A generation gap holding things back

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Pay gaps, thigh gaps and now, a generation gap: the many gulfs slowing down gender equality just increased by one.

At the recent Feminism in London 2014 national conference (a veritable cascade of hairy pits and colourful knits), it emerged that gender inequality facing young people in the UK today has some totally new hues to those faced by the generation above us. Some of them much darker hues.

I’ve started going out with four pairs of pants layered on now, because it’s the only way I can get home from a night out without having had a guy’s unwanted fingers stuck up inside me,” shrugged Kelly, 23, resigned.

Happens all the time,” nodded fellow group discussion member, Sarah, 18. “I didn’t even know it was illegal till a few weeks ago.”

Is it illegal?!” A third young woman, Meg, also 18, piped up, genuine (and so fairly heart-breaking) surprise in her voice.

Although gutted, and surprised at quite how commonplace extreme violations evidently are for some young women, I wasn’t for a second disbelieving: I’ve heard that this grim activity is happening with a miserable regularity in our bars and clubs. Cold hard stats back up the anecdotal evidence – and reveal this culture of harassment is on the rise.

A national study carried out by the NUS back in 2010 found that 16% of respondents had experienced ‘unwanted kissing, touching or molesting’. As with any over 0%, this figure was unacceptable. So let your heart sink as you shoot forward just four years, to the NUS’s latest findings: 37% of women and 12% of men who responded this year have faced unwelcome sexual advances. And a similar study published last year by the student union at the University of York found that over half of respondents (57%) had experienced unwanted groping, touching, pinching or smacking. All pretty shocking.

A whopping 97.5% hadn’t reported incidents, often (like with the young women at the FiL conference) out of simply not knowing this sexual harassment is not okay. As one respondent to York’s ‘You Know You Want To’ survey explained, “I didn’t know they were worthy of reporting, or thought it was my own fault for being drunk and [I] paid the price.” A disquieting lack of awareness of the illegality of unwanted sexual advances seems to be quite a theme.

As sociologist Karen Weiss observed recently in her discussion of bar and club culture in the US, this is because there’s an increasing sense of ‘normality’ surrounding these attacks. “Within the milieu of a highly sexualised and overly intoxicated bar environment,” she notes, “men (and some women) feel entitled to touch strangers in a sexual manner without their consent.”

Weiss pulls out a recent survey in which 80% of male respondents admitted to grabbing the bum of an unknown woman in a bar – and yet, she observes, “rather than getting angry, women tend to dismiss non-consensual touching inside bars or clubs as harmless play, nothing too serious, certainly not a crime.”

While the young women back at the conference swapped their ordeals as casually as kids do loom bands, older members of the group (which included prominent feminist academic, Dr Gail Dines and the journalist Julie Bindel) sat back in collective, shocked silence – and then one broke down in tears. The general consensus was that this level of aggression was utterly unheard of by the older gang. And this surprised us younger women: it takes a perspective apart to remind us what’s what.

But increasingly, dunked 24/7 in a morphing social landscape, we’re missing opportunities to get such perspectives. Thanks in large part to the digital revolution, how we interact has evolved as totally as a regenerated Dr Who – and across the board, it’s taking everyone a little while to fully cotton on to this remodelled social scene.

Left-leaning commentators, for example, elevated above us on their lofty words and tottering column inches, are bamboozled that Russell Brand’s Youtube channel, The Trews, is becoming quite popular with a massive youth demographic with which they’ve totally failed to engage. And dating, for another example, has been completely redefined by the mobile app scene, where a swipe is now as good as a snog. Netflix, Reddit, Pornhub – we’re not in pre-dial-up Kansas anymore.

Now, we can all agree getting youth politically pumped is only ever a good thing, and hey, screen swiping eliminates all risk of romantic rebuttal – what’s not to love? The altered landscape isn’t necessarily a social stumbling block, and often it doesn’t much matter whether or not our parents & co are clued up on it.

But in feminism, a crucially intersectional movement where communication of the personal across social lines is so key, the definite disconnect between we digital natives and the older generation has the potential to hold progress back – a real shame and a slightly bitter irony, as the platform driving the divide (the internet) has a massive communicative potential.

Much has already been said of the web’s role in giving a global soapbox for aggression against women – Gamergate, which included multiple death and rape threats against video gaming theorists, providing a recent, sorry example. Misogyny is loud and proud, and it’s likely that rising offline harassment is connected to this digital shift. But the internet is far from our enemy: we can use it to redress the balance, simultaneously asserting gender equality, and getting back in touch with the older troops.

Thanks to the collective, communicative potential of the web, catcalling (#NotJustHello) is finally getting (cat)called out. Indeed, Twitter (#Hollaback, #EveryDaySexism, #YesAllWomen), blogging (Feministing, The F-Word, The Vagenda), and online petitions (No More Page Three) are providing crucial platforms which will open up the discussion again. Tie that in with good old fashioned offline conferences, rallies and activism, and feminism has got the potential for a healthy and hearty, generationally closeknit movement once more.

With the potential to learn going both ways for improving the state of gender relations, we need to bridge that generation gap quick: nice big planks of dialogue should get things going.

Let’s get chatting.

(Some names have been changed for anonymity)

Image Credit: fliqkr via Flickr

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