By Caroline Farrow
It’s now more dangerous than ever to be a woman in either the entertainment industry, the media or politics – or at least that’s if you believe the headlines currently swirling around in the wake of the revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
The atmosphere is dangerously febrile. Anyone who makes any kind of accusation about the alleged sexual misconduct of an individual is instantaneously believed and, no sooner has one person come forward with one tawdry tale, then another follows in their wake. Anyone, such as fashion designer Donna Karen, who rather foolishly asked whether or not women invite advances upon themselves, finds themselves targeted as the latest subject of opprobrium by the ever-bloodthirsty twitch-mob.
It really is like modern-day Salem. Karen was called a ‘disgusting human being’, people are calling for boycotts on her business and posting photographs of themselves setting fire to her clothes. Her reputation is almost as battered as that of Weinstein himself. Lindsay Lohan, an actress who has a similarly chequered reputation, understanding what it means to face trial by media, tweeted that she felt bad for Weinstein, before later deleting her comment after the internet decreed that her acting career was over.
This is the antithesis of justice and compassion. Feeling sorry for someone, even if they have behaved in an appalling fashion, should never be a taboo. I can’t help but feel sorry for anyone who finds their life has come crashing down around their ears and is facing ruin, even if they have been the architect of their own misfortune.
What has been so disturbing about the #metoo hashtag which has been proliferating on social media, with women sharing their stories of sexual assualt, is that one allegation has been enough to ruin people’s careers, without any semblance of justice or due process. The barrister and journalist Rupert Myers has lost his regular column in GQ and it seems unlikely that he will reappear in any of the other well known newspapers, where he was formerly a regular.
The allegation against Myers, while not particularly pleasant, wasn’t on a par with rape or sexual assault either. He had a reputation as someone who wasn’t safe in taxis and made a series of clumsy sexual advances towards women, one of whom ratted on him. I’m not defending this behaviour, but pointing out that a lewd comment or inappropriately placed hand is not the same thing as serious sexual assault. A court would agree – there are different degrees of sexual assault and corresponding penalties which reflect the nature of the crime.
The problem with taking to social media to make an accusation is that it means that those who are guilty of heinous sexual crimes are far less likely to be punished for their misdemeanours because potential jurors may be influenced by the extensive media coverage. While victims who come forward must be treated with sensitivity and compassion, we also have a rule of law which means that people must be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
The law treats depriving someone of their liberty extremely seriously, which is why the innocent are always presumed innocent until proven guilty, with the onus on the accusers to provide the evidence and make the accusation stick.
Simply saying “I believe you” is not enough and, if allowed to continue unchecked, could lead to all kinds of injustices including potential vigilantism. There can be all kinds of reasons why someone may accuse another, but an accusation is not in itself irrefutable proof.
I’m also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that all men are sexual predators from whom women need protecting, which is what we appear to be being led to believe. There are plenty of decent men out there who know how to treat women with respect. Recently, I was out for dinner with a group of colleagues in an unfamiliar part of London and, looking at the clock in Cinderella style, I realised that I had no idea where the nearest tube was or whether or not I’d be able to catch the last train back home.
One man walked me to the station, while another picked up my share of the bill. He rang me later to check that I had caught the train, as he had been worried. I reassured him that I had, thanked him for paying the bill and asked him how I could reimburse him, which he refused.
Both of the men were a good ten years younger than I, knew I was married with lots of children and had no interest in anything untoward, none of them tried anything; they were simply being kind and gallant. Perhaps it was because they were devout Catholics, or maybe they had just been brought up properly, or both.
That’s not to say that I don’t have sympathy with women who are fed up with what seems like constantly aggressive male behaviour. I commented last week that I am on the verge of no longer walking down the main road in my village because of the constant cat-calls and beeping of horns from groups of young lads in cars or lorry drivers. I don’t take it as a massive compliment, these people only see the blonde hair and not the middle-aged face, but it is nonetheless intimidating.
Someone threw a conker at me the other day, which was incredibly painful and left a nasty bruise on my back, one man pulled into a lay-by and attempted to beckon me towards his cab before then getting out and following me, and another group of young lads made aggressive sexual comments when they were hanging outside the local shop where I’d dropped in to get some milk.
It’s telling that this never happens when I am with my husband or children, but always when I am unaccompanied and a seemingly easy target. All sorts of terrifying potential scenarios flash through your head.
Overtly sexualised behaviour of men towards women hasn’t, I believe, got substantially worse since I was younger, but what seems to have happened is that there is an increased awareness that this is unacceptable.
When you look at the achievements of women in the workplace and in society, it’s clear that they are not being held back by sexual harassment. Now 90 per cent of female graduates with no children are working, and more women than ever are in the top jobs and entering once male-dominated professions. These days the majority of vets, doctors and lawyers are women and between 1997 and 2016 women’s pay grew by 81 per cent compared to 62 per cent for men. Women in their 20s actually earn more than men. Last year a record number of women entered Parliament.
So perhaps what we need to do, as well as teaching men that certain behaviour is unacceptable, is to teach women how to fend off unwanted advances. While I understand how intolerable and scary certain types of sexual attention can be, I’ve also had more than my fair share of lecherous behaviour in the past and the best way of making it known that the behaviour is unwanted, is to firmly laugh at those doing it, which is usually enough to make most men retreat in embarrassment and humiliation.
As for men heckling in the street, it’s difficult to know what can be done, but whether it’s that or a male boss pushing his luck, all of this was predicted by Pope Paul VI, 50 years ago in Humanae Vitae.
He warned that as a result of widespread use of contraception, sex would lose its meaning and the man will lose respect for the woman and “no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium” and will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”
• Caroline Farrow is a Catholic journalist and broadcaster
Picture: Harvey Weinstein and his wife, Eve Chilton Weinstein, arrive at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, for a State Dinner honouring Chinese President Jiang Zemin.