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Artillery Row

Joining the dots on sexism

Parliament’s creepy sexualised culture resurrects throwback stereotypes

The news that Conservative MP Neil Parish is being investigated for watching porn on his phone in the House of Commons this week came closely after the story that some other Tory MPs had accused Labour’s Angela Rayner of employing a “Basic Instinct” style sexual distraction technique on Boris Johnson during PMQs. The implication that Rayner used her body in a sexual way, rather than using her mind in an intellectual way, was a deeply misogynistic trope based on tired sexist stereotypes. A view of women which sees them primarily as physical/sexual rather than intellectual/capable is an old-fashioned throwback to the times before women could even vote, let alone be elected to Parliament. It is wearying to see it trotted out again.

This latest sorry story will further dent any faith women have

In 2015 three judges were sacked for watching porn on the job. Owen Jones was sweetly understanding of the particular weaknesses of these men, calling for us to lay off the criticism because “who knows, maybe an otherwise tense judge seeking a quick bit of relief will concentrate better”. I’m not sure many women would agree with this lighthearted take on the issue.

It might be very worrying indeed to suspect that the judge in your court case had just been viewing extreme and possibly violent sexualised images of women before making his judgement, particularly if your case involved a sexual crime. Similarly, the MPs paid to work on our behalf may be called to make decisions on legislation pertaining to women shortly after they’ve viewed some of the most extreme forms of female debasement. They may well be finding it hard to remember that women are human, too.

At a time when the police force has been exposed for harbouring misogyny at unacceptably high levels, women need to be able to trust public servants wherever they work. This latest sorry story will further dent any faith that women have in the public bodies supposed to protect our best interests.

The displaying of sexual images at work has long been unlawful. The Equality Act 2010 Section 26: Harassment states, “An employer who displays any material of a sexual nature, such as a topless calendar, may be harassing her employees where this makes the workplace an offensive place to work for any employee.”

It’s intimidating for many women to be faced with sexual imagery at work, but it also contributes to a stereotype threat which works against women feeling confident in their abilities and assertive in their authority. Apart from anything else the public objectification of women reminds us all of the power imbalance between men and women. The more extreme forms of objectification as seen in today’s phone-accessible porn reminds women of what men might do to us if they had half a chance, as well as how men might be sexually assessing us as we try to do our jobs.

When men are sexually aroused everything else gets thrown out

There is ample evidence to show that the consumption of heterosexual porn influences men in their relationship to women. The Sexualisation of Young People Review commissioned by the government in 2010 found that “there is a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm”. A University of Buffalo study in 2011 found that “sexualised portrayals of women have been found to legitimise or exacerbate violence against women and girls, as well as sexual harassment and anti-women attitudes among men and boys”. The Journal of Behavioural Decision Making report of 2006 noted that “the increase in the motivation to have sex produced by sexual arousal seems to decrease the relative importance of other considerations such as behaving ethically toward a potential sexual partner”. It’s clear that sometimes when men are sexually aroused everything else gets thrown out of the window.

As more reports of sexual misconduct in parliament are revealed almost daily, it’s time to join the dots between porn use and the continuing sexual harassment of women. It’s unsurprising that the natural and completely normal physical movements of Angela Rayner are interpreted in a highly sexualised way by men whose surrounding culture promotes and rewards the sexualisation of women. The use of porn encourages this sexualisation to the point where women become objects for entertainment rather than real people. Rayner’s actions have been reframed through a porn lens, and that framing came from somewhere. Quite probably the smartphone in the hands of her fellow MP just across the aisle.

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