Between Fear and Freedom: How Sexual Harassment is Forcing Us to Choose Sides

In 2013, with the help of female activists, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. These Islamists who seized power then declared women fair game for abuse and sexual harassment if they returned to the streets to demand equal rights. Egyptian Salafi preacher Abu Islam said that female protesters in Tahrir square are ‘crusaders’ who ‘want to be raped’ and have ‘no shame, no fear’.

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Mohammed Omer/IPS

Mohamed Morsi’s government then introduced patriarchal laws based on Egypt’s version of Sharia law. Clerics began issuing fatwas to encourage men to rape any females if they dared protest. A Muslim Brotherhood family expert was quoted as saying that a ‘woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house’, justifying spousal abuse and suggesting that a victim must be taught she ‘had a role in what happened to her.’

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Egyptian army soldiers arrested a veiled female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo, December 17, 2011. The soldiers proceeded to disrobe and harass her and stomp on her breasts, sparking outrage. Reuters/Stringer

But it isn’t only Islamists who have been trying to subordinate women. Some in the West have also been employing similar rhetoric to water down sexual harassment.

In the wake of the Westminster sexual harassment investigation, the leitmotif of deflecting at least some of the responsibility onto women for sexual harassment is just the other side of the Islamists’ same dirty coin.

Peter Hitchens recently opined in the Daily Mail on the topic of sexual harassment complaints, dubbing those who spoke up about the problem, ‘squawking flapping denouncers of groping men and “inappropriate” jokes’.

Wistfully pining on by-gone times predating the Sexual Revolution, he foresees how ‘squawking’ at even minor sexual flirtation as though it were tantamount to rape is a slippery slope that will lead to chaperoned encounters, consent forms, and a female modesty dress code.

Hitchens’s reluctance to embrace what seems to be a moral panic over relatively harmless forms of sexual interaction highlights a serious dilemma that is being forced on feminists between wanting liberation from paternalistic control on the one hand, and claiming to need it as protection from a ubiquitous male ‘enemy’ on the other.

Hitchens rightly points out that women are constructing their own prison by corroborating the myth that all men are predatory animals who lack the ability to control their behaviour. If this were true, then just as in the Islamist imagination, women or an authoritarian guardian state would have to assume responsibility for men’s behaviour when that responsibility should instead rest with individual male agents.

But if women are complicit in the fiction that individual men are part of an abstract ‘type’ – beings who are universally sexually abusive – then the Islamist ideology wins. Instead, women need to press for stronger enforcement of existing Western laws against rape.

They also need to stand up for themselves and fight back, individually and in solidarity with other male and female feminists, to isolate and reject male misconduct and to sustain the consensus that it is socially unacceptable. This means that both male and female feminists must assume responsibility for confronting individual men who abuse their freedom and who choose to prey upon free women.

Ironically, Hitchens’s tongue-in-cheek article was not too far flung and probably had Islamists’ knickers in a twist for giving away their game. Hitchens, a self-proclaimed prude and social conservative who laments the breakdown of marriage and the traditional family, suggests that women’s liberation has gone too far and that the myopic belief that unrestrained freedom leads to utopian happiness has led to the abandonment of decent rules of fidelity and constancy.

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Are the sexual revolution and women’s liberation really to blame for sexual harassment? Still from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) directed by Paul Mazursky, credited in bringing sexuality to foreground of Western public consciousness [ Columbia / The Kobal Collection ]
Progressive feminists might consider giving Hitch some ground and conceding his point rather than letting an alternative, regressive view of human sexuality divide and conquer the (liberal and conservative) Western feminist consensus on sexual equality.

This means that Western feminists may have to acknowledge that not all variants of Western post 1960’s sexual liberation have been equally positive for women, men, or the family. This would explain why Conatus News and other social media outlets seem to be fighting on two feminist fronts simultaneously: one against authoritarian religious male chauvinism and another against sexual exploitation and commodification of women’s bodies.

On the other hand, if Mr Hitchens means to imply that sexual liberation invites abuse, then he might do well to take a page from Cate Blanchette’s book. The 48 year-old actress used her platform at the Style Icon awards to remind the audience that ‘Women like looking sexy, but it doesn’t mean we want to f*ck you.’

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Cate Blanchett at ‘InStyle Awards’ [Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for InStyle)
This highlights the Western emphasis on female sexual agency, which has been one of the key structural measures of equality between the sexes (which Hitchens supports). Acknowledging that women, just like men, have their own sexual desires and do not exist primarily to passively feed men’s desires was one of the key changes that led to women’s equality in the 1960’s. The idea that women are full adult human beings, equal to men in their sexual agency and dynamism, was a key advance over the prudish Victorian view of invisible and non-threatening female sexuality.

Hitchens, despite his conservatism, did not imply, as some male chauvinists do, that sexual harassment and abuse is absent in countries where the sexes are segregated and women are veiled.  Australian extremist Sheikh Zainadine Johnson said to his followers,

“Men should be able to control themselves. This is a common argument against the Islamic hijab. I totally agree, they should be able to control themselves, however facts show many don’t, this is why a hijab is necessary for women.”

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Sheikh Zainadine Johnson says hijab is ‘necessary for women’ [Image: Il Populista]
This implies that sexual assault and abuse is absent in countries where the sexes are segregated and women are veiled. Not only is that a patent falsehood (abuse is simply more ritualised and permissible as part and parcel of social arrangements, like marriage) but the segregation and enforced female dress codes are themselves forms of female constraint and apartheid. They do not improve the situation for women, but are chief means by which it is made worse.

Like Hitchens, Douglas Murray has suggested that we are in the midst of a counter-sexual revolution in which all encounters between the sexes are being demonised. Hitchens and Murray perceive that ‘sexual freedom is turning into sexual fear’.

Legitimate fear of opportunists exploiting the claims surrounding sexual abuse, however, must not descend into sugar-coated victim-bashing. The presence of a few liars should not overshadow the claims of genuine victims. Nor should these influential cultural critics conflate what are two very different issues: consensual sex and sexual abuse.

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The presence of opportunists should not be an excuse to silence the voices of those who have suffered at the hands of sexual predators.

Admission of guilt by Kevin Spacey and British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon have thankfully deprived sexists of the opportunity to term the entire rumpus about abuse as just hear-say. It is unfair to expect abuse victims to shut up merely because now ‘too many’ are speaking up.

The #Metoo campaign was not about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, or Westminster. It was a global petition to end the system of exploitation and abuse of power, which puts vulnerable individuals at risk of manipulation. If this campaign is to work, however, it must not become a substitute for the real world defence of women’s liberation and sexual agency.

For both men and women, with agency comes responsibility. This means not calling on paternalistic authority figures to fix every slight human transgression. Feminists (male and female) must exercise the agency they possess by actively opposing sexist behaviours from root to branch just as they currently do towards racist attitudes and speech.

Only by using the freedoms we already possess will we maintain the relatively large endowment of liberty we’ve inherited from the feminists and other activists of our recent past.

1 Comment

  1. Libbers’ descriptions of western society……”patriarchy reinforced by street thugs and rapists”—-perfectly describes Islamic society, taharrush, &c &c &c, complete with a holy Writ that declares kafir women helal for any Muslim to take at any time and place. But they love Muslims and hate the white men whose ideals (freedom, tolerance, &c &c &c) they claim to lack and desire for themselves. Can somebody make sense of this? Surely the appeal of all this oppression can’t be logical, so with what part of womens’ (and especially leftist women’s) psyches does it appeal to?

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