Why is it so difficult, even for “intelligent” people, just to see women as human beings?
I’m not sure how many more articles I can bear to read about the sexual assault of women by university students, who are then given slap on the wrist, token sentences because they are ‘promising’ or they ‘showed some repentance’. How many more articles where the reporting is skewed from the very beginning against the victim. Brock Turner is the most famous case recently but there have been two more in the last two days. A man repeatedly sexually assaulted a woman at Oxford University, leaving her psychologically scarred. The Telegraph headline? ‘Highly intellligent’ Oxford University student accused of sexual assault. Note: the backlash has been so strong that they have now changed the headline to just ‘Oxford University student’ – but the tone of the article itself is horrible. It references another case from a few years ago where the male student was cleared of all charges, and quotes people saying that there was no way of knowing if people were using sexual assault allegations ‘to settle scores’. Nice and impartial at this early stage of investigation, then. A collection of students at a university in Tokyo have been convicted of sexually assaulting a woman, but given suspended sentences because they showed some signs of remorse. These men founded a group with the specific aim of getting women drunk and assaulting them. They purposefully got a woman intoxicated, forcibly undressed her, poured boiling noodles on her body, groped her, beat her, and applied a hairdryer to her genitals. One of the students justified his actions saying that female students were ‘intellectually inferior.’
But he’s been given a two-year sentence. Suspended for four years. Because maybe he said he was sorry. Do you think he apologised before or after suggesting that women are a lesser form of human being? His actions say that he believes that women are not only intellectually inferior, but so completely beneath his own level of evolution that they deserve to be treated like… like what? I would treat no animal or being on earth the way he treated that woman, and neither would most right-minded people. Why is this being swept under the carpet, again and again and again and again?
Emma Watson spoke out at the UN yesterday about the epidemic of sexual assault on university campuses. I am so grateful to her for talking about it so publicly, at a time when these cases are being reported more widely, but the sentencing is still an insult to every woman on the planet. Reporting is rare and will get rarer when those who do speak out are then not only subjected to an interrogation on their drinking and sexual habits, but also have the humiliation of seeing their attackers given token sentences, joke sentences, often because they are white, or because they can swim, or throw together an essay, or made some half-arsed apology – when they are convicted at all.
My blood boils at the injustice of all of this. People talk about the difficulties of consent and the blurred lines of intoxication but it boils down to the fact that these people do not see women as people. They are not on the same level, they are merely things. Their brains are inferior, their ideas are worthless and their bodies are there for the taking. We see the first two ideas every day in the concept now known as ‘mansplaining’. I’m sure there will be raised eyebrows at me linking sexual assault and mansplaining in the same piece, but the truth is that men mansplain to – or perhaps at – women because they fundamentally do not believe they are worth listening to. They are not worth engaging in conversation like they would with a man, because there is no way that a woman would have an idea they hadn’t already had themselves. They are inferior. Even if she’s an expert on the topic, and has quite literally written the book on it. You can feel it when you’re talking to men, that they’re not listening, they’re just nodding you along, impatiently waiting for you to stop so that they can tell you how it really is, even when they’re repeating what you’ve said, and telling you what you already know, but they don’t notice because they think their words have so much more impact than yours ever could. It’s so prevalent in business meetings that the women at the White House now have a specific policy of backing each other up in meetings: if one of them makes a point, another woman will back her up and repeat it before a man has a chance to disregard it or say it in his own words and claim the credit.
Obviously these are two very different problems. But they are both massive problems facing women, in all walks of life, every day. At universities specifically, the sexual assault statistics are terrifying (1 in 3 women in the UK are sexually assaulted at university) and of course lectures are prime spots for men taking the microphone and shouting their thoughts and oh-so-interesting and original ideas over those of their classmates. Studies have shown that women are far less likely to speak up in these situations, because they are used to being silenced and having their ideas treated as nothing. You may think that universities are hallowed places of study and intellectual debate but this is the reality for many women, that every day they are treated as something less. They have to cope with being ignored and talked over and having their needs brushed away, over and over, and perhaps if they are unlucky (but, sadly, not so very rare) their autonomy over their own body will be taken from them.
I am so glad that Emma Watson is speaking out. After the success of her #HeforShe speech at the UN two years ago, it is to be hoped that more concrete positive action will be taken not just on the campuses to try and curb sexual assault, but in the sentencing of these people to make it clear that having ‘promise’ as a student or a sportsperson will not be enough to get you out of jail. I am, however, upset that Google results for her speech are at present mostly on websites which seem to be specifically targeted at women, if the topics on the website banner are anything to go by: ‘Fashion’ and ‘Beauty’ etc. Ed Byrne also mentioned the subject on Mock the Week last week, in the section on ‘if this is the answer what is the question.’ Where the answer was ‘one year’, he said: ‘the sentence Charles Manson would have got if he’d been a promising swimmer.’ The remark drew some laughs and a lot of ‘oooohs’ from the audience – whether because they thought it was accurate or because they thought it was too much, I wasn’t sure. I am grateful to Ed Byrne too for not letting the topic of Brock Turner drop, for continuing to say, this was wrong, and we need to change it. But it’s just a comedy show, and I wish it was being shouted about in places by people who are going to do something about it.
I don’t know how we can get the people who commit these acts to start believing that women are not a highly developed breed of dog, but human beings who are the intellectual and emotional equivalent of men. I don’t know how we can convince them that we are not mere sexual beings who can be commented on, and touched, and silenced, at their leisure. I am so tired and desperate about it all today. I read stories about people doing wonderful things for each other, I read excellent books showing how brilliantly people can write about and imagine totally equal genders, and then I read an article on the Yazidi women who are being captured by Isis. Killed if they are ‘undesirable’, and sold as sex slaves if they are ‘desirable’. I read articles about smart men being accused of sexual assault, with ‘Highly intelligent’ the opening to the headline. I read about men treating women like meat, and being let off, because ‘rehabilitation was a possibility’ – I am all for a rehabilitative prison service, but there has to be a punishment too for acts like this. I see a man running for presidency of one of the most powerful countries in the world, who is also accused of sexual assault of a minor and whose comments on women make me physically sick.
I hope I can write a different kind of article about it all in a year, or a decade. I want to start reading different kinds of stories.