It’s not every day something occurs that leads you to question your very own principles, let alone leads you to question the principles of your fellow man – and I do mean man. However when The New Yorker reported on several allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, that moment arrived for me.
By now I assume all are aware of the multitude of allegations levelled at the disgraced producer. Allegations ranging from his apparent fixation with interviewing actresses in his bathrobe to two separate accusations of rape have rightly dominated the press over the last few weeks. Like many others, the testimonies of these “brave women” – emphasis on their bravery, I’ll come back to that in a bit – left me feeling disgusted and suddenly very angry.
How could events like these occur in today’s society? I immediately wanted to sit down and rattle off an article condemning the actions of a predator, if only to add my voice to that of the majority of people who have watched these events unfold and have reacted with dismay and anger.
It was only when I took pause to think that I began to ask myself, “Why am I so angry?” Why this time? It took me a while to realise the reason I was so shocked was the simple and worrying fact that somewhere deep down, a part of me still thought that events such as these didn’t widely occur anymore. That while, yes, I’d heard stories in the past, I still believed that, on the whole, we were past this as a society. Maybe what was waking me up was that this case was about the film industry, one I have always had a great fondness for. Whatever it was, I was suddenly taking a cold hard look at my own beliefs.
A study undertaken by Pew Research Centre found that while 63% of women believe there continue to be major obstacles for women as a result of sexism, only 41% of men feel the same way. But does even this smaller percentage really feel that?
Let me clarify: when asked “Does sexism still exist in modern society?” I have always and continue to answer “Of course!”. It’s always seemed the rational and correct answer. I have heard stories from many women about their own experiences with sexism and have never had reason to doubt them. I, therefore, would have always placed myself in that 41% of men who agree that sexism still poses an issue.
However, while I proudly place myself within this group, this may not be the complete truth. While this is hard to admit, and I have simply ignored it in the past, there has always been a whisper in the back of my head, saying: “Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s not as bad as people say?” And, “Surely, society has finally overcome these issues in the 21st century?”
I reasoned that I’ve never experienced sexism; I like to think that I have never knowingly been sexist, and I have been lucky enough to grow up in a section of society that has always seemed very fair. So, if I have not witnessed this so-called sexism, the whispering voice says, can it really be as bad as people claim?
To be faced suddenly with a story that describes a leading producer in a multi-million-pound industry forcing women to feel his genitalia and widely using his power to silence women about his abuse is certainly enough for any lingering doubts to crumble swiftly. Suddenly you are faced with the reality. that these events still exist and they are nowhere near as rare as you once thought. That’s more than enough to make you angry, I assure you.
If this was the first realisation I came to as a result of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the second rapidly followed. As soon as I had expelled any doubts about the existence of sexism in modern society it was as if someone had removed a veil from my eyes. I’ve never experienced sexism? Of course I have.
I’ve been witness to sexist behaviour throughout my life. Whether it be throwaway comments made about women on a night out that do nothing but objectify them. Or a casual joke told in passing: “UGG boots…more like slut wellies”. Maybe that time on a sport social when we had to run up to the members of the women’s team and proclaim “deal” or “no deal” after only a quick glance up and down (an activity slightly ameliorated by the women responding with their own version; our gleeful smirks quickly replaced by embarrassed skyward squints).
Here I must stress that I am not claiming that we who have commented on a girl on a night out, or participated in our game of deal or no deal are deep-rooted sexists. On the contrary, I believe that we would all be the first to argue against sexism in society and certainly would claim to be part of the 41% who agreed that it still poses an issue for women. What we are left with therefore is some sort of reality gap. How can I champion the struggle of women in society and then turn around to objectify them?
Somehow I had stumbled upon a significant and prominent issue within modern society: the everyday normalisation of sexism. That, as a result, seemingly leads to a failure to recognise it in everyday life.
In light of the allegations against Weinstein, it quickly became apparent how few men were speaking out on the matter. As the story began to grow, more and more “Brave” women began to reveal their personal experience or condemn the actions inflicted on their friends and professional associates. Emma Thompson gave us a shocking insight into an industry that seemed to ignore the multitude of misogynistic acts carried out. Cara Delavigne spoke of her desperation when meeting with Weinstein, forced to start singing simply to try and distract him from his advances. The men, however, seemed to keep rather silent about it all.
The likes of actors such as Ben Affleck slowly creeping onto twitter to claim they were unaware of what had occurred – a claim later challenged by actress Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein’s accusers. Or director Quentin Tarantino deflecting the question, claiming he needed more time to think about his feelings on the matter. The Guardian, while investigating the claims, contacted more than 20 male actors and directors who have worked with the movie mogul over the years, yet all declined to comment or failed to respond. Colin Firth, seemingly alone, did express regret that at the time he had offered no more than sympathy to an actress deeply distressed after an encounter with Weinstein.
Many have used the male silence to point to a broad culture of misogyny that exists within the entertainment industry. I, however, cannot help but feel that it is evidence of an even wider cultural problem with modern society, the cowardice of men to speak out on sexism. Just like I have simply neglected to associate the actions of myself and other men with sexism, I am also guilty of failing to call people out on it. But while this could be put down to the normalisation of such “banterish” actions and the seemingly translucent nature of sexism in current society, it’s only one reason. Fear is the other. And it’s far more potent.
As a member of a sports team, or a group of young men, why do we fear being the one to simply say “stop” when we are confronted with our own sexist actions? I can only think that we are in some way terrified of being excluded from our own male cohort. Terrified that we won’t be accepted if we reject this common, and seemingly harmless, practice. A comment isn’t apparently causing any harm so why threaten your own position within your perceived community by calling it out? It is this attitude that I believe poses the biggest danger to progress.
I am not claiming that due to the normalisation of sexism in society, the male members of the Hollywood industry were oblivious to acts of sexual harassment under their noses. Sexual harassment certainly cannot be claimed to have been normalised. But until men have the courage to stand up to their fellow man when they observe even “innocuous” sexist behaviour then I am afraid that these most recent revelations, far from being a watershed moment, will simply be forgotten as yet another incident of industrial sexism. Quickly overlooked until the next time a woman is brave enough to speak out.
In the last few days, the twitter hashtag #IDidItToo has begun to circulate, with a few men beginning to share their personal experiences of sexism or sexual harassment, experiences that they either witnessed or participated in. Just maybe we have turned a corner now. However, until this becomes the norm, and men overcome their perceived pressure to stay quiet, especially with their friends, advancement in sex relations will be frustratingly slow.
The world is full of stories of “brave women” coming forward to expose their abusers, to testify to the misconduct of their male colleagues, to share stories of sexism that they have been witness too. While I always, and always will, applaud the strength and courage of these “brave women” coming forward. I can’t help but think, it’s about time us men were the brave ones for a change.