Following the revelations about first Harvey Weinstein and then a depressing roll-call of Hollywood celebrities, a wave of accusations of sexual harassment has swept through the UK Parliament. Every day new accusations surface; the evening news on TV is a daily expose of the darkest, seediest aspects of human nature. There is no party political division here: wrongs have been committed in all parties. The vast majority of the perpetrators are men, and the majority of the victims are women, although it is clear that both in Hollywood and Parliament gay men have been subjected to humiliating unwanted sexual attention too. Painful though it is to see this torrent of revelations of inappropriate behaviour, one does feel a sense of catharsis, of shining a light into dark places and a refusal to allow evil deeds to remain cloaked in secrecy. Some politicians have sought to manipulate their responses to accusations, like Defence Secretary Michael Fallon who claimed that “14 years ago things were different…” and led us to believe that his only misdemeanour was to place his hand on a journalist’s knee once, a long time ago. The argument is hollow: my own father, nearly 80 and of a conservative world-view, would never countenance the kind of behaviour displayed by Fallon, many years his junior. We have not re-written right and wrong in recent years; we have instead attempted to right the imbalance of power that has led so many victims to be pressurised to be silent. Such are the days in which we live that more misdeeds have been uncovered and Fallon’s attempted frank and direct confession now looks like a cynical effort to conceal and limit damage. Such is the momentum of disclosure that it simply will not work.
The problem of sexual abuse is multi-dimensional. It is not restricted to parliament. This week the UK’s Commissioner for Equality and Human Rights warned that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse in schools. The prevalence of pornography that shows women not only participating in abusive sexual practices but, indeed, craving it does not help. But schools are failing too. Girls who make complaints of rape (and we know how difficult a thing that is to do) are being forced to return to the same classroom as their perpetrator while the trial date is awaited. There seems to be a gulf of human empathy and understanding between the tragic suffering of young women being abused and the woefully inadequate response of the education system that is supposed to protect them.
Workplace relationships are a staple of TV dramas, and lines are often crossed that I would feel should not be crossed; romantic attachments between individuals with unequal status are often portrayed. As long as dramatists portray sexual advances between individuals in the workplace as normal – even when there is a plain differential in power and authority – the myth will be perpetuated that there is no clear line between good and bad behaviour. Men will continue to claim that “banter” or an honest expression of romantic interest has been perversely re-interpreted. In Michael Fallon’s mind, when he grabbed a journalist, pulled her to him and kissed her, he was perhaps – like Donald Trump – acting out a fantasy that the unwilling recipient of his advances was irresistably drawn to him because of his power, importance and goodness knows what else. We know – because she has spoken clearly – that the incident filled her with revulsion.
In my work I have mentored and supported many young women. I hope that none of them would ever bring accusations of abuse against me because I have drawn clear lines. There is a right and a wrong way to behave in an unequal relationship; I do not believe there are shades of grey. Always, the person in authority should resolve any doubt by erring on the side of caution, but in the vast majority of cases the shades of grey are only in the minds of abusers. As a society we must define limits that we all understand, and honour, so that such abuses cannot happen again.