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Global Pulse: From ‘whisper networks’ to a loud, emphatic debate on sexual harassment

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The resigned air that has for decades bred women’s “whisper networks” about sexual harassment seems to be giving way to emphatic and tense debates on the “legitimate” ways of calling out predators across the world. We might not have found the “right way” of doing it yet, but from Pakistan to the US, there is definitely a churn – women no longer seem to be just “whispering” about sexual predators.

The right to decide all aspects of gender relations must not be ceded to the state

The recent harassment case in Pakistan is not only “a powerful reminder of the myth that educated, pious, liberal, intelligent men or male family members are incapable of gender-based violence”, but also as Afia Shehrbano writes in Dawn, a trigger for a debate on the “definitions and class privilege, veracity of allegations, and propriety when conducting activist campaigns”.

“The social conversation has been over whether a Facebook request by doctor to a patient is not just unethical but also amounts to sexual harassment. Despite respecting a victim’s intuition and recognising discomfort as a symptom of harassment, according to the fairly broad legal parameters, this still would not qualify as sexual harassment. Critics who want a tighter, narrower definition should be cautioned against conceding to the state the right to decide all aspects of gender relations.

Women must beware of surrendering their own agency. They should be able to reject an online request without depending on some paternalistic law. There are guidelines that flag the tipping point of sexual harassment. We need to follow these rather than succumb to a moral panic such that a rights-based law begins to be interpreted as a patriarchal one,” she writes.

The legal response 

The story of Harvey Weinstein, is at least, partly a story of secrecy, argues The Washington Post. After all, the Hollywood producer kept his habit of sexually harassing and assaulting women under wraps for so long.

“The answer, at least in part, involves Mr. Weinstein’s use of confidential settlements and non-disclosure agreements that kept his victims and employees from speaking out,” it says.

“Powerful men engaged in sexual misconduct often use similar legal tools to bury controversy — as did both Fox News’s Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, who negotiated multimillion-dollar settlements to ensure their victims would remain silent. Even now, with the appalling behavior of these men in the public record, some victims remain unable to make their experiences public.”

Former anchor Gretchen Carlson who fought to make her harassment case against Roger Ailes public, “is now pushing for federal legislation to prohibit employers from mandating private arbitration for civil rights complaints. On the state level, lawmakers in New York, New Jersey and California plan to introduce legislation to block courts from enforcing non-disclosure agreements in employment contracts and settlements that prevent employees from speaking out about sexual harassment. Many states have similar laws preventing settlements that conceal information on “public hazards,” and California already prohibits such agreements in cases involving rape and sexual assault.”

“Laws alone can’t change a culture in which powerful men feel entitled to prey on those around them. But reducing secrecy would be an important step toward holding predators accountable and diminishing their opportunity to transgress multiple times.”

Women as accomplices in sexual harassment

At a time when everyone seems to be discussing rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in every workplace, “in the parallel world of politics there is talk of “sex pests”, “high jinks” and the pathetic nature of women who cannot bat away clumsy passes,” writes Suzanne Moore in The Guardian. Complicity of women is built in the heart of Britain’s politics, she argues.

“Katie Perrior, once (Theresa) May’s head of communications, said that this information was kept away from the prime minister but used to enforce party discipline. In other words, information about the abuse of women is used for the benefit of the party: ‘You will vote in a certain way or we will tell your wife what you’ve been up to.’ Complicity with such abuse of power is built into this system.

For a long, long time certain men have taken such complicity for granted. But something is changing. Women are speaking out. These men are not sex “pests”, they are elected representatives exploiting their positions of power. If disrespect for women is tolerated at the heart of government, it will be tolerated everywhere. Who wants to live in such a place?”

Why would Kevin Spacey want to come out now?

After a half-apology for an alleged child molestation, actor Kevin Spacey resorted to a recurrent trope: A powerful person who is charged with abuse claiming a marginalised status, writes James Hamblin in The Atlantic. “The recent parallel is Harvey Weinstein’s reported claims of ‘sex addiction’,” he says.

“Adopting a marginalised identity in a moment like this does more than bleed the meaning out of an apology. It sucker-punches the entire marginalised group. It sets back fights for civil rights—in these cases, respectively, non-heterosexual people and mentally ill people, burdened for generations by baseless stereotypes pertaining to pedophilia and violence. As writer Shanelle Little saw it, ‘Kevin Spacey willfully harmed a child and then turned and painted a target on the gay community’s back.’”

“His statement put himself ahead of that community, with which he chose not to identify—not to support and empower from his high vantage—until it served him, and he risks dragging it backward.”

Are men looking up to harassers as role models?

“It should not have taken Harvey Weinstein’s downfall to bring (Leon) Wieseltier to his reckoning,” writes Clio Chang in Splinter. The New Republic’s famed literary editor for over 30 years was always really hiding in plain sight.

“In my conversations with seven former editorial staffers, it’s clear that much of his alleged behavior was far from secret. The fact that he faced no consequences in his three decades at TNR shows how sexism and harassment can become so intrinsic to a company’s culture that it is rendered completely banal. But the revelations also raise uncomfortable questions about what the media and literary world celebrates and who we hold accountable. After all, much of Wieseltier’s character was already in the public eye—if you cared to look.”

“The problems that existed at The New Republic are in no way unique. Over the past few days, as many in the media have applauded the downfall of Wieseltier and some have righteously condemned the complicity of the other men on staff, it’s important to keep in mind that there were over 70 men, from many different publications, alleged to have committed various degrees of harassment and assault on the Shitty Media Men list—and that’s just the number that were compiled within a few hours, before the list was taken down. There are plenty of young male writers today who aspire to become the same type of unfettered, domineering intellectual as Wieseltier, and they will likely be rewarded for it. Harvey Weinstein’s allegations were well known by many people; Donald Trump, of course, remains president. The sobering fact is that every man—many of whom who fail to speak up—knows something that’s happening, somewhere. But it’s the women who have to look.”

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