Perhaps it sounds outlandish to you, as it does to me, when Harvey Weinstein lawyer Donna Rotunno says of the #MeToo movement, that “I feel that women may rue the day that all of this started when no one asks them out on a date, and no one holds the door open for them, and no one tells them that they look nice.”
With this statement, Rotunno muddies the waters between sexual harassment in the workplace and standard flirtation, between predation and attraction, and between abuse of power and consent. It’s a comment that accuses women, en masse, of lacking the cognitive abilities to really comprehend what we want, playing directly to the peanut gallery of those prejudiced against us.
And yet as perverse as this defence is, it is neither surprising, nor even particularly rare. The same sentiment, arranged in different wording, can be seen all over social media. It can be overheard at freshers’ week.
It has been issued by many, many commentators in mainstream media, who have responded to a seismic cultural evolution – of women encouraged to more vocally stand up against assault and harassment – with brittle and defensive puffing, projecting themselves straight into the role of accused rather than empathising with those at a power disadvantage, and actually asking, often with significant righteousness and expectation of audience agreement, if those opposed to being groped while trying to go about their jobs are the ones who have gone too far.
How does this affect me, they ask, as though more social pressure to treat women as equals is an affront to their own human rights.
In this, many framings of sexual harassment and violence against women in the public conversation have mirrored and sought to actively defend the status quo rather than challenging it, with instincts not dissimilar from online trolls with their hostile, petulant attitudes towards women.
When conservative and overwhelmingly white women voted for Donald Trump, they were ingratiating themselves with a particular kind of macho power rather than standing up to it, believing someone else to be the ultimate target of the administration.
Sheltering within the patriarchy
A significant number of voices in the public realm, on the radio and in columns, are able to grasp the power differentials of complex legal and political matters just fine, but their logic flies out of the window at the prospect of women asserting themselves.
They are free to make a different choice about where their critical energies go, but after all, tackling the patriarchy is challenging. Many find it easier, even profitable, to shelter within it. These reactionary views often shimmer with a glint of panic about modernisation and their own inability to hold on as the world keeps turning.
While some mainstream feminist markers of the last decade will come to feel very of the moment, such as fad t-shirts made in sweatshops with gimmicky slogans, the genie is out the bottle when it comes to understanding of consent, and there is little excuse not to get with it.
Outside of regressive, contrary framings, conversations have become more nuanced about what consent actually means, and there is more social support for establishing boundaries. This is the biggest achievement of the MeToo movement.
But it has been a terrible week for efforts to tackle sexual violence across the board.
On Tuesday, the 19-year-old British woman who retracted her accusation of gang rape by a group of Israeli men under concerning circumstances, to then be tried for false accusation, was sentenced by Cypriot courts to a four-month suspended jail sentence. Legal and women’s charities have highlighted troubling details of the case, pointing to forensic evidence which backs the woman’s account, and the possibility of intimidation.
Found guilty, found guilty, found guilty, boomed headlines in Britain in the echo of the judge’s gavel.
This reverberates through our society. It’s in the high proportion of victims of sexual violence who do not report it for fear of not being taken seriously. It’s in the statistic that men themselves are more likely to be a victim of sexual violence than to face a false rape accusation.
There are reports of Israeli citizens drawn into the case and showing support for the young woman, some going so far as to travel to Cyprus to protest.
What happened to the 19-year-old woman in Cyprus may be one worst-case scenario, but there are others. Several weeks ago, a young woman in India was set alight on her way to testify at a rape case. She died from the injuries.
Some of the anger here is a little nationalistic in temperature, affront at the idea a court in Cyprus might mistreat a British citizen, and certainly there is lots to criticise in the handling of this case.
Low rates of prosecution
But, while each individual story that becomes breaking news is troubling in its own right, we must remember that British citizens are let down every day by how we handle sexual violence in this country. These nightmare cases have hit the headlines, but there are many more painful stories of violence and intimidation that never see the light of day. There are thousands of them, held in individual bodies and minds.
Low rates of prosecution. A lack of support for male victims. Universities brushing problems under the carpet. Clunky and sensationalised reporting. Long waiting lists for mental health support. Defence which scrutinises the private sexual lives of victims in order to capitalise on the deeply abhorrent idea that the victims were asking for it, leaning on sexist and homophobic tropes.
Recently, Rape Crisis Scotland fundraised to keep open helplines and support centres, revealing the statistic that “on a typical day in Scotland 1,035 survivors were waiting to access ‘life-saving’ Rape Crisis Support.” Why must they fundraise at all?
When someone next asks if women standing up for themselves has gone too far, or uses their platform to minimise the scale of harassment and violence, remember these people, because it is about them.