Feminism

We still think sexual harassment is about sex – it’s not

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A recent study from the University of Washington has found that women reporting sexual harassment are more likely to be believed if they conform to stereotypes of femininity and normative beauty standards. 

Participants in the study displayed strong beliefs that ‘prototypical women’ – ones viewed as younger, more ‘feminine’ and conventionally attractive – were more likely to be subject to harassment, based on several scenarios they were given. 

The results may seem shocking but they actually should not surprise us that much. What they prove is what we have known for a while: we still wrongly believe that sexual harassment is all about sex. 

Let’s look back to 2019. In Italy, two men were acquitted of rape charges after the complainant was deemed by judges to be ‘too masculine’ to have been attacked by them. The judges (who were all women) believed the men when they stated that they were not attracted to the victim. The judges said that this meant the men would not have raped her. 

This story isn’t unusual. The same attitude is found replicated around the world by sexual attackers and those who wish to deny their crimes. Donald Trump, for example, claimed that the main reason he couldn’t have sexually assaulted one of his accusers, E. Jean Carroll, in the mid-1990s was that she wasn’t his type. Of another victim, who claimed Trump had assaulted her on an aeroplane in the 1980s, Trump mockingly said ‘believe me, she would not be my first choice’. And it isn’t just those so obviously egregious as Trump who employ this reasoning – ex-MP John Prescott claimed in 2006 that he didn’t assault Linda McDougall because she was ‘built like a bloody barn door’. 

These narratives – and our commonplace acceptance of them – show irrefutably that we frequently conceptualise sexual assault as an extension of sexual desire. Instead of seeing sexual assault as a violent and hateful attack, we convince ourselves that it is somehow the result of sexual attraction that bubbles over and can’t be contained. This is harmful to both ‘prototypical’ women and those who don’t conform to normative stereotypes. Those who don’t conform are often viewed as unlikely victims of sexual assault (regardless of the truth of the matter) and those who do are even sometimes told to be flattered by the attacks they are subjected to – as though such attacks are an affirmation of attractiveness. This attitude is also harmful because it frames sexual violence as the result of desire that cannot be controlled – thus exempting attackers from responsibility and insidiously blaming victims for supposedly ‘provoking’ such desire.

When we believe stereotypically attractive people are more likely to be sexually assaulted, we make a dangerous conflation between perceived attraction and violent action. Rape and sexual assault have never been about sex and sexual desire – they are fundamentally about violence and punishment. Why else do we see rape used so frequently as a weapon of war? And why do we see ‘corrective rape’ used against women who are deliberately targeted for their sexual orientation? Why else would one of the gang-rapists in the 2012 Dehli gang-rape and murder have claimed that decent girls ‘do not roam around after 9pm at night’ – as if those who are outside after this time deserve to be punished? We know sexual violence involves sexual activity, and we would ideally like to live in a world where sexual activity is always the result of consensual sexual desire. But we cannot pretend to ourselves that this is the case by framing sexual violence and harassment as something that exists on a continuum of attraction and desire. 

Fundamentally, sexual violence is about making spaces hostile towards women. It is carried out and justified by those who do not believe that women should have the freedom to go where they like, do as they please and love who they want. It is about forcing women to conform to men’s expectations – and centres around making us aware that this world is only open to us insofar as men will choose to be accommodating.  

A woman’s appearance has nothing to do with whether she will be subject to sexual attacks. And unless we acknowledge that it is only a woman’s gender that matters to her attacker, and not her hair, makeup and clothing, then we will continue to be blindly guided by misconception when it comes to understanding sexual harassment. 

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