Harvey Weinstein on a jazzy background, surrounded by newspapers
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OPINION

The infantilising term “sex pest” disguises the horror of harassment and assault

The papers are calling alleged perpetrators of harassment “sex pests”. This Carry On language is yet another way to undermine crimes against women

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By Marisa Bate on

Right now, the world seems to be confused about a lot of things: when is a rape joke funny? Why are women still talking about this? When did parliamentary “high jinx” die? And, in this fog of uncertainties, I’d like to take the opportunity to clear up one detail: what, precisely, is a “pest”?

As a woman with 32 years on this planet, I feel duly qualified to tell you the things that ARE pests. They include:

  • Moths
  • Ants
  • Foxes that shit in your garden
  • Flying ants
  • Wasps around ice cream on a sunny day
  • Those videos of young women with really toned abs that keep turning up on my Facebook feed

Pests are a nuisance but normally easily eradicated by a slightly toxic substance bought from B&Q (or logging off a web browser).

Things that are NOT pests include:  

  • Men who harass women

And, just in case you’re still a bit unsure, here’s the crucial difference: pests cause forgettable moments of irritation you can swat away with one hand while you get back to whatever else you were doing in your life. Pests can’t strain your emotional welfare; they can’t haunt you late at night or when you least it expect it; pests don’t become an experience that defines you after being hidden in shame and silence for 20 years. Pests don’t violate you. Pests don’t humiliate you. Pests don’t belittle you. Pests have no power over you.

But not everyone seems to understand the difference. The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun went with “sex pest” in some form or other on their front pages this morning, from “sex pest probe” and “sex pest ministers” to “sex pest row” and “sex pest turmoil”. If you walked past a newsstand on your way to work this morning, you saw that Britain is currently crawling with sex pests. And, while I’m glad the sexual-harassment claims made against MPs have made front-page news, and our infestation has been uncovered, I’m disappointed with the headlines.

“Sex pest” has all the connotations of a Carry On film or maybe a Benny Hill sketch. Something that we’ve all sniggered at for far too long. “Come on, sweetheart, it was just a joke!” A joke about uncles’ wandering hands; a joke, perhaps, about leaving your dignity in a rapist’s hotel room. A “pest” in the shape of a human man is a nuisance you swat away with an eye-roll, no doubt something women have done for many years, not because it didn’t warrant more of a reaction, but because you weren’t permitted a reaction. There was no one who would listen to anything other than a silent eye-roll. You had no choice. You swatted it away with one hand and on you went. That didn’t undo the horror of the action – it just was necessary in a culture that propped up such behaviour.

Somewhat inevitably, the backlash is beginning against the tsunami of women’s testimonies; older women who learnt to eye-roll and bat away roaming hands are questioning younger women's ‘fragility’

But, now, the balance of power is beginning to tremble with a new weight – the weight of a new generation of women who don’t perceive a man who commits sexual harrassment as a sex pest; they see him as a criminal. They see him abusing his power, exploiting his privilege. And while we all got so distracted by feminism being so damn cool and plastered on T-shirts sold at Topshop, we forgot its revival takes on another purpose – and that purpose is to build an army of women and men who will stand together and simply say no; an army of women and men who believe in zero tolerance. Thanks in part to feminists like Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project, there’s a better understanding of how inappropriate behaviour towards women – be it a phrase muttered under a stranger’s breath or a physical assault – is all part of the same problem. These varying offences sit on different ends of the same scale. At one end, there is a catcall in the street, a hand on a thigh, a text message of “sexual chatter”; at the other is assault and rape. This scale is the scale of structural inequality, where men’s power is expressed by violating women, in different degrees. And that’s why we can’t overlook the minor incidents, because if we permit them we’re on our way to permitting the major incidents, too.

And this scale explains how a “Give us a smile, darlin!” turns to a “Fuck you, bitch” in the blink of an eye; a scale that recognises men who flash women will be on a journey to sexual assault; a scale that recognises a culture of rape jokes make rape itself a much more viable option – and even less punishable in the courts. We can’t roll our eyes and push away the advances of sex pests with a Barbara Windsor giggle any fucking more. We name them and we shame them – whatever end of the scale they are on – until the world finally understands they aren’t pests; they are abusers, criminals, violators.

Somewhat inevitably, the backlash is beginning against the tsunami of women’s testimonies; older women who learnt to eye-roll and bat away roaming hands are questioning younger woman's “fragility”. Men on the radio and TV are asking if this is all too much – “Have we all got a bit carried away?” The resistance is indicative of many things: the size of the problem, the guilt of individuals, the refusal to give up the power, the resentment of older generations that they endured what young women won’t tolerate. And this irritation at the subject came across loud and clear this morning – the sex pests are out again and they’re making things uncomfortable for us all. Let’s move on before we get found out or before real change begins.

But no. We won’t move on. We won't bat away these men and their behaviour with an irritated sigh and a professional silence. We won’t listen to our elders who tell us to stop wasting our energy, or tell us that stoic silence is better than a pitiful victimhood, and we won’t listen to the men clinging on to their power by telling us we’ve gone too far. Sexual harassment is a crime. Do we tell other victims of crime to move on? Do we reduce the perpetrators to a comical, albeit harmless figure that doesn’t deserve our attention and energy? Do we hell. Once again, a crime against women is being belittled – this time to a hole made in your winter cashmere by a small creature you can kill with one finger.

@marisajbate

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harvey weinstein
Sexual assault
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