Socialist Worker

Has the fight against sexual harassment reached a tipping point?

Women are speaking out over sexual harassment and a discrimination. Sarah Bates argues it is capitalism’s failure to deliver on its promises of equality, and resistance by women, that lies behind this recharged fightback

Issue No. 2580

The 2011 Slutwalk protest in London

The 2011 "Slutwalk" protest in London (Pic: Guy Smallman)


There is a wave of anger directed at Hollywood and Westminster as hundreds are speaking out over widespread sexual harassment and abuse.

Famous Hollywood actors, Westminster staffers and journalists talk openly about it.

And the media have been forced to ask how serious allegations were hushed up by those keen to protect the reputations of the powerful.

The scale of the revelations has been unprecedented—and it is very welcome that women have shown the courage to come forward.

Tory sexual harassment crisis shows that Parliament is a cesspit
Tory sexual harassment crisis shows that Parliament is a cesspit
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In both the Hollywood and Westminster scandals many people felt unable to speak out for years or even decades about what had happened.

It feels like we are at a tipping point in the fight against sexism.

There are moments when anger which has been bottled up, denied and held back suddenly breaks through.

People gain confidence from one another and a trickle becomes a flood.

Although there is still a battle, there’s a sense that something has now shifted in social attitudes towards sexual harassment and abuse.

Those who blame women and diminish their experience have been thrown onto the back foot.

And movements against sexual violence in recent years have boosted women’s confidence to come forward.

But the allegations also come at a time when liberal capitalism has failed to deliver even on its promise of formal equality for women.

Workplaces may not have the same openly sexist cultures of 40 years ago but, unlike the 1990s or 2000s, no one is claiming that “women have never had it so good”.

And women now rightly expect to go to work, have the same rights, and be free of sexual harassment.

Control

Yet 50 years after the Abortion Act and 37 years after the Equal Pay Act, women are still fighting for control of their bodies and for workplace rights.

Since the beginning of the 21st century we have seen a resurgence in feminist theory and organisation.

In 2011 Canadian students organised “Slutwalk” protests in Toronto.

A police officer had said “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to protect themselves from sexual assaults.

Feminist activists organised similar “Slutwalks” in cities across the world.

And the following year huge demonstrations swept Delhi after 23 year old student Jyoti Singh died after being gang raped.

Thousands marched in other Indian cities demanding that more be done to protect women.

This recharged fight reflects a new generation of activists who want to organise against sexism.

The Women’s Marches in January this year saw millions take to the streets across different continents.

They were a beacon of hope in the aftermath of the inauguration of Donald Trump, the vile misogynist who boasts of “grabbing women by the pussy”.

Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein (Pic: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone)


But Trump’s election was also a stark warning about how much is still to be won.

Sexism is not gradually fading away—and the fight for women’s rights can go backwards as well as forwards. It affects the majority of women and workplaces.

While many women may have achieved a degree of success in their professional lives, they are still subject to the most horrific sexism.

There is a clash between the promises of equality and the reality of oppression.

Women are a crucial part of the workforce, and some are reaching senior positions.

The percentage of women on the boards of the top FTSE 100 companies has more than doubled since 2011.

And more women are in professions such as politics and journalism.

They are a third more likely than men to go to university in Britain, and more likely to get a 2:1 or first class degree when they graduate.

But even as women enter the most prestigious universities they are still subject to sexism.

Oxford has the highest rate of sexual harassment cases out of all universities in Britain.

According to a Guardian newspaper investigation earlier this year sexual harassment in academia is at an “epidemic level”.

Many women are encouraged to resolve cases of harassment informally and not even lodge official complaints.

A senior lecturer talking about her experience explains that reporting it would turn her into “a pariah”.

“You’re not going to be believed and if you try to complain then you will have no career,” she said.

“I think this is common in academia—who are they going to believe, a lower female or a higher male?”

Equality

So women are being offered more opportunities than ever before, but finding these don’t match up to the promise of equality.

Their experience has crashed into the limits of how much women have actually won in the past half a century of capitalist progress.

In the decade that followed the financial crisis, people increasingly question our rulers and their system.

Seven out of ten people don’t trust politicians and six out of ten don’t trust big business either.

People have found their lives getting worse at the same time as scandals have pointed right to the top of society.

MPs fiddling expenses, the phone hacking scandal, abuse revelations about Jimmy Savile and the truth about the Hillsborough disaster have all shaken the British establishment.

These scandals showed that the ruling class who will go to any lengths to protect their fellows—and the contempt the powerful have for ordinary people.

So it is not surprising that sexist violence is an element of this.

The biggest response to the scandal has been the #MeToo social media campaign, where millions have written about their experience of harassment.

#MeToo has something in common with the Everyday Sexism Project blog.

Now people can write openly about experiences that might previously have been seen as shameful.

It is valuable that women can draw strength from these projects.

But to win, this fight needs to be elevated from the spreadsheets onto the streets.

Oppression is experienced by individuals, but it cannot be systematically resolved on that level. We need collective action.

So, it’s good a “take back the workplace” march was set to happen in Hollywood on Sunday.

This should be repeated, and combative demonstrations should be organised.

Protests

Pickets should be held and protests should be organised by trade unions, workplaces, community groups and student unions.

We should declare a war on harassment and all institutions that allow it.

The fight against harassment is a key battle to be won in the war against sexism.

Every instance of harassment and abuse should be treated with the utmost seriousness. This should be done consistently, and without apology.

But we also need to combine this with the fight against a system that creates and maintains the oppression of women.

‘Marxism insists we can have a society without womens oppression’
‘Marxism insists we can have a society without women's oppression’
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The battle against sexual harassment needs to be linked to the fight for equal pay, maternity leave, free abortion on demand and free childcare.

There are bigoted ideas in the ruling class, and those powerful men who take advantage of their position.

But the oppression of women is something that can’t be reduced to the actions of individuals—however horrific they are.

Women’s oppression is not rooted in ideas in people’s head, but through how society is organised.

Capitalism still needs the family to produce the next generation of workers.

And it’s important to the everyday functioning of capitalism that children, the sick and the elderly are mostly cared for by unpaid women’s labour.

A decade of austerity is hitting people hard, and women often bear the brunt of the cuts.

In this way, bosses benefit from sexist society.

The gender pay gap now stands at 14 percent—and is growing for women in their 20s. At the current rate of change it will take 100 years to close it.

So it’s in the interests of the rich for sexist behaviour to continue unchallenged.

The fight against sexual harassment has to be twinned with the fight for a better society that uproots women’s oppression.


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