"The system of sexual misconduct is crumbling. Let’s finish it together"

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Lucy Mangan
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Dreading Christmas party chit-chat over the Harvey Weinstein scandal? Better not to rise to the bait of those who don’t understand sexual misconduct, says Lucy Mangan. Instead, we should concentrate on collectively taking down the men behind an institutionalised system of abuse.

Last year, my American friends were all dreading Christmas parties at which they would be faced with Trump-supporting colleagues and relatives. This year, at least the discomfort will be international. The topic most of us are dreading over a canapé or cracker is Harvey Weinstein and the myriad harassment stories and issues that have flooded our consciousness since the dam broke under the force of the allegations against him.

Most of my friends are not too worried about men broaching the subject. “They’ve now got enough sense to keep schtum,” as one puts it. It’s the awkward conversations with older females that are likely to be most stressful. As a recent YouGov poll showed, opinions on what constitutes sexual harassment can vary dramatically with age. Some 54% and 53% respectively of 18-24 year old women considered wolf-whistling and a man putting his hand on their back inappropriate behaviour, versus 5% and 25% of over-55s. The findings echo recent comments made by journalist and TV presenter Anne Robinson, who denounced “a sort of fragility amongst women who aren’t able to cope with the treachery of the workplace” compared to her peers’ “more robust” attitudes of 40 years ago. Journalist Ann Leslie also claimed this month that women in the UK now think that if they are touched on the arm “they should scream and say ‘rape coming up’.” 

“The topic most of us are dreading over a canapé or cracker is Harvey Weinstein”

And of course when you hear this kind of thing, whether from public figures, colleagues or your own kith and kin, the temptation is to dive straight into a fight. But it is better not to, for two reasons. First, just as they should (and most do) appreciate that times change and we and our responses change with them, we must accept that we are a product of our climate and others are a product of theirs. 

If your personal or professional formative years were spent in a culture where there was private acceptance and no public awareness of the problem, no place for mass-discussion, no support system at all, your reactions could well be very different. If you had no chance of doing yourself anything but harm by reporting sexual harassment, then silently enduring it, relabelling it, normalising it and/ or pretending to yourself and others that it was nothing is a survival strategy that makes perfect sense. And it is hard to unlearn years later in a less hostile landscape. It comes to feel like a natural response, and one you take pride in finding the strength to maintain

Lucy Mangan says we should avoid Christmas party fall-outs over what sexual harassment means

But more importantly, in-fighting is always a waste of energy and a distraction from what should be our only focus. Which is: that it is not women’s fault that men have done things or that they have got away with these things for generations. The responsibility lies with individual perpetrators and with a system that has protected their freedoms and indulged their foibles at every turn. That system has begun to crumble over the last few weeks and months at a rate I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. Now is the time to keep the pressure up, not break off into factions to war among ourselves. 

Someone has a different opinion from you? Shrug, then put your shoulder back to the wall and keep pushing. I suspect that women of any age who deny the need for change are denying more painful, personal truths to themselves. There are walls within and walls without. Let’s concentrate on bringing down those we can, and let the others fall when they are ready. Push on. Be robust. Change coming up.

Photos: Pixabay, Rex Features