Sexism in 21st Century Western societies

angela-100x100by Angela Muñoz Aroca
Crowded celebrations coincide with greater sexual abuses to women, who still nowadays do not enjoy the same rights than men, in practice, when we talk about certain realms of the society in which women did not use to be present, as many reports show. Nevertheless, these are not the solely examples of how sexism and gender violence are still stagnant within the Western Contemporary societies. Women still face burdens to add themselves to the business and professional realms in the same terms than men, and they still have to fight to overcome the traditional gender stereotypes that we unconsciously interior-ise throughout our lives, being endlessly reproduced in the cultural patterns we consume and learn. It won`t be until the society as a whole understand how progress goes hand by hand with equality, and it makes it core to its world view, that we will be able to talk about sexism in past.

Sexism in the 21st Century Western societies

Summer in Spain means thermometers over 35 degrees, nights of no sleeping and the celebration of traditional village parties, such as the one of Sanfermines, in Pamplona, events that because of their international recognition and particularities welcome people from all around the world. But what should be a time to celebrate has turned into a nightmare for the many women that have been abused, mistreated or sexually assaulted during the week long party.

Alcohol, light-dressed women and the suffocating heat are apparently the responsible of this situation, or at least these are some of the most repeated excuses given by the abusers when asked about their acts, as we have heard in the last couple of days in the media. In total, this year the Service for Women Assistance (SAM in Spanish) has attended 21 women and an underage one during these celebrations because of mistreatment, co-action and sexually abuses crimes; 8 of them denouncing attacks against their sexual freedom. Overall, it has meant an increase of 3 cases in relation to previous years. Because of this crimes, 12 people are in jail, 5 of them being responsible of a gang rape of a young lady of 18 years old. This horrific crime was even recorded with their cell phones by the abusers, one of whom being a member of the Spanish militarised police called the Civil Guard (`Guardia Civil´ in Spanish).

Despite this is not first time the news get a dramatic turn due to gender crimes during crowded celebrations, the increased in the cases and the most widespread social awareness about them, have meant a greater media coverage of the incidents taking place this year. Not solely the Spanish media have been covering the topic, but also the international media, shocked about the behaviour showed by their southern neighbours. Amongst them are British and German well known media, which have been keen to make a direct connection between the abuse of alcohol and the abuse of women, and to accompany the information with pictures of half-naked women. For instance, the Daily Mail, eloquently entitled an article as follows: “One too many sangrias? Pamplona’s running of the bulls festival starts with a bang as thousands of sweat-drenched revellers hit the streets” –showing a top-less girl in a picture and then mentioning the number of sexual abuses cases -; The Telegraph highlighted the fact that men often touch women in those parties and that sexual abuses are a constant; and the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, summarise the main claim of those celebrations, simply, as being sex and alcohol.

Leaving aside the simplistic coverage of the information, shared by many other media and travel agencies, which understand nothing about the tradition, they are all sexist information. They all show women as disinhibited, and suggest that their provocative behaviour could be reasonably understood as sexually open, what added to the run of alcohol, can end up in the terrifying incidents that I just mentioned. They also have a point in common, they were all written by men. But basically what this information do, consciously or not, is to reproduce gender stereotypes, to judge women for not holding appropriate behaviours and, more dangerously, to play down about a problem that has already traumatised and ruined the lives of many women around the globe.

These information, as well as abusers, use alcohol as an excuse of what is a prevalent sexist behaviour of which the society does not get rid off. It is used as a kind of legitimate justification which removes responsibility from the abuser and shares it with the victim, guilty of not thinking on time that by becoming vulnerable under the effects of alcohol they may be abused by others. This justification, nevertheless, cannot explain how the abuser is under the effects of drugs for committing a prohibited act but at the same time is able to force someone against her will, to find a hidden place to commit these acts, and even to menace the person not to say anything, being aware of the consequences that their acts may have to their lives. These justifications are also an insult for the human intelligence, as they try to naturalise a situation that I understand as unacceptable, because I do not think that everyone is capable or willing to abuse others just because of being under the effects of whichever product.

In a more sensitive way, and aware of what has become a constant of these celebrations since 2008 when a girl was raped and killed, the responsible of the party, the regional government and many women associations launched this year a campaign to inform and combat the prevalence of these gender crimes. Under the slogan `for celebrations free of sexual abuses´, the responsible have been spreading their messages to the assistants and the media to increase social awareness. Amongst them are the following sentences, said by a responsible of a women’s society in Pamplona talking in one of the main TV channels in Spain: `if you do not receive an open and clear answer when you want to start sexual contact with someone you must understand it as a no´; `the clothes women wear are not a synonym of the closeness you can have with them´; and the most scary one, `if they are sleeping somewhere on the street, you cannot have sex with them´. Needless is to express the shocking effect these messages have on me, as a woman and as rational human being, but what should be highlighted is the lack of efficacy they are having to prevent sexual abuses, or even less, to properly address the problem.

As the former Spanish governmental responsible for Gender Violence, Miguel Lorente, have highlighted in different Spanish newspapers, what these messages do is to put the stress on the victim, and focus on explaining the potential abusers how women behaviour is being misunderstood, when what they should do is to clarify the aggressors what would be the consequences of their unacceptable behaviour and how they may be violating other human beings freedom. Accordingly, I am afraid it is not an issue of how women express themselves and how clearly they refuse sexual contact, what may be interpreted as an acceptable feminine behaviour, but it is about how the opposite gender in the 21st century still feels in a superior position to decide and subject women to their will, to reinforce the power relations they think may prevail, or to act as judges of legitimate behavioural standards.

Thus, without denying the benefits of this campaign, as it is obvious that something should be done to avoid these horrific situations, it is just a patch to cover a systemic problem of the Contemporary Western society. This problem is that despite the progressive and inclusive discourses that are endlessly reproduced within the political speeches talk about equality between genders, these movements have mainly come from women, through pressures of women association and from specific governmental departments in charge of these issues, with not much male representation and generalized involvement. These speeches have either come accompanied by truly policy changes that ameliorate women status in society, having as a consequence that women still have a weak representation in the business and political realms of their countries and many of them are still abused in their private spaces, victims of the never ending gender violence. Accordingly, as Miguel Lorente has also pointed out, despite equality is a concept that is permeating our society, a Western modern society, this movement has come in an asymmetric way and it has been interpreted as a challenge by many men and even women, reticent to adopt a new model in which every member of the society is considered in equal terms.

What all this situation shows are the burdens that the traditional culture has set in our minds, a problem that may be addressed in schools, fought at home and mirrored in every single aspect of our daily lives. And, despite the society has walked a long path on this issue, the reality is that 3.7 million women suffer every year sexual violence (the 11%), of which the 5% are rapes, as the last report of the European Agence for Fundamental Rights (FRA) shows. Solely in Spain, a women is raped every 8 hours. And situations like Sanfermines just make it worse, because alcohol, drugs and crowds are a bad combination that serve abusers to justify their sexist and criminal behaviours.

In addition, this lack of willingness to have a systemic change is endlessly reproduced in the sexist expressions that are embedded in our daily lives through the media, the music, the TV, film fictions and advertisements we see 24/7, which are keen to show how love overcome every problem and often show women in a dehumanized, vulnerable and object way. Beauty and youth are often related to success, and women merits in many fields of their lives, such as work, are often linked to their gender, not to their individual characteristics, as it does happen with men.

Thus, if women are meant to be a perfect object to be possessed, why not to be abused in certain circumstances, for instance, when they distance themselves from traditional beliefs and stereotypes?

Women that success do so because they reproduce male attitudes, because they have been successful to add themselves to a male world and to a given reality that is nevertheless contested and open to change. Some feminist schools of thought talk about feminine and masculine differences, characteristics that are present in both genders and in every single individual and that taken individually may help to imagine a new order in which the society priorities and expressions of power change, to become a truly inclusive society.
And it is not a question of women fighting to achieve this `ideal´ world, but it must be a goal embraced by everyone without exception, because our current world view does not have place for all the diversity that it actually contains, what means that there are always people that because of their particularities are discriminated and mistreated. In sum, women do not have to be like men, and not every men has to hold the same qualities, it is our understanding of the world as taken as given what has to change. When we will start to take the margins to the centre, to seriously add theories as feminism as constituents of a new social order, maybe we will be able to start talking about ending sexism.

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