I had a good laugh at the Guardian G2 headline the other day suggesting that the patriarchy might be dead. The cover had a load of pictures of the hashtag #metoo.
It’s really important that more people are speaking up about experiences of sexual abuse or harrassment, talking about the extent of the problem and trying to call it out for what it is – totally unacceptable. But I think difficulties we face around sex and gender, as a society, run too deep for a hashtag to overturn them.
This cover came in the wake of all the Weinstein revelations and then Gove’s crass joke on Radio 4 comparing an interview with John Humphries to sexual assault, a joke which all the men in the interview laughed along with. I’ve heard several men (and some women) since complain that it wasn’t worth pulling Gove up on this, or that it’s not possible to make a joke anymore.
Jokes about taboo subjects happen all the time, and black humour is part of human coping, but that doesn’t mean it’s not better to call it out when lots of older white men are laughing about a rape joke. I haven’t called out every person who has tsk-ed about the Gove comment – probably (and not commendably) partly because I thought they’d think I was a nag, and partly because I just felt tired at having to explain this stuff. This post is me saying how I see it.
Rape doesn’t just happen to girls and women, but it does happen much more to girls and women. Girls and women are encouraged from childhood by our society to be well behaved and compliant in nature, to dress attractively, and girls are routinely praised for prettiness over skills or accomplishments in a way that boys are not. Women are objectified and sexualised from so young that they take it for granted that part of their self-esteem is dependent on how their looks are perceived by others. Boys and young men are also socialised to see women and girls as sexual objects, and the wide availability of porn coupled with sparse sex education and very little opportunity to talk about issues of emotional relationships and active consent, mean both young men and young women are often left woefully alone with knowing how to negotiate sexual and romantic relationships.
A context which tolerates jokes about rape is a context which minimises sexual assault. When we then tsk at women who complain about this, and ignore the presence of the power imbalances which are often part of harassment situations, we create a culture where the boundaries between compliments and harassment get blurry, where power dynamics are unacknowledged, and where it is often too difficult to say #metoo. It’s all part of the same picture.
The psychological consequences of rape and sexual assault are insidious and far reaching. Rape is one of the worst things that can happen to someone. The effects on sense of identity, self-esteem and peace of mind can be so deeply devastating that they are sometimes simply unbearable. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, not to mention shame, self-blame, self-harm, sometimes suicide, these are possible consequences of rape and sexual assault. Working as a clinical psychologist, I have been in the privileged position of having conversations with many young people who have experienced sexual trauma, most (although not all of them) girls and women. The experiences these young people have withstood are awful. These experiences have not happened in a bubble. The culture that these girls and women have grown up in, that we have all grown up in, has at best enabled and at worst encouraged the treatment they have experienced.
We are so far from the end of the patriarchy that that G2 cover made me laugh. But not because the situation we are in is remotely funny.