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Has it happened to you?

Gender Equal Media Scotland

by Professor Karen Boyle at the University of Strathclyde.

[CN: This blog contains mentions of sexual abuse and harassment]

At the end of April, as Westminster misogyny again reared its ugly head, I was invited on Nicky Campbell’s phone-in on Radio 5 Live, alongside Dr Charlotte Proudman (a feminist barrister and academic) and Nicky Clark (founder of the Act Your Age campaign). In case you’ve lost track of which Westminster-misogyny story happened when, the context was the Mail on Sunday story in which an anonymous Tory MP accused Angela Rayner of using her legs – like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct - to distract the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s Questions.

There are many excellent responses to this story that explore the wider sexist culture which enabled it. I’m not going to rehash these arguments. Rather I want to reflect on a question Nicky Campbell asked Dr Proudman: did she have any similar experiences to share?

Listening in, I panicked. What would I say if he asked me?

As it turned out, I wasn’t asked that question. Not this time. But ever since I have been reflecting on why Campbell’s questioning made me anxious. It wasn’t because Dr Proudman betrayed any anxiety: she shared her experience calmly, using it to underscore her argument about the systemic nature of everyday misogyny. But I remain concerned about how that question works no matter how women choose to answer it, or even if they don’t.

Proudman, Clark and I were invited onto the show because of our expertise. Other women phoned in having chosen to share their personal experiences, something which is central both to the phone in and to public discourse on men’s violence against women. In many ways, their ability to do so is a legacy of the women’s liberation movement and the feminist understanding that the personal is the political. But media discourse typically empties the personal of its political potential, so that making the personal public becomes the end in itself.

In the aftermath of #MeToo, it has become commonplace for media outlets to ask these personal questions of any women in the public eye: I found countless examples when researching my book #MeToo, Weinstein and Feminism. When women who are ostensibly invited to comment because of their professional expertise are questioned in this way, what are our options?

There are all kinds of reasons women may not want to disclose personal experiences of this nature. Experiences may be too recent, too raw, or too traumatic to speak of (especially without forewarning) on national radio. I don’t think it’s an accident that both Dr Proudman and some of the women ringing in chose to speak about experiences from some time ago. One of the difficulties, however, is that these stories can then be used as evidence of how bad things were, whilst male callers congratulate themselves on being considerably more enlightened. That is not how Dr Proudman presented her experience – but that I need to add this demonstrates one of the problems with the question: it focuses our attention on what individual women’s experiences represent, not on men’s behaviour.

Women may also fear repercussions for speaking publicly: there may be a real risk to their continued employment or opportunities, for instance. For women who are already seen as not “fitting in” – because they work in a particularly male-dominated workplace, or because they are further marginalised by race or class, for example – speaking out is likely to be even more fraught. It is no accident that it was Rayner – a working-class woman – who was at the centre of the original story, with the conveniently-anonymous Tory source claiming that she used her body because she did not have the oratory of the posh-boys she was up against. Anyone who has ever watched the inept PM try to put words into a vaguely coherent order knows how absurd this argument is, yet it is still damaging to Rayner specifically and women in Parliament more generally. As Deborah Cameron argues:

When a woman is accused of using her sex for political, professional or financial advantage it is always a putdown—a re-statement of the ancient patriarchal principle that women are only good for one thing, and that they use that thing as a weapon because it’s the only kind of firepower they can muster […] what links it to the issue of harassment is the use of sexualised language and behaviour to put women (back) in their place. Whether this is done by harassing them or, as in Rayner’s case, by accusing them of distracting men, the message to women is clear: ‘don’t delude yourself that we think of you as equals: we haven’t forgotten—and won’t let you forget–that sex is what you are and what you’re for’.

Making sex “what you are and what you’re for” is also at stake in the “has it happened to you?” question as it makes our contributions contingent on sex. It changes the terms of engagement. As I was waiting to go on air, this was the source of my anxiety. Was I no longer there as a Professor of Feminist Media Studies, but as a representative of “women”? Did I want to share personal experiences of this kind with listeners who might include colleagues, students or friends? Added to this, I worried that my examples might seem too trivial and therefore be used by detractors to further their arguments about women reading too much into things. (This being a phone-in, detractors were out in full force.)

But if I refused to answer the question, what would be read into that refusal? This is something actor Uma Thurman had to deal with in an Access Hollywood interview at the height of #MeToo. Her restrained, furious response quickly went viral:

I don’t have a tidy soundbite for you, because I’ve learned – I’m not a child, and I’ve learned that when I’ve spoken in anger I usually regret the way I express myself. So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry. And when I’m ready, I’ll say what I have to say.

Thurman’s refusal – and anticipation of future revelations – then became the story, putting women’s responses to sexual harassment front and centre, rather than men’s actual perpetration of abuse. Thurman’s anger was widely seen as legitimate precisely because she did not give details of her experiences.

Jan Jordan talks about the “credibility conundrum” which survivors experience when speaking about sexual abuse. It goes something like this: sexual abuse is the worst-possible-thing that can happen to a woman; the impact of sexual abuse on women’s lives is always catastrophic; therefore, if a woman speaks about sexual abuse (and particularly if she does so publicly, angrily and with a demand for justice) her ability to speak about that-which-must-not-be-named renders her unbelievable. Thurman made visible the tone policing she had to perform in that moment and her keen awareness of the precariousness of her position. Yet remember, Thurman is a white, privileged woman: to express such anger is far more risky for women who are further marginalised, particularly by race and class.

So paradoxically, I was aware that refusing could be read as an expression of how bad things really are (whether that was actually my personal experience or not). Even refusing to answer the question could make me part of the story, rather than an expert commentator on it.

I very much doubt my male colleagues have to wrestle with these anxieties in media appearances. It’s difficult to imagine Campbell turning to a male barrister, academic or campaigner - on air to speak on the basis of their expertise - and asking them if they have ever made misogynist comments or sexually harassed their female colleagues.

This highlights the limited terms in which women are able to engage with the media as experts. Last year’s Global Media Monitoring Project showed that women still make up just 24-25% of experts in leading new stories globally. Research in Scotland shows we have no cause for complacency: during the Parliamentary election in 2021, male experts outnumbered women by 3:1 in our news media; and women of colour made up only 1.3% of experts. This was an historic election, leading to the election of the first women of colour MSPs: yet Kaukab Stewart MSP told us that all the media wanted to talk to her about was being a woman of colour MSP and her experiences of racism and sexism. Not SNP policy. Not campaign strategy. Not her priorities for her parliamentary term. Pass the Mic has done incredible work with media partners to try to redress this balance. But if we don’t challenge the terms on which women who do put themselves forward are invited to engage with the media then we won’t fix the problem.

I’m conscious this blog can be seen as part of the problem. I have – after all – used my anxieties on the 5 Live phone-in as my jumping off point. So it’s important to stress it’s not women sharing their experiences I am concerned about. It is the imperative to share personal experiences and the limited opportunities to speak publicly (particularly about misogyny and racism) without that being reduced to the personal that worries me.

My plea to journalists is simple: stop routinely questioning women about their experiences of misogyny and abuse.

If we want to tell you, we will.

And if we don’t?

Well, there are already literally millions of women who have spoken publicly about every form of male violence and misogyny, in every sector. Listen to them. Amplify their words and analysis.

Women’s presence in the media should not be contingent on our willingness to share personal experiences.

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