A piece in yesterday’s Times:
“How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” Oprah Winfrey’s questions to Meghan Markle were no doubt as carefully planned as the stage-set country garden backdrop to their interview. To an older, perhaps more conservative audience, the notion of “my truth” sounds suspicious. But increasingly it seems that “speaking my truth” is not only acceptable, it is considered more honest than any mere statement of facts.
Kamala Harris echoed this sentiment when, in response to being elected vice-president of the US, she made public her promise always to share with Joe Biden her “lived experience, as it relates to any issue that we confront”. This might have been Harris’s way of simply offering her perspective, which would be valuable given how rarely the views of black women have been heard in the White House. But “lived experience” is more than just a personal viewpoint. It represents an unquestionable claim to authority.
The killing of Sarah Everard has prompted an outpouring from women sharing their own lived experiences of sexual harassment in newspaper columns and on social media. Just as they did when the #MeToo movement first took off in 2017, women have spoken of assault, harassment, being groped, molested, abused and generally made to feel afraid at the hands of men.
The government is now under pressure to respond. Boris Johnson has acknowledged that news of Everard’s death “unleashed a wave of feeling about women not feeling safe” and he appears keen to act. Extra money for street lighting and CCTV cameras has been pledged; plain-clothes detectives may patrol bars. Some are calling for misogyny to be made a hate crime and street harassment a criminal offence.
It seems that the mass sharing of women’s personal testimonies may lead directly to the introduction of new laws and stiffer punishments for existing offences. But are “personal truth” and “lived experience” a good basis for such substantial changes? It is socially unacceptable, not to mention cruel, to interrogate women who share their experiences of sexual harassment. But it should be possible to question what we, as a society, are to make of collected personal testimonies, without calling into question the truth of any one woman’s story.
Before legislation is passed, it might be worth asking how typical it is for women to experience sexual harassment. Newspapers and social media can easily give the impression that every woman has suffered abuse at the hands of men. But what if the voices that declare their personal truths the loudest do not represent the experiences of most women?
Women’s lived experiences of sexual harassment are, of course, valid and it is important that we hear them. It was in the 1980s that feminist researchers and academics first began arguing for an understanding of truth that went beyond objectivity in order to allow women’s perspectives to be heard and to “give voice” to other under-represented groups. This was a worthy aim. But whereas empirical data can be measured and verified, recounting personal experiences makes for messy research.
This week saw the publication of a survey carried out by UN Women UK that purports to show a shocking 97 per cent of British women have been victims of sexual harassment. This makes for dramatic headlines and appears to lend weight, if it were needed, to the veracity of personal testimonies. But dig deeper and UN Women UK notes that when it came to defining sexual harassment, researchers were asked to “refer to the subjective experience of the individual concerned” and get women to include “anything that makes you feel uncomfortable”.
There are problems with using entirely subjective responses to create apparently concrete data sets. It seems unlikely that any two women will have the exact same threshold for feeling uncomfortable: one might find a risqué joke hilarious while another is grossly offended.
Perhaps more useful are surveys that ask women about specific unwanted interactions. Just such a poll was conducted by YouGov on behalf of EuroTrack and it too reported findings this month. A wide-ranging definition of sexual harassment was employed with the four most frequently experienced forms being: someone commented on your attractiveness directly to you; being wolf-whistled at; someone looked at your breasts; someone winked at you.
Using even this very broad definition, the overall figures are far lower than we might expect. According to the EuroTrack research, 52 per cent of British women have been sexually harassed at some point, with 19 per cent having experienced an incident in the past five years.
Johnson says ministers will “do everything we can” in response to women “not feeling safe”. But it is impossible to legislate feelings into or out of existence. The government has no way of knowing how representative the accounts that dominate our national conversation are. There is no formula for determining how many personal truths comprise a universal truth.
We can empathise with women who share their lived experiences of sexual harassment but this must never prevent us questioning the wider narrative that has emerged. Not all women are victims and not all women want more state protection. Anecdotes are not a good justification for new laws and the government should avoid acting too hastily in its determination to make women feel safe.
Joanna Williams is the founder of the think tank Cieo
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