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Sexual Harassment - conducive context

Sexual harassment should be treated like a gas leak: if you smell it, report it.

It's been all over the news this week about the sexual harassment that Hollywood Producer Harvey Weinstein has perpetrated on a number of women. See the New York Times here for a catalogue of stories from women and the excellent Guardian article here (both well worth reading).

It appears, however, that to some, it was a known fact or 'open secret' that Weinstein was known for inviting women back to his room for massages and to perform sex acts. Some of the stories clearly show that people around him knew what was going on but chose not to challenge him. Jokes were even made at the Oscars and in TV series about Weinstein's behaviour with women. Sexual harassment is based in the abuse of power and control over another person. We see this in Weinstein's actions.

Weinstein is a top Hollywood producer, well known, with links to the Obamas. He has a lot of power to make or destroy a woman's career. He has abused this power to coerce and abuse women. It takes a lot of people to turn a blind eye, to ignore what is happening to create, what Prof Liz Kelly calls, a 'conducive context' for the abuse to occur. So why did no-one challenge him?

There are a host of reasons why but none that are ultimately acceptable to stand by and know that abuse could occur. Men not wanting to challenge a powerful man for fear of being excluded from the power circle, wanting to be liked, be included in the 'in crowd', feeling powerless themselves to act, fearful of the consequences of challenging a man with more power. Women fearful of the repercussions, not being believed, silenced or losing their jobs. I could go on. Jackson Katz says, it comes down to concepts of masculinity. We have to fundamentally address this issue.

Conducive Context of the Church?

Before we take the high ground and say we would not allow that to happen, let's look at our own church and churches. Is there a 'conducive context' for abuse to occur in our church? Do we challenge inappropriate behaviour of men when we see it? When sexists 'jokes' are made, do we challenge them? Do we remain silent instead? Do we let things that are uncomfortable, slide, especially in our British cultural context where we generally don't like to create a scene? Closing down the permission space for abuse to occur is really important in changing the culture of an organisation and institution. We have to ask ourselves this tough question:

Is the church complicit in allowing abuse of women to go unchallenged?

We need to face the reality that in some cases the answer is probably yes. It is a hard reality to face but if we are to be a safe space for women and survivors of abuse, we need to change our church culture. We need to see abuse of power challenged and changed. We need men to make a stand and speak out and to challenge other men.

We need to break the silence, shame and stigma around abuse and enable safe spaces for women to speak out and get the help and support they need.

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The bottom line is when culture silences, when culture is complicit, when culture can kill, our culture has to change. We need to see it and speak out. As Zoe Williams says, 'sexual harassment should be treated like a gas leak: if you smell it, you report it.'

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If you feel that you might be in an abusive situation, help is on hand. You can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, or speak to Refuge using their online chat function. You can also get in touch with our Survivors' Network - we're not an emergency service or helpline, but we can stand alongside you as you access the support you need.