Harvey Weinstein, Mariah Carey, Ben Affleck, Mark Halperin, Ed Westwick, Brett Ratner, Dustin Hoffman, Jeremy Piven, MP Chris Pincher, MP Dan Poulter, MP Daniel Kawczynski, MP Charlie Elphicke, MP Kelvin Hopkins, MP Jared O’Mara, MP Clive Lewis, former Defence Secretary Mcihael Fallon, David Prescott, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Crabb, Mark Garnier, twenty five undisclosed BBC employees…
The wave of allegations of sexual assault that began with accusations against Harvey Weinstein continues to gather momentum, sweeping across organisations, industries and continents. The list of names above includes just some of the figures who have attracted the interest of news outlets over the last couple of months, but it is hardly representative of the scale of sexual assault and harassment in society. Nor does it convey the impact of sexual assault or harassment on the individuals for whom these names recall some of the most difficult experiences of their lives.
Sexual assault is an act of violation; it is the crossing of the boundaries that every person has between what they are comfortable with and what they are uncomfortable with. This is the binary division. In reality the body becomes more finely segmented into many areas that are available to different people in different ways, dependent on the relationship between the interacting persons. It is these segments, and their complicated categorisations, which people usually use as a basis to contest assault.
How was I to know he didn’t want me to touch his thigh?
Why did she feel uncomfortable with me going for her boobs if we’d already been kissing?
These finer divisions are understandably difficult to navigate because they are so deeply personal. One person may feel no concern with someone holding their elbow, but panic if they move to their wrist. A similar distinction is often made between the upper and lower back, the side of the face and the back of the head. Certain zones on certain bodies can have innate or acquired significance for people- we all know someone with an inexplicably ticklish spot, a scar from an injury, or a patch of freckles that they used to join up with felt tip pens. The same segments of bodies which can be so difficult to treat properly are also defining aspects of individual physicality and identity. The transferral of these zones from strange to known is one of the foremost parts of starting a sexual relationship with somebody. So to lose that precious process in avoiding unwanted advances would be a regrettable loss.
Recent criticisms around the rising awareness of sexual assault and harassment have raised this risk, with varying degrees of sensitivity. Lara Prendergast of The Spectator highlights the potential depression of sexuality by fears of impropriety:
‘what started off as an attempt to give support to abused women mutates into a movement that undoes everything women’s rights campaigners have fought for. Men, too, may cut themselves off, retreating into the company of other men, and we will be back where we were a century ago. How’s that for a sexual revolution?’
Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads Russia’s state-run Rossiya Segodnya news agency, relayed a similar idea although in rather different terms. With regard to the allegations against Hollywood figures Kiselyov said “There’s no sex in America…The sexual revolution is a thing of the past. Now everything can be seen as dirty harassment.’, and also suggested that recent events show that ‘sex is revolting’ to the US. I’ve tentatively included Kiselyov’s words to illustrate one of the most extreme opinions around sexual harassment, which really constitutes another form of victim blaming by implicitly accusing them of ruining sex. This problematic closeness of this comment to Prendergast’s highlights how difficult it is to be cautious about recent campaigns without siding with others who are rejecting them outright.
Whilst the concern around avoiding suppressing sexuality with fear is a legitimate one, and would, as Prendergast notes, mark a regression in the understanding and liberalisation of sex, I am not sure that we need subscribe to such polarised positions. In the context of a sexual partnership – prospective or established- being aware of a partner’s comfort is surely an augmenter of sexual enjoyment, not an inhibitor.
Perhaps the real reason this is viewed as limiting is because of the proliferation of the idea of sex as a boundless, passionate and spontaneous action from its outset in forms of media. I couldn’t count the number of sex scenes in films where characters simultaneously realise that they want to have sex and proceed to do so, without having any second thoughts or being challenged by such issues as contraception and awkward pieces of underwear. Whilst the discussion of different sexual practices is to be encouraged, the manifestation of BDSM and the recognition of dominant and submissive roles in popular literature like Fifty Shades of Grey might also contribute to the notion that sexual relationships that begin more slowly, with more communication, are somehow less ‘sexy’.
I am not suggesting that we curtail sexual experimentation at all. Rather, I’m suggesting that we recognise that this can be part of mutual and discussable sexual experiences. In a culture where television shows, movies and porn generally display sex as a perfect performance, where partners are pleasured without needing to consult each other, without talking and sometimes even without looking at each other, it is understandable how people would view communication as restrictive. It has no place in our idealised images of sex; its discordant, clunky, a turn-off. But in nurturing positive attitudes towards sex in society and ensuring that this exposition of assault has positive repercussions, it is an imperative.
The impact of sexual assault cannot and should not be underestimated, regardless of where it sits in relation to the worst, most tragic cases that we hear about. In illuminating this fact, and empowering victims of all genders, ages and backgrounds, the spotlight that has been shone on perpetrators is one that we need to keep shining. It also needs to be focused and its usage defined. The same bodies that can be abused and assaulted are our pathways to sexual enjoyment. We can’t afford to lose that potential to a phenomenon that shouldn’t even have a place in our society.