From Language to Legitimisation: Societal Perpetuation of Sexual Harassment

by Sophie Lord

Trigger Warning – Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence

The concern for each other’s safety and the threat of harassment forms the shared experience of most women. 

As I’ve grown up, I have lost count of the times I’ve experienced the unwanted advances of men – so much so, that I now question whether this behaviour will ever be prevented or stopped.

At school, we were told to wear our skirts at knee length and to cross the road if we see a white van at the school gates. To behave preventatively, rather than challenge, anything remotely predatory. We were told to not drink too much at parties to not make ourselves vulnerable. Despite being fourteen at the time, I did wonder whether the boys at the school across town were being taught to not assault us. A week wouldn’t go by without one of us being catcalled, or followed, by a man.

I had never questioned the possible existence of an alternate reality where this wasn’t the experience of most women. It wasn’t until I was at university, and I was asked by a man whether I enjoy nights out despite the guarantee of harassment and concerns over my own safety. I just took the fun of dancing with my friends as something that was always, unfortunately, going to be tainted.

The co-existence of these two things seems somewhat dystopian yet, as women, we are trained in it. I know when I need to grab my friend’s arm to pull her away from someone. I’ve shaken off unwanted touches on most nights, as men make their way to the bar and cannot help but grab you as they walk past.

Sexual harassment simply exists in the fabric of society. I don’t say this to be defeatist, but in recognition of the lack of consequences for behaviour I’ve recounted thus far. 

According to research from the University of Alberta, this is known as the pyramid of discrimination and violence. This theory that if you imagine a triangle, the normalisation of misogynist attitudes and belief lies at the bottom. This progresses to verbal, then physical, harassment and assault. If someone frequently uses violent, patriarchal language describing women and goes unchallenged for doing so, they could go on to catcall, to grope, to assault – this is because the very assumptions underpinning these attitudes towards women function to legitimate this behaviour. If men believe women exist solely for their sexual gratification and pleasure, they will treat them as such. Smaller acts of violence and belief facilitate a wider culture, normalising these attitudes.

When I say society legitimises sexual assault, I mean it’s easier for us to not say, or do, anything. One common example of sexist language and attitude is what’s known as ‘locker room’ chat. This became well known when in 2016, Trump justified saying: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” – referring to using his fame and status to assault women – as he only meant it as ‘locker room’ conversation. Locker room talk is this degrading, sexualising, and predatory language used towards women.

In friendship groups, on sports teams, in seminars – it’s easier to be quiet, not challenging those around you who use degrading language towards women. This very act is quietly violent. Where attitudes go unchallenged, it’s more likely to translate to another step up the pyramid. 

Yet, when considering physical assault and rape, there still remains systemic failure in our legal system where survivors choose to report. According to Rape Crisis England and Wales, in 2023, 68,109 rapes were recorded by the police, but charges were only brought against 2.2%. For multiple reasons, most survivors choose not reporting to the police, due to embarrassment or in believing the police wouldn’t help. 

I have a similar combination of feelings surrounding my own experience of sexual assault. It took me years before I thought to label it as what it was. I knew something was wrong when I kept replaying a sexual experience over and over in my head – feeling nauseous, panicky, and disgusted. It wasn’t until my physical proximity from the person was removed, I realised what had happened to me.

I repressed it for a year almost until the trauma forced its way out of me. I had panic attacks whenever reminded of it, usually in settings where I couldn’t predict who I would meet or how I would be treated, like in clubs. When I started dating someone new, I’d go through a list of mental checks, making sure they wouldn’t do the same thing, even though you can’t control someone’s behaviour. 

My experience has rewired my brain so I’m incredibly aware of my safety and that of others, particularly other women. However, the unfortunate reality is so much of these misogynistic attitudes and violence exist in the very power structures that should challenge them –the police, education, and government. This leads me to wonder, once again, whether my initial defeatism is fair. Will it ever be possible to live in a world free of patriarchal sexual harassment? 

There are ways we can begin to enact change. Throughout this article, I’ve discussed how small-scale acts, typically sexist language, contribute to and grow towards a broader culture of misogyny. Perhaps then, it is on a small-scale too that change can be facilitated. 

In schools, girls should be empowered, not taught to behave in a specific way to counteract predatory gazes of men. Telling girls to not wear short skirts to not distract male teachers, is incredibly backwards. Why are men who sexualise their young students being hired in the first place? Especially in education systems, which have a duty of care towards their students, girls should not be sexualised by the policies of their school. 

Sexist behaviour and language needs to be called out – over dinner with family, or in the pub with friends and colleagues – as challenging the attitudes of others is one way misogynistic beliefs can be stopped, before it slips into further abuse. 

© 2023

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