Wednesday 16 January 2019

Mary Kenny: Everyday sexism?

Is 'street harassment' a hazard for women - or an exaggerated threat?

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Laura Bates's Everyday Sexism Project is a mission to document the varieties of sexism to which women are subjected in many countries. She's had an enormous response online and the book she wrote about the humiliations endured by respondents makes for depressing reading. Her reports on 'street harassment' alone make you wonder if the Victorians weren't right in providing chaperones for young ladies.

Just last year, according to Laura Bates, "41pc of young women in London experienced sexual harassment in public spaces". She cites some of these accounts in her book, Everyday Sexism. "There isn't a day where I don't get shouted at, followed or stared down. It's like a disease." "The sad fact is that now I just expect to be harassed or followed on my way home from a night out." "My 14-year-old gets cat-called and whistled at so often, she thinks it's just part of life."

"I was flashed twice on my route home; I was groped between my legs at a club and had a man masturbate [in front of me] in broad daylight. I was walking home from a grief counselling session." "I am only just a teenager and it's horrifying, especially when it involves grown men honking at me… I dress appropriately, but even in my school uniform it happens. It's utterly embarassing and makes me fearful of things such as rape."

There are many instances like this, but are they typical of the everyday experiences of most women today? Or are the Everyday Sexism complainants a self-selecting group who are either especially unlucky or especially hyper-sensitive to perceived offence? I asked some of my own Facebook friends to comment on these experiences, and found a range of opinions.

Some women found the 'street harassment' theme overstated. "Why is it that a wolf whistle is considered harassment?" asked Nicola Kelly. "It was a compliment. Might have made me blush but gave me a spring in my step that someone thought I looked good. How many times, after a few glasses of wine, have women the world over discussed who they think is hot? Sexist? Just a bit of fun, surely."

But others disagree and deplore comments made about women's appearance. Lucy Grove wrote: "Women and girls shouldn't have to be informed publicly that men are noticing or examining them or thinking about 'making love to them' (a particularly memorable masturbator on a bus). Years at school dealing with flashers, gropers and presser-uppers on the train makes me very happy about what Laura Bates has achieved [with this project]."

Older women, mostly, took a more sanguine view. "In my youth, wolf whistles were normal, as well as pleasant calls from road workers like 'Cheer up, love!'," commented Bel Mooney. "That never bothered me at all. I would say in all honesty that I did dress quite sexily too. Only once do I recall an overtly sexual comment (from an electricity worker, and it involved 'plugging in')."

And if things have got worse, is ubiquitous pornography to blame? "When Bob Guccione put pubic hair into Penthouse magazine [about 1971], it was a big, shocking thing," recalled Bel Mooney. "Now, all that is freely available online and wider society has witnessed a pornification: fashion, movies, even extending to language. Since viewing porn has become the new 'normal' and children accept 'sexting' as normal behaviour, why is it so surprising that men and boys on the street and in clubs think women and girls are absolutely up for it and 'no' is a come-on?"

Kate Hamlyn echoed this point: "The so-called permissive society of the 1960s and '70s was actually pretty restrained in comparison with our post-porn era."

Are things worse, or are reactions simply different? Social change is often 'multi-factorial' - sands are shifting in a variety of intersecting ways. There has been a coarsening of the culture, for sure, but since chaperones and duennas were once thought necessary to protect young women, sexual harassment of females must always have existed. Yet there were, and are, variations in time and place. (Perhaps reassuringly for Ireland, Fiona Hanley has commented that "I found London and Paris fundamentally different to Dublin. The harassment was constant - daily, pretty much, up to assault and threatened assault. Never really had so much trouble in Dublin.")

'Openness' of speech may have led to more explicitness: my son is quite shocked at the way he hears some lads talk about girls, out loud, on buses. And yet more sensitive men now feel silenced. "Back in the day when I was a civil servant in Dublin, I would make a point of complimenting female colleagues on a new hairdo or a particularly pretty dress - and they seemed genuinely pleased that I took notice. Nowadays my gob stays firmly shut," commented Nigel Cooke.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "It is impossible to bring the sexual instinct under a code of regulations." Maybe not regulations, but codes of chivalry once did urge respect and self-restraint. But perhaps that, now, also belongs with the Victorians.

@MaryKenny4

Mary will be in conversation with Kevin Myers on the theme of 'Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll - and War: The 1960s Legacy' on Sunday June 4 at Listowel Writers' Week

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