Before parliament broke up for Christmas, Labour MP Jess Phillips read out texts from Conservative MP Andrew Griffiths which contained aggressive sexual language, sent to a female constituent and her friend.
Ms Phillips was interrogating the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, about why both Mr Griffiths and Charlie Elphicke, also accused of sexual harassment and serious sexual assault, had their Conservative Party suspensions removed hours before Theresa May’s no confidence ballot:
What matters more? Political power, or protecting victims of sexual harassment and abuse?
A cross-party working group was put together last year after a mountain of allegations had emerged about various Westminster politicians, accusing them of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. A Conservative activist, Katy Maltby, noted that she didn’t have confidence in this working group, and equally lacked confidence in the government to tackle sexual harassment at Westminster.
Other politicians accused of sexual harassment and/or inappropriate behaviour in recent years include Lib Dem Lord Lester, Conservative MP Damian Green, and Lib Dem Lord Rennard. On 8th February 2018, the cross-party working group said that there would be a better complaints procedure, as well as repercussions such as forced apologies and mandatory training for those found to have bullied or harassed MPs.
The sexual harassment and inappropriate nature against female MPs is nothing new, and women have always had barriers to being taken seriously within positions of authority, especially in politics. I experienced this first-hand when a politician was inappropriate at a social after a university event. He interrupted a question about Brexit by myself to tell me that me and a male best friend will ‘probably sleep together’ and that a female and a male can’t be ‘just friends’. He later spent the evening over drinks discussing how hot female members of parliament were and comparing them.
Despite this not being sexual harassment, the inappropriate nature of making sexual comments completely irrelevant to a political debate showed me how easy it is for male politicians to feel comfortable doing so, without a worry about how uncomfortable it makes women. Hundreds of incidents, and many that have and will continue to go unreported, highlight that the fostered nature of sexual and inappropriate behaviour by MPs towards women and female MPs hasn’t been tackled, nor even recognised. For many, this behaviour is commonplace. We learn to take it, to ignore it, to become colder and less able to show any hint of our own sexuality for fear of it being taken advantage of. It’s something I know I need to mentally prepare myself for as I grow up and enter politics. To repeat Kate Malby, there needs to be a ‘political will to change attitudes towards harassment in parliament’.
Too often allegations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour are deemed “not serious enough”, i.e. not a violent rape, to be taken seriously within government. We need to dispel myths that inappropriate behaviour is only blatant touching or sexual assault, that it is only physical.
The issue doesn’t lie in the texts or incidents exchanged by 3 consenting adults in the case of Andrew Griffiths, but in the crossing of boundaries where it ceased to be consensual, and turned into an entitled, aggressive manifestation of sexual harassment. It lies in the assumption that consent cannot be withdrawn and that sexual harassment cannot happen online. Amnesty International’s toxic Twitter campaign highlighted the gendered nature of abuse received online, finding a massive disparity between women being abused online in a sexual nature compared to men. They also highlighted the intersectionality of abuse against women, with BAME politicians, particularly Diane Abbott, receiving the highest amount of abuse, with a significant proportion of it racialised.
Should the accused Conservative MPs have been reinstated for the no confidence ballot? It does look as if the reason for their suspension was less important than their use to keep May in political power, and sexual harassment has been shown to be a cross-party issue. The movement has also shown how little society, authority and the public view sexual harassment. A recent study showed that 1/3 of the respondents thought it was only rape if it included physical violence. Why don’t we view sexual harassment as a serious issue in itself? Is it too normalised? Trivialised? It seems a forced apology and a class about workplace conduct is a bit of a primary school slap on the wrist for doing something that has serious effects.
What are the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace? A report showed that over half of women in the UK experience sexual harassment in the workplace, with 20% of the women citing their superiors as the perpetrators, and over 80% admitted they didn’t report it. Many cited worry about the negative impact on their work as why they hadn’t reported, such as their position and work relationships.
Also, is sexual harassment just shaking a woman’s hand, or touching her shoulder? This argument used by people to discredit the seriousness of this consistent and degrading behaviour merely normalises it. Sexual harassment has sexual intent, and can range from curling a hand around a colleague’s waist, hip or touching them consistently where and when they don’t want to be touched. In many cases, it can lead to groping and sexual assault. Verbal harassment is also commonplace and passed off as banter, or women screaming “rape” for not wanting to be catcalled, degraded or have their position belittled.
The government responded in December to parliament’s women and equalities committee’s July report on sexual harassment in the workplace, with Conservative MP Maria Miller noting that when 45% of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace, it shouldn’t have taken the government 5 months to respond.
So what do we do? Do we install harsher punishments? Is it a case of changing culture and attitude? Do we need better reporting mechanisms? Better education? Ending the “traditional” dismissal of reporting unwanted sexual behaviour? What matters more?