Tag Archives: sexual harassment

Culture wars: sexual harassment. How do we know it will stop?

These are some of the thoughts I shared with a splendid gathering in Melbourne, We Revolt At Dawn, organised by the Search Foundation and the Victoria Women’s Trust, on 9 November

Let’s begin with bodies…we wake, we are ashamed and afraid; it feels awkward, creepie in a way, to be in our skin, we don’t belong to ourselves. Humans never do, of course, we belong to air and the soil, and if we are lucky we are held by love. But for some of us, sometimes day in day out, we are entombed in the memory of that man.

That man.

There are 1.3 million people in the UK who emerged from childhood having been sexually abused by the time they reach 18, according to the Children’s Commissioner’s Report, Protecting Children from Harm.


Abuse and harassment is always on the horizon.

Then there are the people who go to work expecting to work, only to find themselves snared, by a man, that man.

A man, perhaps a man like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, wakes and he knows what he wants: you! He plans his position, his props, the environment. He anticipates the predicable pleasures: he loses some, he wins some, it doesn’t matter which because he enjoys the choreography, the risk, the anticipation and finally the look on a your face when he opens the door, when you see him and shock is written all over your face.

I’m guessing this, because I don’t know what’s in his head.

He never needs to tell us, and no doubt he never will.

One morning, however, this corporate prince discovers that he is accused, and he uses his vast resources to do what powerful men have done forever, find a way of making a woman (or a child)  suffer in silence, to make her feel shame and to shut up. Shame, we know, is the greatest gag. Most of the time he wins.

When a corporate prince finds himself accused – this, it is reported, is what Weinstein did –  he employs the best sleuths he can afford to find out everything about the women who are talking about him, to make them shut up

He doesn’t just threaten them, slap an injunction on them, terrify them, he makes them spend money they haven’t got to defend themselves. He might even pay out to pay off. But it’s never enough.

He does more, he finds out about them, he delves into their lives, he wants to know all about them in order to control them.

The first strategy is to make their bodies serve his and become subordinate to his, in a context, a space, that is controlled by him, or a space that is what Prof  Liz Kelly calls conducive context.

That manoeuvre is compounded by another: to stealth bomb their lives, leaving people unable to trust anyone, to spy, know stuff that’s none of his business; all a way to have them, control them, to silence them.

The hacking scandal exposed the way the Murdoch press seized control of private lives by knowing stuff and leaking stuff that wasn’t secret, it was just private.

On both of these fronts we were witnessing corporate patriarchy at work

But one dawn a woman called Rose McGowan woke ready for revolutionary actionShe did that most radical thing: not shut up, tell her story and call a corporate king to account.

The effect has been electrifying: women, and now some men, have taken control of the body discourse. The old story told by so many men for so long is exposed and all over the world sexual harassment is broadcast as no joke but as a strategy of bodily dominion.

I was sitting in an airport the other day, on my way to Australia, talking about all this with a bloke who sat next to me. In his seemingly genial way he started a conversation. What was I doing in Oz, he said, I was doing a talking tour, I explained, about feminism, and socialism.

‘I’m a feminist, I love women,’ he said.

‘But you know some of those women knew what they were doing,’ he said, ‘didn’t they, I mean they went into those rooms, they agreed, surely they knew….’

‘Did they?’ I asked. ‘What could they have known? And doing what they had to do was not the same as doing what they wanted to do. Did any of them want to do what he demanded?’

As feminism would have it, you can’t consent to something unless you can withhold your consent.

‘Yeah, but…’

Why, I wondered, was this the first thing he had to say about the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey?

The last thing I want to say – for the moment – is this: I don’t know any women who have not been sexually harassed. We know that the culture industries harbour harassment, they have been conducive contexts. Now they’re saying they’re not. Just like that.

But patriarchies solicit women’s subordination and participation, and of course interpret women’s submission as consent.

So, the question is: how do the cultural industry institutions know that they are no longer conducive contexts? What have they done? Have they created a conducive context for women to share their secrets, to describe how all this stuff happens, to name the guilty men to someone, and for the guilty men to disclose their Modus Operandi? And how do these agencies know, all of a sudden, that the men who are sexually harassing women right now – or allowing men to do it – will stop?

I think the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport should find out.


LibDemLogoKick ‘em, brush ‘em off, ignore ‘em. But DON’T change ‘em. Men.

Since when have so many women have been urged to be so violent? Kick him in the cojones, shins, and knees! Elbow the thorax. Bite the bastard. All sackable offences, and, as it happens, the least likely and, most certainly, the least alluring response to a man sexually harassing a woman.

But we’ve been hearing these tactics being counseled here there and everywhere as the way to deal with a ‘groper’ – aka a man sexually harassing a woman – following a week of really brave women calling powerful men and party leaders to account for institutionalised sexual harassment. That’s among those who admit that sexual harassment is not on.

There are others who don’t think it matters much; its not like real sexual abuse, they say. Often these are people who have not risked their reputations by taking the side of people who have been sexually abused.

Laughing Lord Tony Greaves reckoned that if sexual harassment was a resigning matter then ‘around half the male members of the Lords over the age of 50 would probably not be seen again.’

Lady Shirley Williams, a noble parliamentarian, is not known as a champion of the victims of sexual crime. She told the BBC that her party’s former Chief Executive, Lord Rennard, now under investigation by the Metropolitan police, was ‘a very fine man.’

She ventured that Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children was ‘the bad stuff’ but she did not believe ‘anything that’s been said about our chap is in that category.’ Who said it was? But she then maligned the women who had, after many years of self-protective – and humiliated – silence, spoken out: the women’s allegations against Rennard had been ‘hopelessly exaggerated’.

That’s not what the police think – Scotland Yard is now investigating Rennard. Women have, however, confirmed that they felt emboldened to come forward after the Savile case had changed the nation’s consciousness.

Oxford scholar Allison Smith, who had once hoped to be a Lib Dem candidate, said she had been encouraged by the ‘change in culture’, to go public about Rennard’s alleged harassment.


Williams needs to explain what, exactly, is being exaggerated. Does she think the women who have brought their complaints to the Lib Dem leadership or to the police are themselves exaggerating, lying, or does she think that the problem of sexual harassment as such is an exaggeration? In either case she has some explaining to do.

Explain, Lady Williams, why so many women in your party are prepared to risk their own privacy and perhaps even their careers as Lib Dem politicians to expose serial harassment in the same party culture that also tolerated serious, serial sexual abuse.

The police have investigated the story — interred for decades — of serial sexual abuser Cyril Smith MP, and concluded that he was a serious offender who would, these days, be prosecuted. Smith and Rennard are not, of course, comparable. But they inhabited, and were protected by the same party culture. The behaviour of both was well known in the party.

There is no question about it: the Lib Dems stupidly, smugly, turned their back on feminism; didn’t confront sexism and, inevitably, therefore, accommodated sexually predatory behaviour by men.

What the Lib Dems did not understand is that defining harassment and abuse clarifies what is, and is not, appropriate behavior. Like laws and procedures on drink and driving, seat belts, smoking, hate speak, racist chanting at football matches, hitting children, cultures reach a consensus about public safety and public manners. They are connected.

Loss of confidence in cultural renovation, the mocking of so-called political correctness, which – lest we forget – sponsored the campaign to kick racism out of football, has stalled the recognition that sexism – like racism – sustains abuse, disrespect and bullying.

The response to the Lib Dem women, whose charges have been corroborated, has been, predictably polarized. The most remarkable feature of this debate has been the fortitude of women in politics and the media: Cathy Newman at Channel 4 and Nick Clegg’s former special adviser Bridget Harris explained helpfully that women are even supposed to feel that brushing off the predatory men is ‘the feminist response’. Au contraire, she insists, ‘our silence is not shame. It is self-preservation.’ The problem is ‘the power imbalance’ that makes protest futile and even self-destructive.

These women have been met by a chorus complaining that t’was ever thus; well, its not as bad as real abuse is it; they should not stand for it, brush it off, bash him in the balls.

This inducement to either silence or violence been compounded by some nasty body stuff which compounds the disrespect for women by the language of contempt for the man. In an otherwise creditable critique of sexism in parliament and the press, Allison Pearson lowers the tone by describing Rennard as a ‘slug’.

Rod Liddle – always reliable as a barometer of choleric white man’s intemperance – adds in The Spectator that Rennard is a ‘lardbucket.’

As if harassment by a svelte Fifty Shades of Grey Christian Grey or Brad Pitt would have been not offensive but charming.

All of this, of course, averts our gaze from the people who are the problem – the perpetrators and their cultural comfort zones. It brings pessimism and denial to the possibility that marauding masculinities can be reformed.

The Lib Dems’ disgrace, however, has been society’s gain: we all now know the open secret of sexism in the party and the mass media. And these institutions now know that they’ve got to sort it.