Photo By Raymond Boyd
Artillery Row

Bodies for sale

The feminist fix: Sexual harassment will never end if men can pay for it

“Bodies for sale” is the sixteenth article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The fifteenth article, on how surrogacy dehumanises women, can be read here.

Prior to Unison’s Women’s Conference last week, their general secretary Christine McAnea argued that a legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace is “long overdue”. She urged action on the reforms proposed by Women and Equalities minister Liz Truss, that could see employers end up in court. Sexual harassment in the workplace was one of the big discussions at the Women’s Conference this year, with everyone condemning it — after all, how could anybody not?

Paid sexual harassment was completely destigmatised

But then in an Orwellian twist, guess what happened? Paid sexual harassment was completely destigmatised and condoned, and a motion supporting the blanket decriminalisation of all aspects of the sex trade, including pimping, brothel owning and sex buying, was simply rubberstamped by conference delegates.

On the one hand, the Conference condemned sexual harassment in the workplace. On the other, it completely supported the notion that women should be paid to endure it. It defies logic. Even the General Secretary tweeted her support for the motion, with apparently no understanding of the fact that prostitution is commercial sexual exploitation and should never be framed as work or unionised.

This blind spot seems to extend to pornography. As an OFSTED report last year confirmed, there are horrific levels of online sexual abuse and sexual harassment experienced by girls on a daily basis across the UK. There can be no doubt that this is fuelled and exacerbated by the availability of violent, misogynistic pornography which now doubles as sex education for the vast majority of boys.

Girls have told me, during my visits to schools to talk about feminism, that they are routinely subjected to rape jokes in the school corridors, and that some of them have even been photographed semi naked in toilets and changing rooms — images which are then shared around by the boys on Snapchat and WhatsApp.

There can be no effective campaign against sexual harassment until we take seriously the direct and terrible effects that porn has on the sexuality and behaviour of boys and men.

Women know the difference; men are gaslighting us

In universities, young women are of course particularly vulnerable to these effects. A number of surveys conducted in universities have found one in four female students experience harassment or sexual assault.

Then, just as you think it can’t get any worse, Liverpool city council granted a license for a Hooters franchise to open in the city. Hooters is a sports bar selling chicken, to men that expect a bird to serve their bird. The women are required to wear the most demeaning and sexualised “uniform” imaginable, consisting of skimpy shorts, American tan tights, low cut, clinging T-shirts, and to smile through the worst kind of verbal sexual harassment from customers.

I have been in two of these restaurants over the years not for the food, dear reader, but for research and witnessed appalling behaviour from drunken men to the waiting staff. It is seen as just part of the job; in fact, in the USA, the women are required to sign a contract prior to starting work that waives their right to sue the organisation for sexual harassment.

What is the way forward to stop sexual harassment of women and girls, in the workplace, on the streets, in bars and restaurants? We first have to accept that we can’t stop sexual harassment if we normalise the buying and selling of women’s bodies, whether it’s in a brothel, a strip club or a sports bar such as Hooters.

There are those that would say that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of male attention, and complain about women being snowflakes for objecting to the odd compliment here and there. I am sick of being told, dismissively, that “wolf whistling”, a perfectly harmless pastime, is now seen as akin to rape by nasty feminists like myself. It never is just harmless fun; it is meant to harass and demean. Women know the difference, and men are gaslighting us when they say this.

Making misogyny a hate crime is not the answer

Then of course there is the example of Paris Lees, a transwoman who identifies as a feminist, who wrote an article in that well known feminist journal, Vice, entitled, “I Love Wolf-Whistles and Catcalls — Am I a Bad Feminist?” Lees writes of the time on holiday in Ibiza when Lees was “catcalled, sexually objectified and treated like a piece of meat by men the entire week. And it was absolutely awesome”.

Lees even had the brass neck to suggest that a “certain kind of middle-class woman” gets offended by what Lees called “catcalls”. “There’s a sense of being offended if an uncouth or lower-class kind of man — a white van man, for example — heckles,” says Lees, who then goes on the claim that, “those middle-class women apparently believe that all men are rapists in waiting and that all women are victims in waiting.” Fetishising and celebrating harassment is not the way to fix it.

As feminists fighting all forms of male violence and abuse, we are very clear that a world free of sexual harassment must also be free of the sex trade in its entirety. That means every single bit of commercial sexual exploitation: women being paraded in tight, skimpy T-shirts and minute shorts to please male customers, stripper grams, lap dance clubs, brothels, sugar Babe arrangements and the lot.

What is the feminist fix to sexual harassment? We must, first and foremost, stop separating porn and prostitution from male violence, and recognise that a world in which commercial sexual exploitation proliferates, boys will grow up internalising the message that women and girls are there to be used and abused at the whim of men. There is no point bringing in additional laws when the current ones are not being implemented. Making misogyny a hate crime is not, as some women have claimed, the answer. All this would do is give the criminal justice system an additional excuse to not criminalise rape and domestic violence. Sexual harassment happens because women are objectified. True liberation for women can only be realised when our bodies are no longer seen as the property of men.

Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation (Constable, Robinson), was published on 2 September 2021.

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