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The Language of Sexual Harassment: How Words and Images Normalise Predatory Male Behaviour

There is something innately wrong about the way harassment is portrayed in the media and the effect it has on the reader.

It’s time copy editors dump the predator-prey images and experiment with more positive images that recognise the strength needed to deal with such harassment. Credit: Pixabay

It’s time copy editors dump the predator-prey images and experiment with more positive images that recognise the strength needed to deal with such harassment. Credit: Pixabay

One of the defining stories of 2017 was the spontaneous birth of the #MeToo revolution, which initiated thousands of women around the world to recount their experiences of sexual harassment. While harassment wasn’t news to most women, last year was probably the first time that many men got a glimpse into the horrors that women routinely endure.

The #MeToo stories are also unique in their directness – no more euphemisms or shameful silences. Women have publicly spoken that it’s not acceptable to let men in power get away with such behaviour.

As a practitioner in the field of diversity and inclusion, this openness is refreshing. But if we are serious about tackling this epidemic of sexism, we need to also consider the passive enablers of sexual harassment. Unconsciously, through our words and actions, how do we, as a society, condone this behaviour?

A picture is worth a thousand words

Consider the way publications usually cover a story on sexual harassment. The image that leads the piece shows a creepy male hand groping a woman. The pictures are unusually suggestive – compare the visuals here, here and here.

This maybe a part of the reality but there is something innately wrong about the way harassment is portrayed in the media and the effect it has on the reader. From a journalistic point of view, using explicit images increases readership and draw attention. But depicting physical aggression for the man and the woman as a cowering victim simply reinforces the helplessness of the situation more than it intends to. These power-based actions have a significant effect on the audience, in their choice of career and their choice to speak up to name a few.

Perhaps it’s time copy editors dump the predator-prey images and experiment with more positive images that recognise the strength needed to deal with such behaviour.

Sticks and stones

It’s not just the images, language matters as well. There is evidence that the use of passive voice in reporting sexual assault or harassment can unconsciously shift the onus and responsibility from the perpetrator to the one facing it. For instance, we often say “a woman was raped”, whereas it’s more accurate to describe the act as “a man raped a woman”.

This might seem like a quibble, but the lack of an active voice signifies that the assault wasn’t committed by someone – it just happened. Describing the act in an active voice places the spotlight on the harasser, not the victim. Similarly phrases such as ‘violence against women’ airbrush the male perpetrators from the act all together.

Passive narration also has a detrimental effect on the victim since the focus is now on how the woman found herself in such a situation. Victim precipitation is a theory where possible reasons are given for sexual assault that hold the victim responsible – her skirt was too short, she had one too many drinks, she was out late.

This attitude of assigning blame has long term consequences. The profile of a harasser is not a simple matter to quantify, but it’s been researched that it’s a combination of sex along with exercise of power that leads to harassment or assault. It is this sense of power that is heightened when men find themselves not having to account for their behaviour or crime but are able to transfer the blame to the other side.

Unconscious biases

The stereotypical portrayals of women in advertisements aren’t helpful either. Most commercials for dental or medical products feature a male doctor patiently explaining the latest scientific breakthrough to a concerned, but obviously ignorant mother. Most household products show mothers as some version of happy cooks or excited cleaners. These images tug at our notion of an ideal mother. They also reinforce family boundaries – men are professional, women are caregivers.

This isn’t just some feminist anecdote. Unilever’s own research on gender in advertising shows that only 3% of commercials show women as leaders and just 2% conveys them as intelligent.

Casual sexism in tech

Not surprisingly, our online personas are mimicking our offline biases. Apple’s voice command application Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are all female, with a penchant for following orders and taking frequent sexist comments in its stride.

Microsoft has a similar Artificial Intelligence (AI) assistant called Cortana which is based on a hyper-sexualised female character in the video game Halo. All these assistants were launched with a female voice; the male counterparts were added later on as an update.

Facebook isn’t far behind. Facebook’s M is inspired by Moneypenny, James Bond’s secretary who is known to humour his chauvinistic behaviour. Beyond ‘smart assistants’, tech is laden with everyday sexism. Try putting in the word CEO in an iPhone and it will come up with a only a male emoji.

An attitudinal change

Sexism or gender bias doesn’t form over a day. It has its root in everyday experiences, background and society we are exposed to. Social media and technology plays an important role and for today’s youth growing up with female AI assistants which obeys unconditionally can lead to some deeper consequences.

But how do we stop this wrongful depiction of power? Different people are trying different approaches. Last year, the United Nations and Unilever took part in the #Unstereotype campaign along with Facebook, Google, AT&T and others to bring about an attitudinal change towards gender equality.

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK has enforced stricter guidelines of stopping gendered stereotypes in advertising. In cinema, the Bechdel test checks how many times women speak in a scene; the Finkbeiner test guides journalists to reduce bias in write ups about women in science. In all of these corrective measures, the unifying idea is the same – consciously or unconsciously, it doesn’t help to have so many passive enablers to sexist and hostile behaviour.

Just as the fearless little girl stood facing the mighty Wall Street bull, we should take a cue from it and decide who should be portrayed in a position of power.

Ishani Roy is the founder, Serein Inc, a diversity and inclusion consulting company.