Sexual Harassment is Not Trivial

I’ve always been a fan of Germaine Greer. From the moment I picked up my first battered copy of the Female Eunuch, Greer was responsible for my exposure to feminism. However, her comments in a recent Guardian article both dismayed and disappointed me.

She was commenting on the issue of sexual harassment in Australia’s Big Brother. For those of you that missed it: one male contestant allegedly held a female contestant down on a bed whilst a second male contestant rubbed his penis in the woman’s face (Greer’s article was written before a male contestant in the UK’s Big Brother appeared to bite a female contestant whilst she was sunbathing (1)).

Greer is angry – and rightly so. However, her wrath doesn’t seem to be directed towards the perpetrators of this attack but towards the TV company responsible for Australia’s BB. Indeed, she writes:

Two men have been evicted from Australia’s Big Brother after an alleged sex attack on a housemate. We may never know exactly what happened, but it’s the programme makers, not the contestants, we should be angry with…. There are serious ethical issues involved in reality television, and in particular in Big Brother, but I think they are far more to do with manipulation of the public than they are with the trivial adventures of the housemates.

Now, I believe Greer is right to be furious with the TV company, Endemol. The media generally consistently use reporting of violence against women as a way to boost their sales and viewing figures. However, this should surely take second place to the sexual assault apparently inflicted on the BB contestant.

Sexual harassment is endemic in our society. It can range from everyday occurrences, which have a ‘dripping tap’ effect on your emotional psyche, building up to the point where it can damage your confidence and personal well-being, to ‘sledge hammer’ scenarios which have potentially devastating consequences(2). Either way, sexual harassment is for many women a traumatic experience which occurs all too frequently. Having it dismissed, especially by, in my opinion, one of our greatest feminists, as a ‘trivial adventure’ is damaging and dangerous.

Greer states that the experience of the BB housemate, Camilla, was a ‘non-event’ and that “you could[n’t] see much; just a back, and a pair of underpants with a fist in them in close proximity to a face. No waving, no gobbling”. She then makes it worse by commentating that, “Apparently Camilla got into bed with John and Ashley and they were just horsing around”.

To me, this smacks of the sexist ideology which purports that sexually attacked women are responsible for leading men on. Greer is right that, “it is not easy to judge what really happened” but I would suggest that whatever occurred in that bed, whatever Camilla had previously said or done with John and Ashley, that whenever and wherever a woman says no, she means NO, and this MUST be respected.

One of the most pernicious things about sexual harassment is the societal discourses that tell women that they should just put up with it. How many of us have been told that we’re upset over nothing? Or that we should just get a sense of humour and stop taking things so seriously? How many of us have complained about sexual harassment in our workplaces or our universities only to have no action taken against the perpetrator or, worse, experienced secondary victimisation as a result? Sexual harassment must be taken seriously and it does not help when leading feminists dismiss it as trivial.

I’d like, if I may, to end with a quote from Germaine Greer at her best:

What more could women want? Freedom, that’s what freedom from rape, whether it is by being undressed by the men on the building site, spied upon as we go about our daily business, stopped, propositioned or followed on the street, greasily teased by our workmates, pawed by the boss, used sadistically by the men we love, or violently terrorised and beaten by a stranger, or a gang of strangers (3).

Come on, Germaine, let’s work together to try to ensure that all women, everywhere, get this freedom.

Helen Clarke is a PhD student researching sexual harassment in Higher Education. If you’ve experienced, or witnessed, unwanted sexual attention at university, and you’d like to share your experiences, Helen would like to hear from you. You can email her at: [email protected]