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    Shamed into silence: how our language and culture forces women into compliance

    “We don’t want your solidarity and empty words. We want you to stand with us.”

    One word I’ve been called far too often is “feisty”. Feisty for having an opinion, bossy for taking charge. I’ve had enough.

    “The lady doth protest too much.” Descriptors like “gutsy” and “feisty” are infantilising, cheap putdowns because women aren’t behaving the way we’re supposed to. They’re disembodied marketing terms used to trick us into buying products that only serve to further make women seem silly or self-obsessed. Words like “bossy” tell women one thing: don’t speak up or make your voice heard.

    And it shows. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have recently released the workplace equality statistics for 2019, which show that despite efforts by women’s rights groups to close the pay gap, the gap has widened in favour of men this year. Seventy-eight percent of Britain’s biggest employers reported a gap in favour of men. And we know why. Women are less likely to negotiate their starting salaries, less likely to go for promotions or ask for pay rises, and more likely to go part-time to raise their family.

    Office culture is such that women are discouraged from speaking out, from raising their voices, from voicing their discomfort at toxic office behaviours. Our problems are marginalised and trivialised, we’re “bossy” and “difficult to work with”. Why? Because it’s easier than acknowledging there’s a problem with the way men treat women.

    This week, Prince Andrew has spoken out for the first time in an interview about his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and has since “taken a step back from his royal duties” after pressure from companies and charities he supports. Also among the complainants are the supporters of a victim who says the convicted child sex offender Epstein trafficked her to London to engage in sexual relations with the royal.

    Jeffrey Epstein represents all that is abhorrent about celebrities and the power dynamics they create. Earlier this year in a packed New York City courtroom, 23 women spoke out about the sexual abuse they faced as young girls at his hands. An anonymous victim said he had “stolen her dreams and her childhood”.

    Prince Andrew shows no remorse over his friendship with Epstein, and spent most of the interview fabricating a story about a Pizza Express in Woking and his non-functioning sweat glands. Quite frankly I don’t care about Prince Andrew. In the media storm that followed, the memes about the restaurant chain have smothered the cries of the victims. Did we forget the terrible reality of the abuse in the furore?

    I’m disgusted that the public are more obsessed with a minor royal than in uproar about the reality for the victims, whose lives have been irreversibly changed by their experiences with these men. The marginalisation of female and minority voices is a terrifying reality, but we are fighting back.

    The Me Too movement has had a profound impact on raising women’s issues and enacting real change. The federal BE HEARD Act, introduced by Congress earlier this year, will overhaul workplace harassment laws; the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund has helped over 3,600 people seek justice over sexual harassment and abuse.

    Most importantly, survivors knew they weren’t alone. People who had never had to think about sexual harassment before suddenly saw how much it affected their family and friends, neighbours and co-workers. Me Too has changed the way we think about power; according to a December 2018 poll, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings made 50 percent of American voters think about the male monopoly on power within the government.

    Organisations within Oxford University such as SpeakOut and It Happens Here, the SU Campaign against sexual violence, are making a difference at a local level and attempting to bring light to the epidemic of sexual violence across university campuses by providing advice for victims on the process of reporting as well as support and a community which stands behind victims. Even one voice has an impact – together with other individual voices the murmur becomes a noise which becomes a storm, raging through the institutions which perpetuate toxic culture.

    This week, the Oxford Union President resigned from office after 55,000 people signed a petition for justice for Ebenezer Azamati, who was dragged out of the Union’s debating chamber in a horrific display. But it’s not enough to remove the poster figure. Many will step in to fill his place. The Union is more than its President. On that night that a blind person was dragged from his seat at a debate, hundreds of educated students sat and watched it happen.

    Nobody had the courage to speak up in his defence.

    Organisations like these need to be rebuilt from the ground up, the prejudices that created them burned to ash and dust. But if we can’t burn down the Oxford Union or, indeed, any institution which has prejudices (which is to say, all institutions), we can rock their foundations. We must not stay silent.

    For women and marginalised groups, to speak out is not an option but a compulsion, as we face prejudice every day, from the smallest microaggressions to systematic suppression of sexual violence complaints.

    So, change your language. Tarana Burke and Alyssa Mirano who started the #MeToo movement aren’t “badass”. Kesha isn’t a “boss bitch” or your “unproblematic fave”. They’re brave. They’re survivors. They’re powerful individuals who spoke out against sexual violence, against injustice and prejudice when the whole world was trying to keep them silent.

    But more importantly, change your attitude and your actions. Victims all over the world don’t want your Instagram captions, your slogans and your solidarity, your empty words. We want you to stand with us.

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