Casual, everyday sexism helps those men who want to treat their girlfriends like objects to think that this is OK, says Thangam Debbonaire
Last week, many of us were outraged by the front page headline in a local newspaper, a “joke” about sexual assault, with a sleazy pun on a word for breasts. This piece isn’t about the trial or the person who wrote the headline. It’s about the impact of such derogatory remarks and the connections to the work I’ve been doing for 25 years to end domestic and sexual violence.
It is disappointing that in the 21st century we still get cheap, so-called jokes about sexual assault and about women’s bodies. But when people make these remarks, does it matter?
My work with male perpetrators of violence has shown me that casual, everyday sexism helps those men who want to treat their girlfriends like objects to think that this is OK. It helps maintain a culture of impunity for the minority who want to abuse. They refer to “everyone thinks like this” and “that’s just how things are”.
And, unfortunately, if they then get away with abuse without challenge, this culture keeps them feeling like they are entitled to do it, and makes it harder to persuade them to change.
Most men as well as most women think it’s not OK to treat women as objects or to be sexually harassed or assaulted. We worry about this happening, we advise our female relatives and friends to take care at night, most women I know have had to tolerate sexual harassment in public places or avoid certain places.
Obviously there are other reasons why domestic and sexual violence happens. Some of my work is with female perpetrators for whom there are different attitudes. But the culture of impunity has to be challenged if we really want to end domestic and sexual violence, and refusing to accept trivialising comments and offensive jokes is part of that.
I have spent a quarter of a century working locally, nationally and internationally to tackle violence, challenge impunity and change attitudes which support domestic and sexual violence, including that experienced by men.
Through working for national and local organisations such as Respect, Safer Bristol, Women’s Aid and universities in Manchester and here in Bristol, I have been privileged to be part of huge social change and to work with some amazing people. I am proud that many women, men and children are safer from abuse because of work of which I have been part.
There are now helplines for female and male victims and for people wanting to stop being abusive. There are legal rights now which didn’t exist when I was a child. It’s great that most schools now try to discuss domestic violence with children and young people (and Labour will make this compulsory if we win the election next year).
But I am worried about the impact of the government’s cuts and are still too many cases of abusers being able to evade responsibility… we have still got a long way to go.
I hope though that in my lifetime, hateful speech about women’s bodies and jokes about sexual harassment or assault will become socially unacceptable and the climate of tolerance will end.
Published in Bristol24-7 Friday August 22, 2014 read at the source