The Harvey Weinstein scandal brought back unfortunate memories from my time working in politics. Sexual harassment is a significant problem in Westminster. I did, however, feel considerable unease about the media hysteria. Despite viewing the #MeToo furore as necessary bloodletting, maintaining procedural integrity and disallowing trial by media should also be a priority. I have experienced/witnessed two particular categories of unwelcome sexual behaviour. One is illegal and one is not.
I have been the unfortunate recipient of several incidents of unpleasant, aggressive and impolite sexual behaviour. Two experiences, in particular, stand out.
The first occurred immediately after I attended a political conference in the United Kingdom. I chatted with several delegates including one individual who I spoke to for about twenty minutes. I had never met this individual before and was never alone with him during the course of the day, we only socialised casually within a larger group. The day after the conference he added me on Facebook and proceeded to send me wordy private messages that were not in any way appropriate for an acquaintance. I mostly ignored them until he sent me a thirteen hundred word essay which included vulgar statements about my body and my hair. This individual seemed to think that I would be flattered by these messages and that I would be keen to go out with him as result of them. After unfriending him, I told him that his messages were inappropriate and scary. He told me it was all my fault for behaving in “a sluttish manner” so I blocked him. There is nothing more unattractive than a guy behaving as if my lack of romantic interest in him is somehow my problem.
Had he simply sent me a message along the lines of “Hey, it was good to meet you yesterday. I really enjoyed talking to you, would you like a grab a drink some time?” instead of an essay about my breasts, I would have been more inclined to say, “yes.”
The second incident occurred after the Christmas Party of a well-known think tank. A man whom I had never met before realised that I had a crush on a mutual friend of his, the gentleman to whom I was chatting to. He separated me from his friend and I felt cornered. He proceeded to tease me about my mild attraction to his friend and coerced me into giving him my number by snatching my phone out my hand and plugging his number into it making sure to call himself so he would have my number in return. Keen to extradite myself from the situation I made my goodbyes and left the party. As I was leaving the venue this man grabbed my breast so hard that it hurt the next day, even though I had been wearing a winter coat. He then sent me a message later that night saying: “Girl, I am going to f*ck you soon.” I did not reply. The next day he sent me another text message with the rather mewling: “How come you’re not replying? I just wanted to talk politics and stuff.” I blocked his number.
These incidents frustrate me but they don’t keep me up at night. I certainly don’t feel like a victim because of them. They could easily be solved with better manners, a more acute sense of appropriateness and a modicum of basic consideration of my feelings. These were men I had no prior relationship with and I could easily eradicate them from my life, blocking them off social media and never seeing them again. What does bother me, however, are incidents where the perpetrators have power over the lives and careers of younger colleagues. These abuses of power are rarer but much more serious and sinister than the former. I have heard unsettling stories from a wide range of political groups all of which follow a Weinstein-esque pattern.
One episode, in particular, was closer to me than the others I’ve read about in the news. The perpetrator was, allegedly, a member of the House of Lords. On attending party functions I was told by other women to avoid being in the same room alone with this individual. Although no one told me exactly why I took their advice. As my involvement with the party deepened so did the seriousness of the gossip I heard. The individual in question was said to be bribing female party members with better chances of being selected to fight more winnable seats if they reciprocated his sexual overtures. Women were also alleged to have been told that their chances of progressing in the party would be seriously hindered if they did not perform sexual favours for this individual. Complaints were made to the political party in question, but accusations were supposedly covered up and the procedure was said to have been fumbled. One individual who mentioned the rumours to a colleague was fired from her job at the party HQ the next day without notice.
It was five years after I first heard the rumours that the UK heard about them too. The women who had been the unfortunate alleged victims of the individual went to the press after exhausting every other line of complaint within a party machine, which seemed desperate to cover up any wrongdoing rather than deal with the problem itself. The member of the House of Lords in question had been removed from his position within the party HQ a couple of years earlier for “health reasons” (and definitely not because issues related to his parliamentary expenses were at that point in time being exposed by the Telegraph newspaper. This, to me, was like Al Capone being jailed for tax evasion.). Despite this, he still played a prominent role in the party machinery. The press coverage triggered a police investigation. After the Metropolitan Police announced there was insufficient evidence to proceed, the party instigated an independent inquiry into the allegations. The independent investigation found that whilst the women’s statements were “broadly credible,” the evidence presented did not meet a criminal standard of proof (it is worth noting that the standard of proof used to fire someone is usually not so high).
And thus, the party now inhabits a bizarre reality where the women aren’t lying, but the Lord is not guilty. Unsurprisingly there is a state of no war, no peace on the issue.
The reason I have chosen to highlight these incidents is that I think it’s wise to draw attention to how different they are. The latter is sexual harassment, the former is just unpleasant. In an ideal world neither would happen.
What I’ve learnt from the alleged sexual harassment case is that there need to be clear lines that spark instant investigations as soon as they are crossed. Employers should not proposition their employees, teachers should not have relationships with their students, and doctors should not ask their patients out on dates. Professional boundaries matter and should be enforced aggressively. Safeguards and pastoral caretakers within organisations and companies that recognise patterns of abusive behaviour and bullying could protect both men and women so both sexes feel like they can have healthy working relationships. Thorough standards of investigation and procedures that people trust can be useful to resolving issues before they become scandals.
Even though the urge to cover up is strong, dealing with the problem head-on is always the better option. What’s done in the dark always comes to light.