Misogyny – The Social Malady that Affects Us All.
13/08/2016 § Leave a comment
I was inspired to write this post following the conviction of Dr Lee Salter, an academic from the University of Sussex, who had an affair with a female student, during the course of which he violently attacked her in an assault that included him punching her in the face, stamping on various parts of her body, and pouring salt into her eyes and ears.
Although problematic, in the interests of brevity I am going to set aside a consideration of the questionable ethics of student/lecturer relations – other than to note that such relations are highly problematic and open up questions of a lack of professionalism on the part of the staff member, as well as an imbalance of power in the relationship, conflicts of interest in the delivery of education and assessments, and the potential for predatory and exploitative sexual behaviour to go unchecked. I will simply say that universities have a duty of care to their students, and their staff, and they should have a clear code of conduct that discourages such relations for as long as the student is registered at the institution.
More importantly, to my mind, is the assault, and the university’s non-reaction to Dr Salter’s conviction. Domestic violence is as routine as it is heinous, so that a man would behave like this is shocking but not surprising. Conservative estimates suggest that one in four women will be the victims of domestic violence at least once in their lifetime, and two women per week are murdered by their partner. What is notable about this case is that the perpetrator was not dismissed by his employer following his conviction. Surely, in a case of this nature, when the victim is not just the partner of the perpetrator/staff member, but also a student of the university, the correct way for a university to behave if it wanted to show that it was serious about tackling sexism, would have been to suspend Dr Salter on full pay pending the outcome of his trial, and for him to have been dismissed upon conviction. The University of Sussex did not do this. There is a student-led petition calling for his dismissal, and an outcry in traditional and social media, but at the time of writing Dr. Salter is still in post. (UPDATE: I RECEIVED AN EMAIL FROM THE COMMS TEAM AT UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX AT 8PM ON SATURDAY 13 AUGUST, INFORMING ME THAT DR SALTER IS NO LONGER EMPLOYED BY THE UNIVERSITY.)
This case comes less than three months after Professor Sara Ahmed resigned from Goldsmiths College London to protest about management inaction in cases of sexual harassment by male staff members against female students, and against a backdrop of increasing sexual harassment and assault on UK campuses generally
There’s an awful lot of handwringing and outrage about all of this, but the question of what can be done is rarely answered. In response to the Dr Salter case, another white, male academic, Professor Will Brooker, tweeted that Dr Salter should not be treated as a singular case, and suggested that all men should look to their own behaviour, acknowledging that there are many ways in which men can oppress women.
Prof. Brooker is right, of course, but his insights are nothing new. Dworkin and MacKinnon said in the 1970s that all men are rapists, by which they meant not that all men are literally rapists, but that women must organise their lives around the assumption that any man could rape them. So it is today, that women organise themselves around an oppressive masculinist word that seethes with misogyny and violence. Plus ça change.
Prof. Brooker’s suggestion, that men check their own behaviour, would be a nice start, but is unlikely to amount to much. If self-regulation doesn’t work for the press, it’s certainly not going to work for men and their behaviours and attitudes towards women. Feminism changed women, which is why Dr. Salter’s ex-partner, Allison Smith, had the courage to press charges, and to allow herself to be named in media reports. Feminism has not changed men.
And why should men change? They live in a world where it is very easy for masculinity to be vile. Predatory sexual behaviour is fuelled by the view that women are conquests, and can never be equal partners in a sexual relation, and the male ego is bolstered by every “conquest” it makes, while “slut-shaming” is the lot of women. Still. Women are very often feared and hated in equal measure, and so a spectrum of physical, sexual and psychological violence against them is rampant. (If you don’t believe me, check out the Everyday Sexism project.) At the very least, misogynist men get away with their misogyny because there are never any real consequences for their actions. Even a criminal prosecution, itself a rarity, will only come after numerous instances of overtly criminal behaviour. At best, they find themselves around like-minded men and women in a culture that validates and encourages their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. It is much more difficult for men to be decent, and life is difficult for those men that try.
So, if men won’t change, there should be social and cultural consequences for their actions. The law can only go so far, and although we have had sex discrimination laws in the UK since 1976, and criminal laws around assault for much longer, Dr Salter is just one example that shows that laws have had little impact on mens’ attitude to women. It is a mystery to me that we have “slut-shaming” and “fat-shaming” and all the rest, but no “misogny-shaming.” We must stop relying on law, then, and say, clearly and categorically, that misogyny must stop, and that there will be social consequences for misogynist behaviour. That message needs to come from men and women themselves, as well as employers, sports clubs, music venues and festivals, advertising and media, and, crucially, schools and universities.
Doing nothing, saying nothing, quietly accepting, hushing up, covering up, paying off victims, maintaining the status quo, is not acceptable. Pretending everything is fine and that problems are an abeyance and a rarity is not acceptable. Leaving people to it because they’re all adults is not acceptable. Leaving it to the law to sort it out is not acceptable. We must ask ourselves what world we want to live in, and how do we create that? Proactivity, decisiveness, and a commitment to gender equality is required from all and by all, and that calls for much more bravery than has been on display so far, by the University of Sussex, or anyone else.
UPDATE: I RECEIVED AN EMAIL FROM THE COMMS TEAM AT UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX AT 8PM ON SATURDAY 13 AUGUST, INFORMING ME THAT DR SALTER IS NO LONGER EMPLOYED BY THE UNIVERSITY.