On Wednesday, Nov. 13, the University of Maine Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGS) Program hosted Professor Ruth Lewis of Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, for a lecture and discussion on the “New Manifestations and Conceptualizations of Gender-based Violence” brought by technological advancements. The lecture, which was held in the Norman Smith Center, shared Lewis’ extensive research on the subject, which included references to media stories and scholarship, as well as her personal views on how a positive and lasting change could be achieved.
Lewis began by discussing many of the famous perpetrators of gender-based violence, whose actions gave rise to the #MeToo movement in 2017. She argued that although the movement did receive media attention, the large film and television stars accused of sexual abuse were only extreme examples of more everyday forms of gender-based violence, and that media networks often “collude with perpetrators of gender-based violence,” paying more attention to such examples where the alleged perpetrator is of minority ethnic status.
Lewis made a direct connection between lewd comments and lascivious gestures, and violent assaults like rape, commenting that the former “create a cultural scaffold for these behaviors.”
The “image-based sexual abuse,” or distribution of non-consensually obtained images through technological means, that is becoming more common in today’s age, featured significantly in her lecture. Such issues, she said, have only been expedited by the internet.
Much of Lewis’ lecture was devoted to describing a law passed this year by the British Parliament — the Voyeurism [Offenses] Act — that had been promoted by a victim of image-based sexual abuse who had experienced having non-consensually obtained images taken at a music concert. Though Lewis expressed her support for legal changes concerning this issue, she noted that “there are limitations to [these] legal responses,” and that laws are “unable to remove images from websites.”
She also criticized the manner in which many perpetrators of sexual abuse have been portrayed, arguing that the discrediting and verbal abuse of such people has distracted from a wider cultural issue.
Lewis concluded by reiterating her belief that long-term social, political, cultural and economic change would be more constructive than legal recourse, and then opened the discussion to questions from interested members of the audience.
Renate Klein, a professor of human development and family studies at UMaine who had known Lewis from her time working as a researcher at London Metropolitan University, was instrumental in inviting her to speak.
“My contract at London Metropolitan University overlapped with the time when I was still working with the Safe Campus Project at the University of Maine,” Klein said. “This project, unfortunately, doesn’t exist anymore, but in this context, I met Lewis. We both had and have an interest in sexual and domestic violence on campus.”
After the lecture, Klein shared with the Maine Campus some of her thoughts on Lewis’ proposed solutions, and on the subject of gender-based violence itself.
“I share Lewis’s concerns about legal approaches,” Klein said. “They are important, necessary and unfortunately often also limited. I think their greatest potential is that they can contribute to more general social change and a change of attitudes. I wish we could evolve our societies to a state where men and women held a deep understanding that the use of whatever form of sexual harassment for whatever reason is pathetic and a violation of basic rules of connection, respect, and togetherness. Humans are social creatures who need webs of trust and appreciation to thrive. To these webs, everybody must contribute with respect and consideration.”
Wednesday’s lecture was coordinated by both the UMaine WGS Program and the Rising Tide Center for Advancing Equity. More information on either can be found at umaine.edu/wgs and umaine.edu/risingtide, or by contacting Susan Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org.