FGRLS Thoughts: On Moral Flattening And Sexual Harassment

Illustration by @Elleustrates
Illustration by @Elleustrates – elleustrates.com

What happens when sexual harassment comes from those that you love? FGRLS writer, Louise, tackled the uncomfortable subject.

I remember the first time I was sexually harassed.

In this post-Weinstein age, our default image of ‘sexual harasser’ has become the white, middle aged, privileged man. I’ve been intimidated, embarrassed and undermined by the above multiple times since, but my first real understanding that my body was somehow public property was quite literally at the hands of teenage boys.

There was a period of time where I couldn’t make the journey home from school without a slap on the backside. Hands were eventually upgraded to football boots, cricket bats or whatever miscellaneous scrap could be found on the street, to the point where I once had to bandage up the broken skin on my behind. Tired of fighting back, I’d just sit down until they gave up. It added an extra fifteen minutes on my two-mile walk, but in time it did the job, and they became bored. It’s worth pointing out that these boys were – and some still are – close friends, but a disparity existed, and I couldn’t have been more aware of it.

Last week, American journalist Bari Weiss used the phrase ‘moral flattening’ on Twitter, brilliantly acknowledging the reduction of different crimes or behaviour to the same level. I don’t suggest that the actions of Weinstein or Allen or Charney can be compared to teenage peccadilloes, but do they evoke similar feelings of uneasiness, fear, or helplessness amongst women and young girls? I would argue that they do.

A few days ago, I went for a drink with a couple of the bottom-slappers. They were 13 then, and are now fully-grown men. I love them dearly but, and there’s a rather big but; over ten years on, we still cannot agree on feminist issues. After a few drinks, they began hassling the girl behind the bar. Nothing overtly misogynistic was said, no one was touched, or harmed, and the girl held her own. We settled back down at our table, I reluctantly apologised on behalf of them, and she shrugged it off. She’s used to it, and this is the problem. My friends and I have discussed this kind of behaviour before, and each time, both are horrified at the thought of making a woman feel undervalued, undermined or uncomfortable – but fail to acknowledge when their own behaviour provokes such feelings.

Over our twenty-year friendship we’ve shared schools, universities, bereavements and births, and I’ll never forget their fury as I’ve recounted numerous cases of sexual harassment and catcalling. I have no doubt that our love and respect for one another is entirely mutual, yet I’ve still been at the receiving end of “get back in the kitchen” gaffs more times than I can remember. I am obsessed with understanding why. Why such sexist undertones lie within their everyday lexicon, and why they fail to see the damage, despite sexual harassment and gender disparity forming the backbone of the zeitgeist. Consistently passed off as jokes, their remarks are lazy at best, damaging at worst. When questioned, the response from men is often the same; “But I didn’t mean it, you know it’s a joke, I didn’t physically do anything, don’t jump on the bandwagon” etc, etc, etc.

And this is where the aforementioned moral flattening comes in. No, a rape joke made by a teenage boy (see Jack Maynard) cannot be compared to a violent assault, but each of these actions, whether macro or micro, contributes to a wider message. A message suggesting that men can say or do what they wish, and that we women must accept it. My responses to sexism over the years have varied. I’ve rolled my eyes at “your mum” jokes, I’ve shaken and sobbed over physical assault, and I’ve spoken up for other women when they’ve found themselves under attack. More recently though, I’ve been having conversations.

On the way home from the pub, we talked about the girl behind the bar. We talked about being talked over, and about women being the butt of jokes. I talked, and they understood, and they apologised, and I felt relieved. I didn’t contribute my stories to the Me Too hashtag, but I contributed them to my male friends, and couldn’t help but think, had those stories been told a little earlier, perhaps another woman might have been left alone.

You can follow Louise on twitter and instagram.

Find us at @fgrlsclub on both.


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