Who’s afraid of the F-word?

14th April 2011 By Sophie FitzMaurice

Originally published in the Oxford Student on 25th November 2010

When holidaying with friends in Kavos, Vicky Simister was assaulted by a drunk man who stuck his hand up her skirt as she was passing his table. She promptly kicked him in the face. Her female friend called her a “psycho” and dragged her from the club, but Simister is unrepentant: “We should stand up for each other,” she says, meaning women. One gets the impression she was as disturbed by her friend’s reaction to the incident as by the incident itself. Yet Simister’s is not a fiery, misandrous brand of feminism: “We need to keep pushing the idea that feminism benefits men as well. It’s not about creating a matriarchy – it’s about equality.”

Simister is the founder of the London Anti-Street Harassment Campaign (LASH) – an organisation to combat the everyday sexism and misogyny that takes place in the open air, where there are no laws to sanction it. In the workplace, restrictions exist to prevent the sort of overt misogyny that is apparently rife on the London underground and indeed the streets of Oxford.

But the fact that Simister was told by police, after she was assaulted by a group of men, that she “provoked them” and that until she lashed out at her attackers, they had just been making “nice comments” – (they tailed her for 20 minutes, telling her they wanted to “bend [her] over a fence and fuck [her]”) – shows that though a measure of equality may exist on paper, attitudes still need to change.

Some critics have objected that the campaign is simply not very serious, given the darker aspects of misogyny: why make a fuss about ‘flattering’ wolf whistles and compliments on physical appearance when the real threats to women are domestic violence and rape? Simister insisters that unwarranted comments on the street are the thin end of the “wedge of sexual harassment.” ‘Flattering’ comments can easily turn into illicit gropes, from which the progression to rape is more obvious.

Simister spoke at the Gender Equality Forum at the Oxford Union, alongside St John’s JCR President and OUSU President-elect Martha Mackenzie and Labour councillor, former OUSU representative and doctorate student Sarah Hutchinson; over the course of the panel discussion, many disturbing anecdotes were recounted by speakers and audience members alike.

Particularly pertinent to Mackenzie and Hutchinson was the pervasiveness of sexism in politics, at both a student and council level. Mackenzie was one of only eight female JCR Presidents in Michaelmas term, and was one of only six last Hilary. Both talked about the sort of “subtle sexism that prevents women from going on to do more.” Men holding doors open for women but not other men; a doorman addressing Simister as “sweetheart” even though she paid his wages; councillors commenting on Hutchinson’s age and appearance at council meetings; men going in to kiss Mackenzie on the cheek rather than shake her hand: all such “knee-jerk” reactions serve to “undermine or even deliberately humiliate” women in positions of political power or authority in the workplace.

And these deeply ingrained societal norms are translated into quantifiable inequality; only 20 per cent of executive boards in the UK even have women on them, and women’s pay still does not match men’s.
Such marginalisation of women also feeds into an environment where it is acceptable for men to harass strangers. Mackenzie claims that “harassment and rape are part and parcel of the same attitude, where men see us as sexual creatures.” Yet it is not just men who are responsible for such dynamics. Simister speaks of reading the “advice pages of Cosmopolitan – partly for research, and partly for morbid fascination.” Women’s magazines are “really, really guilty – just as guilty as men’s magazines,” when it comes to reproducing negative images of women. Women’s magazines will have “one token column on empowerment – talking about career women,” and the rest will be fashion.

And the sort of advice doled out in women’s magazines and lads’ mags supports the biological determinism that allows men and women to use being drunk as an excuse for sexual harassment from men who “just can’t help it.”

“Men have been conned into thinking they’re helpless victims of their own penises. Women’s magazines con women into thinking that when she’s posing she’s empowered. It’s a great con. At a management level, women as well as men are responsible.”

There are no easy solutions for such a deeply ingrained cultural bias. Simister is currently working on an education pack for use in schools, and is surveying schools based on the preponderance of sexism and sexual harassment. But there are differing opinions as to how to tackle the issue. Whilst some may advocate militancy – shouting back at men who make unwanted comments – others recognise the danger of inviting further negative attention, or even attacks.

But Simister thinks it is more dangerous to let verbal attacks slide, because this normalises the behaviour and makes men think it is acceptable. Containment doesn’t work: “Just because you put your head down and walk away doesn’t mean you’ve taken the safest option.” Rapists whose ‘tactics’ were analysed by a rape crisis charity in America admitted to profiling their victims – they ‘tested’ women with verbal taunts before deciding whether to continue with an attack, and the meeker women were considered easier targets.
On a less extreme level, Simister talks about confronting the doorman who called her “sweetheart” by turning around and saying “actually I’m Vicky.” She was tired of having sexual stereotypes reinforced in front of her male colleagues, who responded in kind by saying “and you look nice as well” after meetings.

“It shouldn’t be about combating it at that level – it should be about changing it at a social level. Tell your decent male friends – they’ll pass it on. Hopefully the miscreant on the street will get the message.”