Thursday, 1 August 2013

How can government fight everyday sexism?

Thanks to the work of some admirable women, many of us are becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which women are harassed, groped, and intimidated in their everyday lives. Social networks and blogs are becoming spaces where people can share disturbing experiences, find solidarity, and open the eyes of men to just how odious other men can be.

My eyes have been opened, and having been disgusted by what I've been seeing, I did what I do these days when I find an aspect of our culture or society that needs changing. I reached for my laptop to start writing a policy motion*, trying to think of the things that government could do to spare people harassment and trauma.

I included three things I thought government could do to change our culture:
1) Improve relationship and sex education.
2) Develop rape prevention classes and advertising campaigns.
3) Develop public information campaigns to promote appropriate responses to sexual assault or harassment in victims and witnesses.

1) Improve relationship and sex education

When David Cameron delivered his speech on internet pornography last month he described many ways that children could theoretically be prevented from accessing pornography, but completely ignored the thrust of the major report "Basically... porn is everywhere." produced in May of this year. In the accompanying press release Dr Miranda Horvath, Senior Lecturer, Middlesex University said:

"It is clear that children and young people want and need safe spaces in which they can ask questions about, and discuss their experiences with pornography. The onus must be on adults to provide them with evidence based education and support and help them to develop healthy, not harmful relationships with one another."

I'm not surprised our Conservative Prime Minister has baulked at the idea of adults talking to children about pornography, but I am disappointed. It seems likely that preparing children for what they might encounter in pornography and helping them develop healthy attitudes towards relationships, sex, and gender roles through education is going to be far more effective in changing our culture than placing all the internet porn in a cookie jar and putting it on a high shelf.

2) Develop rape prevention classes and advertising campaigns.
This part of the proposal doesn't need much explanation beyond a recommendation that you read this excellent blog post by Christin Bowman. On the issue of advertising, Police Scotland already have a campaign "We can stop it", though to me it stops well short of communicating the same level of derision and stigma as the Canadian "Don't be that guy" campaign. On rape prevention classes, if they work - and they certainly appear to - then we should use them. We need to ask ourselves when we should use them though. Do we deploy them in the later school years, in colleges and universities, or even in work places with high numbers of young people? Could we even develop targeted delivery for those identified expressing sexist attitudes or harassment. If we could identify transgressors who stop short of a criminal offence, could we perhaps compel them to attend a Commission for the Dissuasion of Everyday Sexism (with an acronym that could be pronounced as the suitably stigmatising "seedies")? 
3) Develop public information campaigns to promote appropriate responses to sexual assault or harassment in victims and witnesses.

And so to the final proposal, and I think the one that - if it works - has the greatest potential to transform our culture and people's safety from assault in public places. This idea stemmed from something that I was picking up from many of the blogs and articles that I was reading on the subject. It makes me very uncomfortable to know that a very common response to being harassed or assaulted in a public place is to freeze, to try to ignore the assault and to hope it stops. It's quite sickening to think that I might have been in the presence of a sexual assault and not have known, that I could have prevented distress and trauma if I had been more aware or had heard or seen a sign. The freezing response might be due to a reluctance to make a fuss, or a lack of confidence in society to come to their aid. Regardless of the reason we have to consider how we might change attitudes and behaviours in both victims and bystanders so that we can create a genuinely hostile environment for the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.
I think a public information campaign could be developed, like this one in which Vinnie Jones intervenes to save a life. But for this campaign you'd have clear instructions on what to do in case of assault or harassment for the victim, the witnesses, and the perpetrator.
For the victim, there might be key words or gestures that could be used to indicate that they were uncomfortable to witnesses. Words for quieter public places, and gestures for noisy environments like pubs or clubs, or whichever is easiest at the time. Perhaps a clear warning could be issued before deploying these words or gestures when the victim is unsure of whether to escalate.
Witnesses, on hearing or seeing these words or gestures, should feel obliged to intervene, firstly with an audible or physical gesture warning, then perhaps by deploying technology to make a record of the perpetrator's identity and behaviour (over 50% of adults have smartphones now), before passing them to the police. And by witnesses, I mean all witnesses should engage in this behaviour if they can. If witnesses have been exposed to the public information campaign their perception of their behaviour would hopefully convert from having to be brave/stupid to intervene, to having to be cowardly or to neglect their duty to not intervene.
Perpetrators will be given the simple message that they can walk away at any point and any delay in walking away, any attempt to return to that behaviour or follow their victim, or any violence against the victim or witnesses will rapidly escalate the actions that might be taken against them.
I'm not pretending that this is the answer. I'm sure there will be many ethical, psychological and practical questions to consider concerning this approach, but I think we have got to a point where people are more aware something needs to be done to help people enjoy themselves without fear of assault, and the technology appears to be ready to support such an environment.
The ubiquity of smartphones provides society with a potentially excellent tool in the fight against sexual harassment and criminality generally. We can't be far off having the necessary technology to be able to beam live feeds and geographical locations from smart-phones into police control rooms.
The greater question perhaps is whether society is ready to step up. Are we ready to be inspired into rescuing our fellow citizens from distressing experiences? Or are we cowards who would resent feeling obliged to interfere with a lecherous asshole's enjoyment of his evening?

I'm hopeful for the former.

*The motion I describe was submitted to Scottish Liberal Democrat conference as part of a larger motion that also covered reform of laws regarding sex work and sex workers. It was not selected for debate, but I intend to separate the motion in two motions and resubmit them in the future. 

I'd welcome any comments on these measures in order to guide what eventually makes it into the motion for next time.

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