#MeToo should supercharge Reclaim the Night marches

A sign at the Reclaim the Night rally in Sydney last year. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

United States President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh probably never expected he would become a central target of the #MeToo movement for his misogynist behaviour in his university years.

But the smug sense of impunity enjoyed by generations of rich white men, who once assumed that sexual violence towards women was a normal part of elite college life, has been well and truly punctured by the movement to end such violence.

The testimony of Dr Christine Blasey Ford before the US Senate Judiciary Committee would have rung true for so many women from Generation X. And the same is true for Millennial women. 

Rising violence

Sexual violence against women is not waning: numerous surveys and reports indicate it is on the rise. But unless we understand the context in which the violence takes place, it will be impossible to seriously address it. 

Margarita Windisch, a sexual assault councillor, explained recently: “Sexual assault and violence are not in and of themselves, innate behaviours: they operate in a particular social context — capitalism.”

Speaking to Green Left Radio about the murder of comedian Eurydice Dixon in June, Windisch said that sexual assault and domestic violence is part of “the spectrum of violence against women”.

They are “symptoms of the unequal economic system that makes women second-class citizens”.

Men’s violence against women is “a necessary enforcer” of this gender oppression, she said. “There is no better way to keep women in their ‘place’ than by using violence against them.”

A report released earlier this year by End Rape on Campus Australia confirms that degrading misogynistic harassment, sexual violence and dangerous, disgusting hazing rituals still take place in university colleges.

Titled The Red Zone, the 200-page report found that one in 12 students staying in university women’s colleges will experience attempted or completed rape during their time at college. 

Chillingly, the authors pointed out that although university administrations were aware of such toxic behaviour they were reluctant to seriously address it despite knowing that it had contributed to self-harm and, in at least one case, suicide.

This inaction of university administrations, which allows violence to continue, shows how deeply entrenched misogynist culture is.

According to The Red Zone report: “The typical college culture celebrates an immature model of Australian masculinity characterised by overt displays of heterosexuality, larrikinism, participation in contact sports and beer drinking.”

“People who oppose boorish, vulgar, dangerous or inappropriately sexualised manifestations of this culture are often accused of being effeminate or unable to take a joke.

“The culture normalises the violation of privacy and bodily integrity in various ways that mainstream society would find unacceptable — for instance, the drinking of dangerous amounts of alcohol, urine, vomit or faeces, or the undertaking of dangerous stunts and challenges that frequently result in injury. 

“This normalisation of self-abuse by the dominant culture, whether by design or accident, ultimately blurs the line around what is and is not abusive conduct by others.

“This, in turn, makes speaking out against that abuse more difficult.”

Blasey Ford’s brave decision to finally go public after 36 years with an account of her assault by Kavanaugh illustrates this fact. 

Workplace harassment

This misogynist culture extends far beyond university colleges.

An Australian Human Rights Commission report, released on September 12, confirmed that sexual harassment is “widespread” and “pervasive” in Australian workplaces. 

Everyone’s business: the fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces found that one in three people — an extraordinary number — have been sexually harassed at work in the past five years. This represents a marked rise in the prevalence of harassing behaviours compared to previous surveys.

The report, which sampled 10,000 people, found that men mostly perpetrate the harassment, and that it continued over an extended period. Half of all the victims had experienced similar harassment before and “a substantial proportion experience negative consequences as a result, such as impacts on mental health or stress”.

Despite this, the report found that reporting of sexual harassment at work continues to be low: only 17% made a formal report or complaint. 

The most common form of workplace sexual harassment was an offensive sexually suggestive comment or “joke”. More than half the harassment took place at the person’s workstation and was directed at an individual.

One quarter of the incidents happened in a social area, in front of others.

Forty percent of workplace sexual harassment incidents were witnessed by at least one other person and in the majority of these the other person did not try and intervene.

Women reported higher levels of offence and intimidation: 21% felt “extremely offended” compared to 12% of men, while 16% of women felt “extremely intimidated” compared to 10% of men.

Most of those interviewed did not report their experience or seek support or advice because they believed that a formal complaint would be viewed as an “over-reaction”. Other reasons may have included fear of losing their jobs, something the survey did not ask. 

Only one in three bystanders took action to intervene, most commonly to talk with or listen to the person who had been harassed.

The most common reason given for not taking action was knowing that another person or people were already assisting. But one quarter said they did nothing because they did not want to make things worse for the person being harassed.

The 187-page report’s findings suggest that, overwhelmingly, workers are aware that sexual harassment is wrong, even if it is only defined as unlawful in certain areas of public life (employment, education, the provision of accommodation, the provision of goods, services and facilities in clubs). 

Its conclusions call on “government, employers and the general public” to take action to change workplace culture and, in particular, to “change the underlying social norms and inequalities that contribute to sexual harassment, to change workplace cultures that do little to address sexual harassment and to respond appropriately when sexual harassment occurs”.

What next?

The #MeToo movement is doing its bit in the campaign to stop sexual harassment and assault. Pressure is mounting on governments, employers and university administrations, but it needs to grow a lot stronger for institutions to take lasting action.

This year’s Reclaim the Night marches, being organised in October, provide an opportunity to demand real action — and now. 

The protests were first organised in Australia in 1978, and were influenced by German women who organised a “Take Back the Night” protest the previous year against sexual harassment against sex workers. Their protest also inspired women across Britain to organise marches in 11 cities in 1977 in response to the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders in Leeds.

The protests here and elsewhere were about making the point that women should be able to walk anywhere, at any time, and that they should not be blamed or restricted because of men’s violence. 

Today, the marches are organised to highlight women’s right to feel safe, no matter where they are, who they are with, what they are wearing or whether it is day or night time. 

They are taking place as the #MeToo movement has reached the upper echelons of the US establishment’s misogyny.

For that we can feel some sense of achievement, even if this is a very painful process for the women involved and for millions of other women who will never have the possibility of receiving justice.

The struggle for a world free of sexual violence must continue.

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