Photo: BBC Newswatch
Photo: BBC Newswatch

OPINION

Why don’t women speak out about harassment? The answer is in today’s newspapers

After Kate Maltby wrote about Westminster harassment, she was belittled, insulted and undermined. It all serves to silence women, says Kat Lister

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By Kat Lister on

If you seriously need to ask yourself why more women don’t speak up about their experiences of harassment and abuse, you needn’t go far. The Daily Mail does all the running for you. Just pop into your local newsagent, pick up a copy of the UK’s second-biggest-selling daily newspaper and head to page eight. It’s all there, in black and white; leaving a grubby stain on your fingers – and a revulsion in your gut.

“ONE VERY PUSHY LADY,” the tabloid splashes above a picture of Kate Maltby (in a corset – but we’ll get to that later). As most of us are aware by now, Maltby is a young Tory activist who has claimed that Secretary of State Damian Green made inappropriate advances towards her in 2015. (Green has denied the allegations.)

One very pushy lady. There is power in the language we use – especially when it comes to how we talk about sexual harassment and the women who are now coming forward. The Daily Mail knows this all too well, which is what makes their editorial all the more provoking. And it’s why I’m calling it out today, despite any niggling misgivings I have that I’m feeding the beast by doing so. The stakes, quite frankly, are too high now.

It’s hard to know where to begin with their double-spread character assassination this morning. So many harmful words jump out. So many, in fact, that I grabbed a highlighter pen to try and make sense of it all. If there’s an overreaching arch here, it’s that the Daily Mail succinctly illustrates the ways in which we silence women: by undermining, ridiculing and infantalising the few who dare to place their head above the parapet and speak out.

Somehow, a woman speaking out about her experiences is a cry for publicity – not help

According to The Mail, Kate Maltby’s “daddy” (yes, daddy) is a banker who dated Ann Widdecombe. So far, so irrelevant. “Andrew Pierce profiles a woman determined to make it in politics – whatever the cost,” the paper hypes things up before they really get stuck in. “Profiling” is, actually, exactly the right word here. What follows is a personal and professional smear campaign that seeks to deflect responsibility – and question where accountability truly lies.

To the paper’s credit, it starts with Maltby’s qualifications and professional experience. Well actually, it begins with a Maltby “boast”: that she is an “intellectual historian and scholar” (their quotation marks) despite the fact that, last year, Maltby wrote an article for The Times in which she was photographed in a corset. The subject of the article was about the corset – and how modern women wear them – but no matter. A snapshot of Maltby in a corset does the job nicely - assuming, let’s say, the job is an attempt to discredit her.

What follows is a dizzying array of opinions, judgements and insults: Her parents, Colin and Victoria “would be absolutely aghast at what Kate has done,” a friend tells the paper. Again, I repeat, language: what she has done. It keeps going. Yet more words and phrases for my highlighter pen: “a highly-strung teenager,” “ambitious”, “relentless” and “persistent”; each one playing into a narrative that is all too familiar in the wake of Weinstein. That, somehow, a woman speaking out about her experiences is a cry for publicity – not help. That, somehow, the power-play we need to analyse isn’t what’s been perpetrated by the men who have abused it to satisfy their sexual appetites, but the women who are finally talking about these abuses and publicly demanding structural change.

Who do we trust – and who do we believe? I’m writing about the Daily Mail, not to further amplify their voice, but to underline, with my trusted highlighter pen, just how crucial language is right now if we’re ever going to move forward.

It’s all too easy to conclude that I care too much – and the Mail doesn’t care enough. And, in a lot of ways, this is true. None of us can change the language they choose to run with. But we can, like Maltby, start speaking out. Start saying no. And start asking, start demanding: when will the language change?

@Madame_George

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Photo: BBC Newswatch
Tagged in:
Sexual assault
women in the media
Sexism in the media

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