“It’s not unusual” says Tom Jones, but he misses the point

On the Today programme this morning, Tom Jones revealed that sexual abuse and harassment was as prevalent in the music industry as in film. I doubt anyone was surprised by this revelation; many celebrities have come forward to reveal their dreadful stories of sexual harassment and exploitation, and assault, by senior male colleagues. In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, the misogynistic sexual politics of fame have been laid bare. The hashtag #rosearmy - coined by Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein’s most profilic victims, has been taken up on Twitter, along with #metoo, as millions of women identify themselves as victims of sexual violence and assault.

Which is why Tom Jones’ comments miss the point. Jones acknowledges that sexual bullying and predatory behaviour is wrong; that “people with power sometimes abuse it” and they should be called to account. And yet, the moralising nature of Jones’ comments, the belief that “you avoid it. You just walk out” is tantamount to victim blaming. It happened to Jones himself, I’m sad to say, early in his career. And that encounter made him feel "terrible... But then you think, 'Well, I've got to get away from this person and it can't be like this.'...You should know that yourself, you don't do things just because you think, 'I should do this.' Your own mind will tell you that. Not just in showbusiness, but in any thing you're in."

The implication is clear: women should not do anything that feels bad, that they should walk away - “your own mind will tell you that”. Yet many women can’t. And not just because in order to succeed, and survive in many cases, women from all walks of life are sexually abused and harassed and assaulted. What is most tragic and most infuriating about the wave of revelations of sexual violence is how commonplace they are. After Jimmy Saville, one would imagine women might be believed more, but they are not. Women are questioned about their motives and dress, joked about and dismissed. And told they should have behaved differently, that - in the words of Jones -”that’s the way it is with showbusiness, you are in the public eye, and that's it, you have to take the good with the bad. “ In other words, boys with be boys. 

According to his statement, Jones wasn’t forced into sex in a hotel room or harassed day after day in the studio by someone physically larger, stronger and sexually threatening. In his own words:  “It wasn't bad, just somebody tried to pull... it was a question and I said 'No thank you.'" Now I don’t doubt that Jones felt terrible and I am not diminishing that feeling. But, his described encounter is not what we are talking about here, though it’s symptomatic of a bigger picture. 

I don’t know of a single woman who hasn’t had ‘a question’, an attempt, feeble or otherwise, to invite a sexual encounter. More depressingly, I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t felt at some stage the threat of sexual violence, the fear of assault, the knowledge that a man in power could make things difficult for them if they weren’t more obliging. Living with the constant fear of intimidation and assault is something that lurks deep in the subconscious of all women, a fear that is passed down from mother to daughter, sister to sister, and that we are supposed to heed - so as not to be blamed for walking in the dark, or wearing the wrong clothes or getting drunk, or changing our mind about sex. 

Not all women are able to walk away, and many suffer every single day from far more than a question that can be politely rebuffed. The sexual violence at the heart of the film industry and the music industry and television is echoed elsewhere: in finance, academia, services and trade and every single place where men are in power and women are commodified not only by what work they can do and be paid for, but by their value as sexual objects. I have sat in an academic seminar and listened to senior scholars whisper behind me about the “sexy young Italian piece” they could hire with some research money. I have been asked to smile and ignore some lecherous comment or rumour about another female colleague passed over for promotion. And I have been propositioned by a senior colleague while away at a conference. 

The point about Weinstein - and Saville before him - is that the sexual violence and misogyny represented there is echoed throughout society. Look at the President of the United States - a self confirmed groper. Good for Tom Jones if he was able to walk away; not everyone, and certainly not every woman, has that choice. The reality is that women navigate assault and predatory behaviour every single day. And not just on the film set or the music studio, but also on the streets, where women are catcalled and harassed; on the Internet where they are threatened with rape whenever they put their head above the parapet, in workplaces and homes and school classsrooms.

The emphasis should never be, therefore, on women walking away. It should be on changing the structure of society that allows predators to be presidents and producers to exploit their positions of power. It’s should be on men to speak out when they see this behaviour, on education systems to teach sexual equality and respect, on businesses and academies to monitor and regulate male violence, and on us all to create generations of men that do not view women as sexual objects. Only then might we make sexual violence so unusual that people sit up and take notice.