The deluge of reports of sexual harassment taking place in just about every aspect of society, following the Harvey Weinstein revelations is an opportunity to produce profound changes. This will not happen unless the deep roots of abusive behaviour are studied and modified.
In the understandable climate of outrage and fury there may be a temptation to believe that change can happen through revenge, our cultural norm. But it is precisely the culture that needs to change. This is the moment when nonviolence has to make positive and compassionate proposals to allow a new balance in human relationships.
Understanding does not mean justifying and justice is an important step in the healing process. Therefore we must ask ourselves, what type of justice is likely to produce the best outcome. Retributive Justice, again, our norm, will punish, but not necessary educate. So, whilst justice should indicate clearly who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, (in our power based society blaming the victim is also rather common), different forms of Reparative Justice offer creative ways to emerge into a better state of affairs. Victim blaming was also present in ancient mythology. According to Ovid, Medusa was such a great beauty that Poseidon decided to rape her. Out of jealousy Athena transformed her into the hideous serpent haired monster no man could look at as they would be turned into stone.
It is important also to comprehend the cultural context in which both men and women grow up. Education does not just happen in the classroom, it starts in the home and with children’s bedtime stories. The role of women in fairy and folk tales is traditionally passive, weak, obedient, the good housewife and in need of rescue (only wicked witches are strong). If Cinderella and Rapunzel need a prince to release them, Little Red Riding Hood needs a macho huntsman to be saved. But the most worrisome stories are Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, both rescued by a prince’s kiss whilst unconscious (or dead) and unable to give consent. The previous history of these tales collected by the Brothers Grimm is even worse, as they have been sanitised in modern times for children’s consumption. In different old versions Sleeping Beauty is raped and/or impregnated by a king and she wakes up to find herself a mother of two. The rapist marries her and they live happily ever after. And Snow White was certainly underage.
Examples of women being forced to marry their rapists abound, starting with the Bible and continuing with societies far and wide to protect the “honour” of the family. Misogyny has equally a long history, with Plato warning in the Timeous that misbehaving men will be reincarnated as women, followed by other distinguished philosophers in all epochs such as Rousseau, Darwin, Nietzsche, Hegel and misogynist-in-chief Schopenhauer. How is it possible to deny the influence such important thinkers have on how society views women? And yet not only women like Laura Ceretta, Mary Wallstonecraft and the suffragists managed to rebel. In fact there were many men that joined the struggle for women’s equal rights.
The rupture in the balance between the sexes appears to have happened towards the end of the Palaeolithic, when the goddesses venerated as symbols of fertility were progressively replaced by male gods, and more patriarchal societies.
Feminism came as a reaction to such history, and the Pill allowed women to exercise their sexuality with more freedom, but it also allowed abuse to become more acceptable (ie, without consequences), in particular in the context of power relationships in which women were forced to offer sex in exchange for favours such as advancing their careers (in the Arts, Science, Business, Politics, you name it).
There has been some progress in educating our societies and films no longer show the stereotypical image of the girl falling and needing the hero to pick her up whilst being chased by a monster. Female heroines from Buffy to Wonder Woman help redress the balance but the solution to the problem of sexual harassment cannot be that women learn to “kick arse”. Or become an “honorary man” à la Thatcher. A true reconciliation after 10,000 years of “war of the sexes” (in which the only power for women is to offer or withhold sex, like in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata in which women refuse to have sex until their husbands stop waging war) needs a revolution in the culture, for both men and women. It is important to point out that sexual harassment also happens to men and bullying happens to everybody.
The end of violence (sexual harassment being one of its forms, just as much as domestic violence is) towards women can only happen with the end of violence in society at large. Violent and sexually predatory men tend to have a very low self esteem, product of feeling undervalued and dehumanised by their environment, and seek compensation in acquiring as much power as possible. And the women most at risk of falling victims are equally the ones with the lowest self esteem, and for the same reasons plus a higher rate of childhood sexual abuse.
A humanised education, both at home, in the school and on the screens must be directed to strengthening self esteem, solidarity and values based on nonviolence. Children need stories to stimulate their imagination but those that depict violence, abuse and discrimination cannot be offered to children before they are capable of discussing them with others with a critical sense. We must not forget that the main forms of learning are trial-and-error and modelling or imitation. So a combination of imitating what they see and accepting or rejecting that behaviour depending on the consequences of their actions is the simplest form of acquiring early behaviour. Later, as intentionality grows, as self-awareness grows, in some people at least, the opportunity to develop new behaviours based on more complex and intentional attitudes opens more interesting possibilities of development.
It is clear, then, that there are a large number of interventions possible in education, media, work relations, the Law, etc, to begin to change the culture in which we live. There are no simplistic solutions to deep rooted cultural habits, but a strong drive to eliminate sexual harassment may well be one of the points from where a wider transformation of the human being and society can happen.
We can begin by going into human interactions, wherever they may take place, in an intentional higher level of consciousness, a consciousness of self, observing with great attention what is happening around us and how we are being affected by it, choosing our reactions so they are not mechanical but intentional, as ways to open de future for ourselves and others. Emerging from our habitual state of semi-sleep or day-dreaming plagued wakefulness needs practice, it needs a purpose.
Why should we not just slump in front of the telly and consume uncritically the values sold to us by advertising? Why should we not just let ourselves believe that sex, money (more sex) and prestige (much more sex), in spite of being provisional, can give meaning to our lives? Because they don’t. Because they fail. Because they sometimes hurt others. Because through them we are hurt by others. It is not a question of renouncing to all pleasure but to find a profound and permanent meaning that can organise everything else in our lives with coherence and solidarity. And for this we need to be awake, wide awake, conscious of our own selves.