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Yesterday, after I launched a blog series on sexism in freshers’ week, I received the comment below.  I didn’t let it through moderation, as frankly I didn’t want it to put off other people from sharing their experiences.  I’m reproducing it here because I think it demonstrates attitudes which unintentionally sustain sexism at university, and direct criticism towards the victims of harassment instead of the men who harass.

Dear Blogger,

It is incredible how, 3 years after my first fresher’s week at University, only now I find out about this sexist culture in Universities, about the psychological and social pressure girls go through everywhere because of their desire to fit in. Fit into what? A culture that encourages sex, drugs and alcohol under this tag name? I have never liked clubs because I know what happens there, I know how all girls and women are treated there, and yes young male students may be the promoters, when there is lack of education and respect from their part. But also certain girls should be taken into account.

Clubs, pubs and bars have become the only place where, sex, drugs and alcohol mingle together to produce that sexism everyone is enraged about. And at the same time one should know that the moment you choose to spend your night there as a girl, dress to impress and attract attention in a sexual way, there should be no wonder that sexual harassment occurs.

If, as a girl you do not like to be treated like a commodity, it is better to avoid such events and such people, boys and girls alike.

Regards,

[Name removed]

I’m always grateful for responses to my blog pieces – at least when they’re not simply insults! – and this commenter clearly dislikes the objectification and demeaning treatment which women are subject to.  Thus far we agree.  We also share a hearty dislike of the idea that university culture has to be like this, and that there’s nothing we can do about it.  But there are some major problems in the attitude expressed here.

Firstly, I think it’s clearly not the case that “clubs, pubs and bars have become the only place” in which we find “that sexism everyone is enraged about”.  What about the workplace, where women consistently earn less than men for undertaking the same jobs?  Or powerful institutions such as Parliament, the judiciary and the boardrooms of FTSE-100 companies, where women are massively under-represented?  What about the streets of our towns and cities, where – as the Everyday Sexism Project documents – women are routinely cat-called, insulted and followed home, simply for being out in public?

Narrowing the issue to university campuses, what about the young women at my previous university who were harassed on their way to and from the library when the Safer Sex Ball was taking place, because men attending that party had decided that any woman was “fair game” that night? Or indeed the freshers this week who followed the twitter account for their new university hall, only to receive tweets containing pornographic images and threatening sexual language?  What had these women done to merit being “treated like a commodity”?  Where had they signed up for being treated this way?  The idea that sexual harassment is something which only happens in a club where everyone has gone voluntarily, knowing that the price of entry includes random groping and abuse, seems rather naive.

Secondly, why on earth should that be the price of clubbing?  Why should women have to accept that if they happen to like drinking and dancing, they should pay for it by being objectified and assaulted?  There is an unpleasant edge of blaming the victim in claiming that “certain girls should be taken into account” and that “there should be no wonder” that harassment occurs if a woman chooses to “dress to impress and attract attention in a sexual way”.  This sounds too much like the thin end of a logical wedge which ends in rape victims being cross-examined in court about the length of their skirt, whether they had been drinking wine, or how many sexual partners they’ve had.  It mimics the thinking of a man who assumes that a woman who has had sex has somehow given consent once and for all to everyone.

Crucially, it ignores the notion of consent.  Granted that a woman has dressed up for a club, had a drink, gone with the intention of (gasp) meeting a potential sexual partner, why does that mean she must accept unwanted attention?  Why can our culture not tell the different between sex and sexual assault?  Women have the right to a social life and a sex life without this continual assumption that they’re somehow to blame if someone assaults them.  The idea of consent – such a basic, elementary concept – shows up the shoddiness of this argument.  Only if you don’t really believe in a woman’s right to consent or not, can it be her fault when someone hassles her.  Only if you see women not as individuals with their own agency and intentions, but as a vague collection of interchangeable body parts on display.

It also ignores the highly gendered aspect of the situation.  Not everyone is deemed to have given up their rights to choice and physical integrity by going into a club and doing a shot.  My male friends and I were fond of a dance and a drink when we were undergraduates.  Some of us could reel off on demand the week’s various club nights, including location, style of music, entry price, and cheapest drink to be had at the venue.  But we weren’t generally faced with the choice of being made to feel physically unsafe, or not getting our night out.  We didn’t tend to get hassled on the dancefloor, or seen us as a target if we slumped on a sofa after over-doing it slightly.  We didn’t worry about avoiding our female friends if they were in a large group, in case they were a bit unsafe when “out with the girls”.  We didn’t need to develop signals to check in with each other when we split up to talk to people, to make sure nothing bad was happening to any of us.

But female friends have since told me stories involving all of those situations from their university years.  Shrugging off sexual harassment as the price of having a good time ignores the fact that one particular group is paying the price, and another group is charging that price.  Women are part of the student body, and as such they have the basic student right to get a bit tipsy and silly, without suddenly being in physical danger from other people.  Telling them to stay away from places where alcohol is served and sex is considered – and then blaming them if they are harassed – seems both illogical and unequitable. Above all, women should not have to pass some test of “appropriate behaviour” before they are considered worthy of respect.

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