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Sexual harassment and abuse at Westminster

As a long, long list of men in the film industry accused of sexual harassment and abuse gets ever longer, and Trump seeks to silence his accusers, politicians in London are being put under the spotlight for their past improprieties.

Mark Garnier, the Minister for International Trade, stands accused of calling his assistant “sugar tits” and asking her to buy sex toys for him, and Damien Green is being investigated for having allegedly “made inappropriate advances” to a woman on a work trip. Stephen Crabb reportedly sent sexually provocative text messages to a woman he had interviewed for a job, and women have anonymously reported being pinned down, having their drink spiked, and both male and female staff report having been groped.

Michael Fallon, the now-former Defence Secretary, has stepped down due to having behaved in a way that he concedes did not meet the standards associated with such a role. He stands accused of having placed his hand on a woman’s knee, but speculation is rife that he would not have stood down from his ministerial position for such a relatively minor infraction.

Whether Fallon resigned to avoid further intrusion into his past activities remains to be seen, but we must not overlook the fact that even a simple hand on a knee is a deeply unpleasant thing to experience from somebody who holds far more power than you, who is probably married or in a relationship, and who does not have your consent. It’s what it implies as much as how it feels. You are powerless.

Bex Bailey is a young Labour Party member who reports being raped by somebody in the Labour Party and was advised, by a high-ranking Party official, to not speak out about it or report it. Bex is a young woman who experienced a gross abuse of power, and was then bullied by the party that is supposed to be the party of equality to protect her attacker.

Bailey’s treatment, as a party activist and as a woman, is abhorrent, and being asked to stay quiet for the sake of the party, rather than do whatever she felt she should do, is painful and unforgiveable. No Labour Party activist should come to its defence on this point, and there is no place for partisan opinions where sexual abuse is concerned.

The thing is, we know where the line is. We know when somebody has crossed ours, and intruded upon our personal space. We know when somebody oversteps the mark and exploits their power to grope or grab or sleaze on us.

The Spreadsheet

A blurry document has been doing the rounds, sometimes redacted and sometimes uncensored, with a list of Conservative MPs who have some kind of sexual reputation. It is a bizarre document that simultaneously accuses several MPs of “inappropriate behaviour”, while speculating on others’ consensual predilections. It even uses the word “fornicated” in relation to one female MP – a word we haven’t said seriously for several centuries – and mentions another MP being “perpetually intoxicated”.

Putting fornication side by side with assault and harassment rather undermines the seriousness of the abuse that has taken place. Conflating somebody having an affair or engaging in kinky sex with somebody else taking advantage of their position and intimidating somebody else for their own pleasure demeans the seriousness of the latter, and it is irresponsible of commentators – and those who put together the spreadsheet – to do so.

What needs to change?

The political parties need to take the issue of sexual harassment and abuse in its ranks far more seriously than they have in the past. Hopefully, the events of the past few days are an indicator that people are finally being held to account and that this will continue, but it is easy for unpleasant events to slip quietly back under the carpet and, before we know it, we will be back in the past with silence taking precedence once again.

Despite what Michael Fallon said, it is not true that what is acceptable has changed in the last 10, 20 or even 30 years. For women, it has never been acceptable to be sexually harassed; it has always felt horrible and we have always hated it. For men, maybe, awareness has changed but I refuse to believe that it is only the last few years in which they have realised it is a terrible thing to do to somebody.

They, too, have always known. They just haven’t always cared. Or they thought they could get away with it. The only difference between then and now is that now, there is a slight, slight chance that they will eventually be held accountable for their actions.

This is an imbalance of power that manifests in MPs being – as The Spreadsheet references several times – “handsy”. And more. There is no grey area, and pretending that there is plays into the idea that women and men in less powerful roles are exaggerating or making a fuss, when in fact they are being exploited and abused by people with the power to change the country’s laws and policies.

Photo: Oliver Duquesne/Creative Commons

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Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women’s issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.