During a recent shift at my local pub, I crouched down behind the bar to grab some glasses and a customer remarked to his friend that it was nice to see a woman on her knees. Later that evening, another customer joked that he was impressed at how well I could ‘swallow’ a shot. I regretted wearing my short denim skirt; it was hot, and I was comfy, but I made a mental note to cover up a little more for the next shift. The next morning, I moaned to my housemates about the evening I’d had, and, living with mostly girls, I was greeted with a response of disgust but not surprise. This conversation had happened time and time again in our kitchen. Of course, the comments made by these men were horrifying and made me feel intimidated and uncomfortable, but they were old. Honestly, I was content to accept that they were simply from a different generation that would soon be history, so it would be a waste of time and energy to confront their misogyny.
Later that day it was revealed that 11 of my peers from Warwick University had created a group chat in which they shared sexually violent, racially abusive, abhorrently misogynistic attitudes. It feels odd not to refer to the participants of this chat as ‘boys’, because they are my peers and we are young. But in reality, they are a group of well-educated, fortunate, self-aware men who expressed and validated the most destructive, violent and inexcusable attitudes I have ever encountered within my close community. To call them boys seems to suggest that they are young and careless, and I think this detracts from the gravity of the situation, because the reality is that even in the spaces we perceive to be the most safe and progressive, corrosive and hateful attitudes of misogyny are still able to survive. I want to share my response to the discovery of this group chat, specifically in relation to the sexually violent and misogynistic content, because I can no longer contently accept that attitudes such as this are discretely generational and will soon be ‘outgrown’.
In reality, they are a group of well-educated, fortunate, self-aware men who expressed and validated the most destructive, violent and inexcusable attitudes I have ever encountered within my close community
I am aware that my surprised response to these allegations shows that I have been fortunate enough to live in what I deem to be a safe community, and arguably this highlights my ignorant idealisation that my close community was free of such hateful attitudes. I am also aware that sexual assault and derogatory behaviour is prominent on a large scale and is being confronted through movements such as #MeToo, but I think that we often place these issues into some abstract space because we do not know the victims and cannot relate to the context. Yes, I am angered by the behaviour of powerful men in Hollywood. But until recently, these issues seemed to be in another world. I was only exposed to them on my phone screen. I was shocked and saddened, empowered that something was being done to challenge these men, but simultaneously I felt my action would be helpless because my close community collectively criticised these behaviours. It is only now that I realise this approach is naïve and there is much work to do because issues of misogyny and sexual violence manifest in all areas of society, even those unbearably close to home.
In response to the exposure of this group chat I have realised several areas in which myself and my community might be facilitating these destructive attitudes. The first is our leniency towards offensive language under the guise of tongue-in-cheek humour. I’m sure many of us have been part of conversations in which we say or laugh at something which would otherwise be considered derogatory. I know I have, and in the moment, it feels harmless because there is a shared awareness that what we are saying is satirical and not representative of our true values or behaviours. I am definitely not sensitive to crude, close-to-the-bone humour but I do think that when a dynamic of validation is established, there is a risk that humour will excel into more genuine hatred.
Issues of misogyny and sexual violence manifest in all areas of society, even those unbearably close to home
I am not suggesting that we should all passionately abide to politically-correct phrasing or that we should eradicate sarcasm and irony from our private conversations. Yet, I think that we all have a responsibility to be sensitive and perceptive in recognising when boundaries are being crossed. In reading the messages shared by these men, it is clear that any sense of a boundary has been obliterated and I am sure that the participants knew this. If this unpardonable behaviour can teach us anything, perhaps it is that we all have the capacity to call out what we deem to be inappropriate behaviour. Had one of the men in this group chat spoken up when the nature of conversation turned more sinister, it might have prevented such sadistic escalation.
Secondly, I think this group chat highlights that we are somewhat deluded about the extent to which issues of sexism and sexual assault have been resolved. It is suggested by some that contemporary feminism is redundant because western women are equal now, and it is undeniable that women have made enormous progressions politically and socially. But a culture of misogyny is harder to rewire. The nature of the comments in this group chat did not grow in a void. They are part of a long-standing culture of superiority, dominance and misogyny that remains within the roots of our culture. These horrific attitudes were held by educated, ‘respectable’ men, in a seemingly progressive environment and this should force us to continue in the active pursuit of true equality in all areas of society.
The nature of the comments in this group chat did not grow in a void. They are part of a long-standing culture of superiority and dominance that remains within the roots of our culture.
Finally, I think that the discovery of this group chat reminds us that these issues are not out of our reach or out of our trajectory of influence. Sexism, sexually derogative behaviour and sexual assault are clearly not issues that society is close to outgrowing. My passivity towards the men who made inappropriate comments at work was simply because my reaction felt useless, but the exposure to attitudes of a similar nature from young people who we falsely assume will know better shows that these behaviours must be called out. Perhaps tackling hateful, derogatory attitudes on a personal and local level could provide an invaluable contribution towards cultural equality that is clearly needed.