Joanna Williams

The post-fact world suits feminism just fine

The post-fact world suits feminism just fine
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We now know that the video of a cyclist confronting a catcalling driver, which spent much of yesterday being circulated on social media and covered in the national press, was staged. Barely had viewers finished cheering on the woman as she tore the wing mirror off the side of her harasser’s van than the truth emerged.

An eyewitness told the Sun, ‘They practiced the scene two or three times with the motorbike riding behind them. You could see there was already damage to the wing mirror, it was loose.’ The company that hosted the video, Jungle Creations, has now issued a statement claiming that although it was under the impression that it portrayed real-life events, it now realises the video ‘may be factually incorrect.’ The footage was quickly removed by Facebook, presumably delighted to have an opportunity to put its new commitment to rooting out fake news into practice.

By this point, however, the clip had already been viewed more than 10 million times in under 24 hours. The viral video specialists clearly had a hit on their hands and it’s not hard to see why. The story of an attractive woman, minding her own business, yet having to confront a boorish and intimidating van driver, confirms many of our prejudices. The narrative twist, her triumphant response to his misogynistic demand to know, ‘You on your period?’, provides the feel good factor.

Even at the very moment the story changed from ‘woman in street harassment shocker’ to ‘fake news horror’ commentators were quick to point out that, whatever the video may or may not have shown, there was a greater truth to consider. The Guardian were at pains to have it known that, ‘catcalling and street harassment happen regularly. Many women can tell a tale similar to this one in which they have felt threatened by men in a car or a van while cycling or walking.’

There seems to be a fear that condemning the video could result in women’s experiences of street harassment being called into question. But there’s really no need worry. Over recent years, as feminism has grown ever more distant from the reality of women’s lives, it has thrived off dubious stories of unsubstantiated personal experiences.

Rolling Stone magazine’s now notorious 2014 article, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ told the tale of ‘Jackie', a student at the University of Virginia, who claimed to have been gang raped at a fraternity party. Following widespread media attention, the closure of the fraternity and the suspension of the accused students, Jackie’s story unravelled. Rolling Stone retracted the story and issued an apology. A subsequent investigation blamed the journalistic failure on confirmation bias: because the incident supported the pre-existing narrative of universities being in the grip of a rape culture, too few questions were asked.

When personal experience is not enough, dodgy statistics are brought in to shore up feminism’s pre-determined narrative of women as victims. A survey conducted by Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) last year reported that over half of women have been sexually harassed at work. This sounds shocking but a closer look at the research soon casts doubt on the headlines. The survey drew upon a small sample of just 1500 women, 52 per cent of whom said they saw sexual harassment as a problem. However, seeing sexual harassment as a problem does not necessarily mean the respondents had experienced it themselves. The most common form of harassment, reported by a third of the women questioned, was being subjected to unwelcome jokes. These jokes were not necessarily told to the women, they may just have been overheard, perhaps only once and many years previously.

Hearing a rude joke a decade ago hardly comprises an epidemic of sexual harassment. But the headlines go largely unquestioned because they reinforce our existing biases about the position of women at work. Promoting the message that women are victims: of domestic violence in the home, catcalling in the street, sexual harassment at work, and misogynistic trolling on the internet, seems to be the main purpose of feminism today. And facts are simply not allowed to get in the way of this mission.

In some ways it’s a shame that the video of a feisty woman tearing off a wing mirror turned out to be staged. It was far more enjoyable to watch her than to read the blethering reminders that this street harassment is what women experience everyday. It is difficult to project an image of women as strong, capable and independent when feminism constantly tells us we are victims in better need of protection.

Dr Joanna Williams is an author, academic and writer