much about a burning lust or attraction, but just that: power. According to research undertaken at the University of Maine, only a very small percentage of harassments in the workplace are the result of innocent misinterpretations of attraction, and the very large majority the result of the harassers utilising distressing sexual behaviours to put women in powerful, traditionally male, positions “in their place.” and control them. A harasser, just like Weinstein, has a very simple goal: to wound, claim and dis-empower the person being targeted.
Workers and employees alike need to come together to attack the blight of misogyny and discrimination from the workplace. It needs to be made clear that disrespectful behaviours of any kind will not be tolerated, and the law and affiliate organizations must spell out more clearly and forcefully the definitions of sexual harassment, the policies they set, and the consequences of any violations for harassers. Employers also need to create more understanding and sympathetic spaces for anyone who comes forward with a complaint. After all, it is the harasser who should have to fear for their position, not the victim.
James Endersby, of Opinium, was quoted in his company’s poll, saying: “The UK has made great steps to ensure everyone has basic rights and freedoms, however our report highlights we have still have some way to go. The stark reality of sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be addressed to prevent such acts occurring in the future, but to also encourage those affected to come forward and have their voices heard.”
And, of course, Endersby is right. But the many women (and men) who face such torment day in, day out need more than words. They need action. We can no longer just explain blatantly inappropriate or distressing acts as “just a bit of banter”. Sexual harassment is desperately dis-empowering, humiliating and can have a life-long effect on mental health, other relationships and overall confidence. Victims are often left feeling ashamed, guilty and frightened. It has no place in a modern workplace, or in wider civilised society, and we must make a stand on this.