Everyday sexism, sexual harassment and the need for a new feminism

In this contribution Maria Louka writes extensively on questions of gender inequality and the cultures of sexism. She offers a representative sample of three articles in which she concludes that new feminism is necessary and hopeful.

By Maria Louka

It’s now been over eight years since I was first employed as a journalist. The intervening years of relentless output of quite frankly bleak news have blurred memories of my very first news reports and editorial news spots. However, what I do remember very vividly in those early days is how overwhelmed and stressed I felt upon entering an 80% male dominated newsroom. My day would start with a nervous breakdown ritual – reminiscent of Woody Allen films – in front of my wardrobe. My main concern was to be “appropriately” dressed, to avoid generating misunderstandings or misinterpreted signals on the part of my male colleagues. During my shift, my objective was to render myself quasi-invisible whilst keeping as productive as possible, not to react to the verbal or non-verbal brotherly code of  communication, not to take a cigarette break, not to let my thoughts drift whilst looking out of the window, and to conceal any signs of menstrual discomfort. This was my way of dealing with the situation and proving that I was worthy to be in their midst. That is not to say that I was unaware of modern feminist theory.

Au contraire. I had already absorbed a large amount of Butler and Kristeva, I had protested against gender-based violence, I wasn’t one for ignoring women crying out in pain behind closed doors and had called the police every time I suspected domestic violence. However, I hadn’t managed to shake off my insecurity or my internal default setting of guilt at being a woman, both legated to womanhood by a resolutely patriarchal society. I responded inadequately to the daily, inferred and diffuse versions of sexism which are so deeply-ingrained in our collective subconscious, that they have become second nature pervading our universe. Many years, elections and memoranda later I managed to establish a more equal relationship with my male peers. Certain “bastions” of inclusivity however could never be conquered; it was never accepted that I comprehended how the offside rule worked.

Everyday sexism

This is one of my many personal experiences of everyday sexism, and the manner in which it penetrates subjectivity itself, methodically, silently maiming its autonomy. In his book Racism without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how racism stifles the well-being of the black population in the USA and is an obstacle to equality, despite the fact that nobody would freely describe themselves as racist. Conversely, we could apply this principle to the phenomenon of “sexism without sexists”, albeit that in recent times men overwhelmingly repudiate sexism, the phenomenon however subliminally escapes from “pledges of faith” to women’s rights and takes off in all directions. It’s in school text books, it sits next to you during university lectures, it is reflected in the gaze of your employer and colleagues at work, it honks at you as you walk down the road, it squeezes you on the underground, it unashamedly and cynically pops out at you from the TV screen during an evenings’ viewing.

The predominant conceptualization of sexism may have several manifestations and become mainly apparent through the ugly face of gender-based violence; violated bodies and minds, as accounted for in police reports. However, gender-based manifestations of violence are exoteric, and no longer constitute isolated or uncommon derivatives of a sexist culture. There is an entire web of relationships, mechanisms, perceptions and behaviours which collectively form an iron fist serving at the altar of sexism where it prays devoutly, and its devotions relegate women to positions of servitude or inferiority. This belief system albeit taciturn generates and immortalizes gender stereotyping with disarming clarity.

“We have learned to consider certain behaviours as acceptable; this however does not render them less sexist: looks or comments – not necessarily vulgar – in public, references to household chores as being female, phrases like what’s wrong with her, is she on her period? or didn’t she get some last night? The problem with non violent sexism is that it manifests in a way that is difficult to explain. You feel that trust and allegiances are divided, or that you are being spoken to in a different tone, with less respect than when addressing a man”, says Anna Sigalou, student and member of the feminist initiatives No Tolerance and Fig Leaf.

On an outing, a male friend would offer the keys of his car to other males but not to me

She continues cherry-picking from her personal experiences: “Let’s say I have been lucky, because I haven’t felt that sexism has been hard-hitting in my family life or social circle. This of course does not exclude me from sexism, in the general sense. I have had some bad experiences from men whose advances I rejected; one of them called me for two months, and was very abusive, whilst the other bullied me because I supposedly hurt his feelings. On an outing, a male friend would offer the keys of his car to other males but not to me – at least not without an argument – despite the fact that we were both equally good (or bad) drivers. You will often find that you don’t have an audience if you’re talking about a violent event that doesn’t involve bruising or which merely left you emotionally scarred. Being stared at on public transport or squashed isn’t considered to be serious, because it happens to all women. There is a permanent quashing of womankind in public life”.

Sexism is as endemic as reality and an integral component of power, not only in its oppressive and prohibitive dimension but as an everyday, socialised and embodied phenomenon, as per Foucauldian theory. Gender is by no means a fixed or unchangeable category. It is an arena in which power struggles are fought and it is socially constructed through performativity, in other words during the fulfilment of normative, cultural and largely surreptitious rules.  You become female or male through the dynamic re-enactment of the norm for femininity and masculinity. However these social roles do not transition with painless parity to social equality. They are the fundamental vestiges of a patriarchal society. Therefore sexism penetrates our lives at inception and creates a cloud to accompany us on all strata of social life. It becomes normalised.

Our sexual malfunctions are put down to us being unsexy or lacklustre, and of course, their sexual malfunctions are entirely our fault

This image becomes a familiar, albeit distorted and innately worrying, representation of ourselves. We hate it and we feel uncomfortable, it either incites embarrassing coexistence or disciplined assimilation of humiliating behaviour. We are no longer shocked by it because we have simply learned how to live with it. We are programmed, on the road, no matter how sound our driving skills may be, to put up with endless hooting, the menacing winding down of windows, or the barely muffled laments “alas, female drivers!” We know that we are going to have fight for professional advancement. We have trained for this at Olympic speed whilst walking home on an evening. We are fully aware, that for us, the passage of time, getting older, or diverging from stereotypical beauty, is simply unforgivable. Once we hit 40, we become the wrinkled disdained, whilst they become “the cute baldie” or “the sexy grey haired guy”. Our sexual malfunctions are put down to us being unsexy or lacklustre, and of course, their sexual malfunctions are entirely our fault. These are the lessons we are taught as adolescents, enhancing the development of strategic defence and repeal tactics to handle these situations when the time comes. Heaven forbid we should choose to discuss these issues, for we would surely fall into the pit of incomprehension or be exposed to full scale mockery.

“I find it terribly uncomfortable when we are out in a crowd and I am expected to express unqualified approval by showing signs of smiling when somebody is about to make a sexist comment. At that point I have two choices: To act indifferently (i.e. accept oppression) or to start a conversation expressing my discomfort. The first typical one-liners that I will generate as a response are “Don’t be OTT!”, or from the deep thinkers “Political correctness has shut down all conversations”. I work in a testosterone fuelled environment, i.e. with men who want their manliness to be felt. A female journalist must prove herself worthy of the profession and adopt a traditionally male reporting approach. Topics have a default gender setting. It is rare for a male colleague to write on e.g. cultural affairs. It’s also considered weird that I should attend alone at the Moria Refugee Camp following clashes that breakout from time to time”, says Anthi Pazianou, a Lesvos island journalist writing for the local Empros newspaper and reporting on Radio Aiolos as well as being a correspondent for the national daily newspaper Kathimerini.

Naked misogyny

Anthi’s experience lays bare a facet of oppression experienced by women working in the media sector. “The profession acts as a multidirectional hotspot which clearly operates as an ideological hub, generating and regenerating stereotypes. Consider the naked misogyny of Themos Anastasiadis who has undertaken on behalf of his newspaper the operation of symbolically annihilating women through sensationalist and objectified representation of the female body in lifestyle magazines.

Greek media reeks of sexism. Or the entertainment section where women are portrayed either as sex objects or as “homemakers” and “mothers”, whereas they are almost completely absent from the news section. Panels of commentators on news programs are male dominated with the exception of a few female MPs and ministers. The structure of broadcasting itself in Greece seems to imply that women aren’t capable of serious broadcasting, and should only do cookery, fashion and gossip spots. I feel terribly vexed when sexist crime e.g. femicide or domestic violence is not referred to as such and instead we hear reports of “crimes of passion”; this is deeply offensive and misleading. Perpetrators of such crimes appear to be decriminalized and the patriarchal root which gives rise to these crimes is silenced”, adds Anthi Pazianou.

The truth is that nowadays we are experiencing a revival of true, pure and inbred sexism, and Donald Trump could be considered as embodying all of these attributes, however many men try to avoid being branded as sexist. Their claims, despite very often being affected by informal collective adult learning, stem from the womb of sexism itself. Justifying gender difference within a historical and evolutionary context which defends the gender based distribution of tasks and duties, or seemingly admires “femininity” or “the fair sex”; essentialistic sources of inspiration which reinforce traditional female roles and seek to paternalize female existence, or the conspiracy to represent women as dark and devious creatures with magical powers and men as mere puppets, or the denial of a patriarchy and therefore by extension the need for the existence of feminism, are barely disguised forms of sexism.

Slut shaming

These strategies are now being upgraded with new forms of sexism and female oppression, like stealthing, the male practice of removing protection during sex without the consent of their partner, a practice which according to research in the USA is becoming “fashionable”. Also, slut shaming, the social stigma attributed to how women may manage their sexuality or revenge porn, publicizing female sexual content (photos, texts, video) without mutual consent. Two core methods of controlling female sexuality and punishing emancipated women. Huge tension is brought to bear through the omnipresence of social media, besmirching reputations and transforming personalities.

All of this is wonderfully facilitated by the absence of the State itself to convincingly establish an antisexism standard, instead it churns out of its bowels abhorrent effigies of antifeminism. Sexism is ratified in Parliament, it becomes embedded in politics and it is publicly applauded. Political reporting is alive with such examples, from the immortalized comment of Pasok MP Mr Socrates Xynidis to Ms Eva Kaili also a Pasok MP who was pleading for permission to speak in parliament “Pipe down, you garter!”, to Mr Iordani Tzamtzi MP for New Democracy commenting “Even when you marry, you could end up with a wrong’un”, to the way the names of Scarlett Johansson and Georgia Vasileiadou have been added to the toolbox of wisecracks in micropolitical life.  Female politicians hardly ever attract attention to their role as public servants, but are often in the limelight due to their gender. Journalist Stefanos Kasimatis blatant misogynistic announcement of Tasia Christodoulopoulou Syriza MP becoming a grandmother “Shudder the thought, you must have become a mother at some point” was later baptized as “humorous” by himself, but nobody was laughing. Politicians partners are often easy targets.

The newspaper Avriani published one of the most filthy pages in Greek journalistic history in their character assassination of Dimitra Liani. The same newspaper, unrepentant years later in 2015, called upon Zoe Konstantopoulou’s husband to “Sort her out”. Greek journalists and the great general public who use the internet don’t see any reason to restrict their comments to the partners of Greek politicians. Sexism knows no borders. Daggers are out for Brigitte Trogneux, Emanuel Macron’s wife. It’s not like couples with a twenty-five year age gap haven’t ever paraded out in public ever before. Many men, whether they are politicians or not, are married to much younger women. No problem with that. They might actually gain in social stature by doing so. A male with a much younger female partner is usually described in terms relating to “swagger”. Trogneux caused an outcry because she breached the gender based hierarchy. The guardians of patriarchy, whether pulling cheap sexist psychiatrization punches with references to the “Oedipus complex”, or overtly criticizing Macron’s love choices – indeed why didn’t he consult them – are shoring up phallocratic support.

If you type “Repousi and tights” into Google, you will find a number of photos of my legs at the ballot box in Parliament

Maria Repousi, a woman with a long tenure in feminist regime change and a historian, but also on the receiving end of sexist behaviour as an MP, speaks to Inside Story of her experiences: “Female politicians are on the receiving end of many sexist attacks, intended to politically annihilate them.  Our appearance tends to provide ammunition. If you type “Repousi and tights” into Google, you will find a number of photos of my legs at the ballot box in Parliament. Female MPs are very often judged not on their political opinions but on the way they choose to dress, their choice of handbags, shoes, etc. The travesty doesn’t stop there. Its true dimension lies in the fact that regardless of their political affiliations, female politicians aren’t capable of adopting a common stance of solidarity in order to rebut such behaviour. In general, political life in Greece is extremely patriarchal, both in its representation, its formation and of course in its rhetoric. Feminism is but a caricature, even when for reasons of political correctness it defends gender equality. I count amongst the most difficult days of serving as an MP the 8th of March when I have to listen to cheap political debate about women. We are easy topics for controversy because we inevitably bring out gender ideology and therefore targeting us is always completely successful. I have been the target of extreme controversy, as indeed have other female politicians, and in my experience I can say that such controversy threatens our physical integrity. For example a Deputy Minister from the current coalition government with the Independent Greeks called upon Golden Dawn to “crowd” me in Parliament so that I could grasp the concept of crowding. This was not questioned at all when he became a Minister.

Language, which transpires from the dominance of the male gender and which stands defiantly inventing words and labels which universally embrace gender based identities, is a very important determinant for establishing sexism in everyday life. In recent years there have been individual and collective interventions into the field of sexist language but it is extremely telling of the adherence to a sexist culture that these interventions are dealt with as hysterical attacks intended to injure spontaneity. When we ask our co-interlocutors to refrain from making sexist gags, to refrain from criticizing women’s appearance, to refrain from commenting on sexual activity in dominating terms, to use more inclusive language in their writing, they look at us as if we were aliens newly-landed from the planet of political correctness, as if language wasn’t a semantically loaded sector which puts skin on the bones of reality. In fact, in Jacques Lacan’s work, language is intended as the driving force which constructs subjectivity with the phallus taking pride of place.

Dimitris Zachos, Assistant Professor of Pedagogy – Intercultural Education Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, explains that the language of negotiation remains very phallic: The language we use is predisposed given that it reflects social structures, a fact which affects the way in which we grasp meaning and the way in which we think. Sexist language prevails both in public and private discourse and it contributes to the reproduction of sexist ideology and of social practices which emanate from the same. Sexist language manifests itself on a structural, syntactical and semantical level. On a structural level a rule has been established (by male linguists) on the basis of which “male precedes female”, e.g. in the Constitution of the Hellenic Republic the term “Female Hellenes” is referred to just once, whereas the term “Hellenes (male case)” is dominant. On a syntactical level the rule is that when the subjects in a sentence are not both of the same gender, the grammar defaults to the male case, e.g. “Kostas and Nikki were colleagues (male plural) in the past”. On a semantics level, let us just ponder for a moment the meaning attributed to the words: Wifey, womanising, effeminate, vixen and on the other: Bravery, puppet, man-up.

Experiment

To demonstrate the structural presence of sexism and how the appropriate backdrop is formed for the manifestation of gender violence, the French filmmaker Eleonore Pourriat shot a genius experimental film Oppressed Majority. The film presents a reversal of reality with women behaving exactly like men, e.g. running around bare-chested alongside men pushing prams, urinating in urban alleys, chatting up male passers-by, sexually harassing them. It is an exquisite sketch exposing sexist colonization in everyday life and the dangers implied therein. It is encouraging that we are experiencing an international trend of exposing everyday sexism, even in its most deeply embedded form, thanks to a revival of feminism both in the arts and journalism.

Recently a video on periods went viral on ABC, showing an overdue need for normalisation of menstruation in public life, breaking free from disdainful patholigization and signification of profanity. Familiarisation with periods, as a basic and simple function of the female reproductive system and the cessation of trading pads and tampons subversively like we were pushing drugs in Omonoia, constitutes a small victory against sexism. Everyday sexism project is a space where women may catalogue instances of sexism in every day life. The experiences of women, not as individual cases, but as a collective challenge, lie at the core of this modern debate. Moreover, we have learned from postmodernist theory that experience is always political. Therefore for women to speak of their body and their daily life, means that we are exposing personal sites of oppression and abuse.  It simultaneously heralds a process of raising awareness which flips the hourglass of tolerance upside-down.

Photo: International Women's Day, Bangladesh (2005). – © Wikipedia

Also read:

The new feminism is an inclusive one

It’s a man’s world: Sexual harassment


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