Erikka Askeland: Fresh front in battle of sexes

Erikka Askeland
Erikka Askeland
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Everyone duck and run for cover. This week a series of fresh skirmishes broke out on the front line of the long-running war of the sexes.

Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Democrats were chief among the combatants. It is a party I associate with a certain entertaining loucheness, ever since it emerged that Mark Oaten had to resign after hiring male prostitutes, and it appeared former leader Charles Kennedy liked a drink every now and then. Here at least were otherwise bland politicians with some interesting flaws.

Allegations have since suggested that the party’s former chief executive, Lord Rennard, was a bit of a sex pest. To my mind, this sort of character is less entertaining, if only because he is not unique to the Lib Dems. Rather, it is practically commonplace for older, often sexually unappealing men to confuse their positions of authority with Lothario-like powers of seduction.

You can’t put too fine a point on it. Sir Pervy is allowed to thrive because power – be it in parliament or the board room – is still grasped too firmly by some of the blokes. A woman moving among, or even up, the ranks will nigh on inevitably find herself at some point being propositioned, pawed at, or worse – particularly if there is alcohol involved.

Of course, heterosexual men have always used whatever trappings they can get their hands on to attract women, whether it is a sports car, an ermine or even a sense of humour. And there is sometimes a woman who will return these affections, while others might even initiate them.

So, it is important to distinguish between what is unacceptable – an unwanted hand on the thigh at the pub – and what is criminal. In which case, if you can’t count on your HR department, then you can call the police. Of course, it might make working relations in the office difficult if you press charges against the boss, but then you can easily feed yourself for weeks on the delicious diet of righteous indignation.

I welcome times like these, when the skirmish intensifies, because it acts like a brightly-lit freeze frame of the characters on the battlefield. Sure, women are, for the main part, still poorer than men and are often disbelieved if they accuse an attacker. And while the clamour around Lord Rennard is made louder by the awkward squirming of the party leadership over who knew what and when, I think the re-igniting of the debate shows women have made progress.

But I didn’t think this was so when I saw a clip on YouTube from the Oscar ceremony just a few days before. The opening act of the Hollywood event was a full-on song and dance number called “We saw your boobs”. In it, the show’s host, Seth Macfarlane, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA sing about a number of the actresses in the audience, citing the films they had starred that featured what the industry describes as “full-frontal nudity”. The clip cut away to the actresses, including Charlize Theron and Natalie Watts, looking unhappy and uncomfortable.

I initially thought the performance was a scornful step backward, reducing women to objects with the use of a crude taunt that would disgrace the playground. Except, it has since emerged that the social media strategy for the clip was ready from the get go, and the dismayed actresses had filmed their responses beforehand for added dramatic effect. Macfarlane, a professional wind-up artist, meant to lob a grenade that threw off enough light to see where the debate currently stands on the sexual objectification of women, their roles in Hollywood and the stereo-types that underpin them. As a result, the chattering classes lit up, galvanising a host of female journalists, bloggers and other social media users who used the chance to think through their feelings and articulate their views. Was it funny? It doesn’t matter. Was it usefully provocative? You bet.

What made me feel even better was the appointment of internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox to the House of Lords this week. At the age of 40, she is second-youngest person in the House, a place where the average age is 69 and the women are outnumbered at a ratio of about five to one. It’s not a decisive win. But I’m sure her presence will make the men think twice about whether they might try it on and get away with it.