Lancing the boil

Following the revelations about first Harvey Weinstein and then a depressing roll-call of Hollywood celebrities, a wave of accusations of sexual harassment has swept through the UK Parliament. Every day new accusations surface; the evening news on TV is a daily expose of the darkest, seediest aspects of human nature. There is no party political division here: wrongs have been committed in all parties. The vast majority of the perpetrators are men, and the majority of the victims are women, although it is clear that both in Hollywood and Parliament gay men have been subjected to humiliating unwanted sexual attention too. Painful though it is to see this torrent of revelations of inappropriate behaviour, one does feel a sense of catharsis, of shining a light into dark places and a refusal to allow evil deeds to remain cloaked in secrecy. Some politicians have sought to manipulate their responses to accusations, like Defence Secretary Michael Fallon who claimed that “14 years ago things were different…” and led us to believe that his only misdemeanour was to place his hand on a journalist’s knee once, a long time ago. The argument is hollow: my own father, nearly 80 and of a conservative world-view, would never countenance the kind of behaviour displayed by Fallon, many years his junior. We have not re-written right and wrong in recent years; we have instead attempted to right the imbalance of power that has led so many victims to be pressurised to be silent. Such are the days in which we live that more misdeeds have been uncovered and Fallon’s attempted frank and direct confession now looks like a cynical effort to conceal and limit damage. Such is the momentum of disclosure that it simply will not work.

The problem of sexual abuse is multi-dimensional. It is not restricted to parliament. This week the UK’s Commissioner for Equality and Human Rights warned that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse in schools. The prevalence of pornography that shows women not only participating in abusive sexual practices but, indeed, craving it does not help. But schools are failing too. Girls who make complaints of rape (and we know how difficult a thing that is to do) are being forced to return to the same classroom as their perpetrator while the trial date is awaited. There seems to be a gulf of  human empathy and understanding between the tragic suffering of young women being abused and the woefully inadequate response of the education system that is supposed to protect them.

Workplace relationships are a staple of TV dramas, and lines are often crossed that I would feel should not be crossed; romantic attachments between individuals with unequal status are often portrayed. As long as dramatists portray sexual advances between individuals in the workplace as normal – even when there is a plain differential in power and authority – the myth will be perpetuated that there is no clear line between good and bad behaviour. Men will continue to claim that “banter” or an honest expression of romantic interest has been perversely re-interpreted. In Michael Fallon’s mind, when he grabbed a journalist, pulled her to him and kissed her, he was perhaps – like Donald Trump – acting out a fantasy that the unwilling recipient of his advances was irresistably drawn to him because of his power, importance and goodness knows what else. We know – because she has spoken clearly – that the incident filled her with revulsion.

In my work I have mentored and supported many young women. I hope that none of them would ever bring accusations of abuse against me because I have drawn clear lines. There is a right and a wrong way to behave in an unequal relationship; I do not believe there are shades of grey. Always, the person in authority should resolve any doubt by erring on the side of caution, but in the vast majority of cases the shades of grey are only in the minds  of abusers. As a society we must define limits that we all understand, and honour, so that such abuses cannot happen again.

Surrendering male privilege

One of the oft-made criticisms of trans-women made by radical feminists is that they grow up experiencing all the benefits of male privilege, evading the discrimination that marks the lives of many women. These are complex issues. Perhaps the most foundational question is, does male privilege exist? In a very interesting interview on the BBC web site, Vivienne Ming, a tech industry entrepreneur, describes how she experienced the removal of her privilege after transitioning in her 30s. “Overnight, people stopped asking me maths questions”, she says, and she places the value of those male privileges at around a quarter of a million dollars. It’s an intriguing insight. One can accept, intellectually, that discrimination on the grounds of gender is an ill, and something to be resisted, but to hear a first-hand account of the outworking of people’s unconscious prejudice is shocking and illuminating.

For Dr Ming, male privilege evaporated as she transitioned. There is no doubt she has entered into the discrimination that all women suffer. But does that deal with the complaints of the radical feminists? The answer to that is complex. Caitlin Jenner, who has become the media-appointed poster-girl for transgendered people, presents a rather different case. Having made fame as an athlete, and fortune as a celebrity, she transitioned as only rich girls can, with expensive reconstructive surgery in an effort to realise a vision of feminine glamour that many women feel to be a straight-jacket. As a wealthy celebrity, every piece of publicity could only increase the value of the stock first accumulated as a privileged male. Its a very different story, and it underlines how problematic it can be to take a single celebrity and make them a representative for a broad and diverse community of human beings.


Drssing rooms

I’ve always wanted a kilt, but they have a tendency to look either too matronly, or too flirty (I’m about several decades too old for schoolgirl charm to look anything other than ridiculous!). However, Hobbs have some adorable kilt-style skirts in stock at the moment. Not just one, but several! They’re not too short and not too long, and they’re very stylish. I headed off to try one but was waylaid by a very pretty floral dress. I’d promised myself one purchase only, Decisions…

Enough is enough

The furore about Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein has cast a light on a dark corner of male behaviour. The number of women coming forward to tell their stories is shocking, but perhaps the fact that they do at last feel able to speak out may mark a watershed; the opprobrium heaped upon Weinstein marks a public shaming of behaviour that has no doubt been prevalent in Hollywood throughout its history. Suzanne Moore’s piece in today’s Guardian, “My whole life has been marked by sexual harassment – just like all women” reminds us that such behaviour is not rare – indeed it is widespread, even rampant. The same awful conclusion is drawn by anybody who has visited the everyday sexism web site.

One of the unexpected consequences of being trans has been to be able to acquire a small insight into the disgraceful way that some men behave towards women. I thought that the photographs of erect penises that men sent me on Facebook were a special gift because they found I was trans (and obviously a prostitute). But a piece in the Guardian a few months ago described how two women had set up a dating web site where men were not allowed to make the first move, because they had got so fed up with conventional web sites where they were inundated with photos of erections. I cannot begin to imagine what goes through the mind of a man who decides to send a photograph of his penis to a complete stranger.

One of the recurring tropes in rape cases is that the girl was “asking for it” because of the way she dressed or walked. Just a few months ago, in an appallingly mishandled retrial of the footballer Ched Evans for rape of an inebriated teenager, the judge allowed the defence to reduce the trial to a consideration of whether, in fact, the victim was “a bit of a slapper”. I remember a movie a few years ago in which a provocatively dressed woman was raped, and the argument was all around whether, in some sense, she “deserved it” because she looked so sexy. The idea is that if a woman causes a man to be inflamed with desire she should watch out because he will need to be satisfied. This idea is monstrous but in surprisingly common currency. I always believed I was quite liberal and was sympathetic of women’s concerns on such issues. But being trans has helped me understand the sleaziness of some men in a new way. What I’ve learned is that what you wear has nothing to do with it. You can dress in a very downbeat way, you can advertise that you are married, not looking for sexual adventure, not attracted to men; it will still count for nothing if a guy has a hardon. I find it hard to be confrontational – I say “no” politely, but some guys just push. In the end, when you tell them to fuck off, most get the message. But no doubt there is the odd one who will still claim you were just talking dirty to him.

For the great majority of my life I have enjoyed what feminists call “male privilege”. I don’t claim to have suffered anything like as much as an average woman. But I’ve had tiny glimpses of the sleaziest aspects of the behaviour of some men and it has been both an education and a horror.