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Must Try Harder: Responses To The Westminster Sexual Misconduct Scandals, Graded

By Hannah Sole | Politics | November 6, 2017 |

By Hannah Sole | Politics | November 6, 2017 |

Sexual misconduct stories are continuing to dominate in the press, with even more terrible tales emerging about Hollywood figures, and a number of scandals involving British political figures, helpfully dubbed ‘Sexminster’. It’s not the first time that the phrase ‘sex scandal’ has been used in conjunction with a politician, and it certainly won’t be the last. But we are in the post-Weinstein era now — surely these cases would be portrayed and handled differently?

You’d think so, right? You’d think that the highly public discussion of sexual assault and harassment would be forcing people to question their own conduct, and their own understanding of what constitutes ‘inappropriate behaviour in the workplace’. I guess that’s partly true; but others persist in referring to accusations as witch hunts, engaging in some egregious what-aboutery, and producing some of the worst hot takes that the internet has seen in, oh I don’t know, a week or so. Plus ça change, huh?

It can be hard to accept that you have done something wrong, or that there is a problem that you have deliberately ignored, or failed to notice. It can be difficult to understand an experience that is so different from your own that it seems implausible. Failure to listen is one thing; failure to give credence is another. Both are terrible.

What I’ve been trying to figure out is whether this falls under the skill of understanding or evaluating. Is there an inability or refusal to understand? Do they understand perfectly well, but when reflecting on it, fail to glean the impact, or deliberately obscure the impact? Look, I’m a teacher, so figuring out what has gone wrong in the process of understanding a new concept and targeting the gaps in that process, well, that’s pretty much my day job. Reading some of the op-eds and seeing some of the interviews over the last few days has been like reading a pile of (not very good) essays. It’s clear that these people haven’t done the reading, haven’t understood it properly, or are lacking when it comes to empathetic reasoning, or exploring different interpretations. How to address this? It’s time to grade some papers, folks!


Top of the class by a country mile this week is Jo Brand on Have I Got News For You. Surrounded by middle-aged white dudes whose attitude to sexual harassment was broadly of the “fnarr-fnarr” variety (self-congratulatory, privileged, snooty, smug), she schooled them to massive virtual cheers. And she managed not to punch Quentin Letts in the face, which probably deserves a gold star. Succinct and clear. Well done, Jo. That set a high bar for the week.

Next up: former politician Edwina Currie. “You can’t ban making passes at work,” she exclaims. “Saying no is always an option. People need to learn how to reject advances without upsetting people.” There are video clips here (via The Daily Mail), or you can watch the whole This Morning interview here.

Teacher’s note: please review the difference between asking someone out, and groping them against their will. Be clear when you mean ‘women’ and ‘men’ rather than just ‘people’; you clearly suggest that women should be in the business of letting men down gently. They already do; it might work out OK, but some men call that ‘friend-zoning’ and they either see it as a challenge, or they get very angry about it. Perhaps the emphasis should be on how ‘people’ (men) should accept the word ‘no’. That’s if it is even that straightforward to say it in the first place. Don’t underestimate the role that fear can play: fear for your safety, fear for your career, fear of being perceived as a troublemaker, or splashed across the pages of a newspaper, branded a whore, an attention seeker, a liar… Grade: Fail

Charles Moore’s piece for The Telegraph on Friday picked up some attention on Twitter for its headline: “This scandal shows that women are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us.” My own response to this title is a careful balance of ‘equality isn’t about dominance’ and ‘CRUSH THEM ALL’, depending on the time of day and the provocation. But hey. Here’s a snippet of Moore’s piece:

It is often said (though some Muslim scholars vehemently disagree) that Islamic law accords to a woman’s testimony in court only half the value it gives to that of a man. In the modern Western world, it is the other way round, at least where sexual matters are concerned. Indeed, the situation is arguably even more extreme, since the doctrine has grown up that “victims” must be believed even when no one knows whether they are victims or not. In the late 1990s, the Macpherson Report on the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence defined a racist incident as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.

This definition spread: it is used to define “hate crime”, for example. Now it defines sexual harassment. Under this, perception trumps facts. If any person takes offence at what she/he thinks has been said or done, she/he has a case. Thus the burden of proof upon which our criminal law rests is reversed. It is the legal outworking of the extreme feminist dictum: “All men are rapists.” You are guilty until proved innocent. And “you” in this context means, about 99 per cent of the time, a man. If a man claims sexual harassment by a woman, he is usually considered a laughing stock. If a woman claims it, the man is usually in deep trouble, even before any evidence is heard.

It should be obvious that this undermines justice. Slightly less obvious, perhaps, is how it affects relations between the sexes. It would now be highly unwise, in many work situations, for a man - especially an employer - ever to share a room with a woman without the presence of a witness. It makes men more reluctant to give women jobs: if they can so easily be accused, they are safer employing men.

The same applies to social situations. When is physical contact “unacceptable”? In my generation (I am 61), it is normal to kiss women you know on the cheek if you meet them at a party. This was less common in my parents’ generation, and very rare among the Victorians. How long before, in a test case, a man is accused of making a woman he knew feel “awkward” with his party kiss, and the custom becomes verboten?

Teacher’s note: Perceptions don’t arise from thin air. What would be an acceptable fact in your view? Is ‘perception vs fact’ really just code for ‘female vs male’? Who is laughing at men who have been sexually harassed? Is it, perchance, OTHER MEN? What you are proposing in that penultimate paragraph is the Mike Pence Rule, and that’s not really sensible. If you can’t be in a room with a woman without assaulting or harassing her, you’ve got bigger problems. By the way, greeting a friend at a party with a kiss on the cheek isn’t the same as sexual harassment in the workplace. Different people are comfortable with different greetings. How about you learn these, and then you should be all set. K? Grade: Fail

Bottom of the class this week, again: Peter Hitchens, with his Mail on Sunday piece entitled: “What will women gain from all this squawking about sex pests? A niqab.” Here are some ‘highlights’:

Many of those who claim to seek female equality have another, much fiercer objective. They actually see men as the enemy, the ‘patriarchy’, to be overthrown by all means necessary, and replaced by a feminised society. They also see marriage as a machine for oppressing women. Their objectives moved a lot closer last week.

This is why many of those who said they wanted equality also sneered at restraint and manners. They claim now that they want the restraint and the manners back (though the suspicion lingers that much of the current fuss is aimed mainly at making all men look wicked and grubby).

But where are such restrained manners to come from in our liberated society? They were part of an elaborate code of courtship and respect which was learned by example in the married family, and has now completely vanished. In our post-marriage free-for-all, why should we expect either sex to be restrained? All that’s left is the police or the public pillory of Twitter.

It was that old code which allowed us, unlike the Islamic world, to permit the happy mixing of men and women without black shrouds, veils and ‘no-touching’ rules so strict that they even rule out a male-female handshake.

Now it’s gone, what are we to do instead? I am angered by the public denunciations now taking place, not because I believe or disbelieve them (how can we know?) but because they make trust impossible.

Wise men at Westminster will in future go about with chaperones, record and film all conversations with the opposite sex, require women to sign consent forms before meeting them, and certificates of good conduct afterwards. Nothing else will keep them safe from claims that they momentarily applied ‘a fleeting hand’ to someone’s knee.

Or there is always the other solution, the niqab, the burka and the segregation of the sexes. But sanity, the best remedy of all, is obviously unlikely to return any time in the near future.

Teacher’s note: Oh dear, Peter. It’s clear that you really struggled with this one. You are generalising wildly about the ‘good old days of yore’, with all that “happy mixing” of men and women, and you should really do some research before you make claims like that. Like Charles, you need to figure out the difference between a handshake and a grope. If men don’t want to look “wicked and grubby” then they should probably avoid behaving in a way that is “wicked and grubby.” Sexual assault and harassment are more than bad manners. Is rape just ‘poor sexual etiquette’? No. Come and see me for some recommended reading on this subject. I see you are making the classic move of ‘think this is bad? OK, I’LL MAKE IT WORSE’ as an attempt to bring the reader round to your way of thinking. If you have to resort to threats, you are not making your case persuasively enough. And don’t use the word ‘squawking’ to describe the female voice. Women are people, not birds. Grade: Fail

It seems that the message really isn’t sinking in. That’s a shame. After all the set reading on the predatory men of Hollywood, and the scandals arising from Operation Yew Tree in the UK, writing about ‘Sexminster’ should have been a more straightforward task for you.

Having reviewed your work, I am setting additional homework for the whole class. (Don’t worry, Jo - you’ll enjoy it.) Your research task: Do we need to bring back hatpins? Consider the following:

What were the circumstances that led to the so-called ‘hatpin peril’?
Would a quick poke from a 9 inch pin help to anchor a man’s understanding of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate conduct?
Would the presence of a hatpin act as a deterrent?

Here is a starting point for your research: “The Hatpin Peril Terrorized Men Who Couldn’t Handle the 20th-Century Woman.” You will present your findings in a debate at the end of the week, so be prepared, or Jo will destroy you.

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Hannah Sole is a Staff Contributor. You can follow her on Twitter.