In the end, the only way to stop sexual abuse and harassment is to have enough women sufficiently senior to fire the men responsible
I love Christmas. If you’re lucky you’ll have some time off work, time to spend with friends and family, perhaps even some space to indulge or pamper yourself. Of course, the festival pre-dates Christianity and, in the Northern hemisphere marks the turn of the year as we pass the longest night and begin to see the days lengthen again. It’s a natural time to consider our lives (all those New Year Resolutions). We can think about where we are – and where we might be going.
The norms of our world are changing with ever increasing speed. Once, perfectly decent people saw nothing wrong in slavery. Today, though the evil still lurks, it is universally reviled. When I was a child in the UK, homosexuality was illegal. This year my husband, a fairly conservative, straight white man in his sixties, officiated at the wedding of two women – and felt very privileged to be able do so.
And 2017 has seen another sea change. Time magazine has hailed ‘The Silence Breakers’ as their ‘Person of the Year’. Time has bestowed this annual accolade since 1927 – originally, of course, it was ‘Man of the Year’ and it took an astonishing 72 years before it become ‘Person of the Year’ in 1999. The award hardly signifies approval – instead it reflects impact. Both Hitler and Stalin have been past ‘winners’. And Kim Jung Un was a contender this year. But the 2017 award went to the women who had broken the code of silence by speaking out against sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace and in their lives.
The initial focus, of course, was Harvey Weinstein, the monstrous, if talented, film producer against whom some 50 women have levelled accusations of conduct ranging from harassment to rape. But the spotlight on the abusive practices of Hollywood widened rapidly. Time’s list of ‘The Silence Breakers’ included a farm worker, a dishwasher, a lobbyist, a hospital worker and many others. Actresses are particularly vulnerable because they work in an overcrowded freelance profession where, very often, their sexuality is seen as a credential. But women everywhere have experienced sexual abuse and harassment and, suddenly, as the silence is broken, it seems they will put up with it no longer.
The #MeToo spread like a forest fire. 4.7 million women signed up to it within 24 hours. The editors of Time recognised the phenomenon not just as a moment but as a movement. Men everywhere, including some much-loved public figures, are being called out by their victims,. And men too have emerged as suffering abuse. The common factor, of course, is always power and the ease with which it can be abused. But almost overnight, it seems, bystanders will no longer look away. Victims will no longer be shamed into silence. Behaviour previously regarded as ‘a grey area’ is now clearly seen as unacceptable.
In 2016 America elected as President, a self-confessed ‘pussy grabber’. Trump described his language as ‘locker room talk’ and, in the end, more women voted for him than for Hillary Clinton. But times change. Last month the President suddenly asserted that the voice on the incriminating tape was not his. Billy Bush, the other voice on the tape was outraged by the denial, but no doubt many will believe it. I take that, however, as a hopeful sign. Last year, boasting about grabbing women by the pussy could be dismissed. This year, you have to deny it.
Next year? Maybe we could edge closer to the pay equality we were promised by law in 1970. Maybe we’ll even see a few more women calling the shots at the top of media companies. In the end, the only way to stop sexual abuse and harassment is to have enough women sufficiently senior to fire the men responsible.