The use and abuse of male power and privilege is not a new ‘thing’ and women’s bodies have been routinely appropriated to service men’s sexual appetites and fantasies, their autonomy and agency sacrificed on the altar of men’s seemingly ever-hungry libido. OK, #notallmen, I geddit, but there are very few women being named and shamed in the court of public opinion or subjected to media scrutiny. But what’s interesting about the most recent examples being reported in the media, of sexual abuse in Parliament, is how mainstream media’s attention was initially piqued and the tenor and tone of much of the subsequent reporting. This is an opinion piece so I haven’t undertaken a systematic and scientific analysis of media reportage (but I will at some point) but having read a number of news articles published across a range of news outlets, there are some telling similarities.
Although one can never be quite sure who knew what, how and why informal documents get leaked or the motivations for outing people and their practices, what we do know is that a spreadsheet was circulating informally amongst staffers working for the Conservative Party at Westminster, which identified the sexual activities of 36 MPs whose behaviour was deemed inappropriate, ranging from being ‘handsy’ in taxis to having a relationship with a staffer, to telling an assistant to buy sex toys. But the point about the ‘dossier’ was that it was compiled and circulated as way of women warning each other about who was, literally, a safe pair of hands: it was not intended for public consumption although obviously someone wanted it out there.
Coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the sexual transgressions of some of our elected members seem rather tame in comparison, apparently amounting to little more than wandering hand trouble or the pathetic fantasising of mid-life crisis men, but herein lies the problem. When the media name these perpetrators as ‘sex pests’, when the men in question describe their behaviour as ‘sex chatter’ and ‘hi jinx’ and when the women who call these men out are described as mobilising a ‘witch hunt’, then sex abuse is downgraded to banter and women are framed as feminist kill-joys. Bracketing together an illicit (but consensual) affair with attempted rape makes it easy for all accusations to be described as ‘hysterical’, not helped by high profile women who insist that a bit of knee-touching never hurt anyone.
The Government’s response to the scandal is to draft a code of conduct on in/appropriate behaviour, as if men just need to be reminded (because they have obviously forgotten) to respect women and keep their urges in their trousers. Sexual violence is a continuum: women are made unsafe in the workplace because men have (most of) the power and feel entitled to use it. When the next sex scandal breaks, it would be good to see journalists taking a more professional approach to how it’s reported and to name it for what it is, else nothing will change.