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Some interesting conversations have begun since the spreadsheet of 40 Tory “sex pests” was leaked on the internet. This has happened in a wider climate of weeding out harassers and misogynists, so it’s quite easy to get caught up in the flow. But there is a problematic element to this, in that the list was described as a “dirty dossier” of “sex pests,” when it in fact contains allegations ranging from serious transgressions down to MPs having consensual affairs. Obviously there is a need for sensitivity and nuance, so as to not minimise the most serious offences, or to be puritanical about those engaging in sexual activities that are none of anyone else’s business. Having seen a copy of the list (if you haven’t by now, just Google “tory spreadsheet” and you’ll find it), it seems like the co-authors were Mary Whitehouse and Benny Hill, based on the language used (“fornicated,” “handsy”). It’s like a cross between a Carry On film script, and the list of reasons for entry to a Victorian women’s asylum. Another reason to exercise caution — it sounds as though it was written to titillate, belying the reality of the claims within.
It also raises issues about workplace sexual behaviour more generally, and society’s attitudes towards it — which are rarely moderate. In my experience, the assumption is that there is always something sinister about an office romance — yet around 15% of long-term relationships are between partners who met at work. Of course, there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with these relationships, and suspicion around office dating can make things uncomfortable for those who do end up together through meeting in the workplace. The perceived need to keep things secret can end up contributing to the problem — there’s privacy, and there’s concealment. If it can’t be mentioned openly, the feeling is that there’s something dodgy going on.
On the flipside, it is very easy for people to abuse their seniority to extract sexual favours from a subordinate and we must be vigilant about such abuses of power. How we go about this in a sensible and sensitive way is the problem, as those in the relationship may genuinely feel that there is nothing untoward about it — although there could well be. There are many men in positions of power, whose power has gone unchallenged for a very long time. Because that power is only now being called into question, they see it as oppression, a sudden attack on their unstained characters. Even though they have been oppressing others through their entitled behaviour, they just assumed that this is the way life is and we’re the troublemakers for disrupting that.
What about the more junior party in the relationship? No matter whether the relationship is consensual or not, the existence of a power differential has implications. An unequal footing is bad news in any romantic relationship. But it’s never that simple. Many couples will negotiate and find ways around this; they may maintain the professional relationship in a separate compartment to the romantic relationship. Many others will run into problems, where they cannot reconcile the two worlds, and problems from one spill into the other. Sometimes one party will have very different ideas about the relationship — what it is, how serious it is, how fast it progresses. With that power imbalance, it seems obvious that the junior person is more likely to concede on their desires. They may believe the relationship is equal, when in fact it isn’t — and they won’t see it from the inside, when their judgement is blinded by love. And then, if they do feel like they were exploited, will they be disregarded because the relationship was consensual, albeit based on false premises?
We need to consider the rights of individuals to pursue sexual relationships and to have a private life, but we also need to prevent and stop abuse and harassment. A blanket ban on office relationships is not the answer — as mentioned above, it creates an atmosphere of suspicion and makes people miserable. But business as usual won’t work either — there’s always those who ruin it for everyone by misusing their power and reputation. Let’s break it down into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, with some assistance from that infamous list.
At least seven of those on the list are there for workplace relationships and/or affairs. We don’t know anything more than that — names and other details of these trysts are blanked out. These relationships may have been harmful in some way, or they may not. We don’t know yet. They may also be on the list because those affairs were the visible symptom of a worse set of behaviour, but we don’t know that either. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt (until I am inevitably proven wrong), and say that these relationships shouldn’t be of anyone else’s concern. Maybe it’s not ideal to have these in the Good category, but can one convincingly argue that they have done anything wrong? It’s dangerous to assume that all workplace sexual activity is bad, not only because it impinges on people’s freedom. It fuels a climate of fear, in which women are the losers — men pre-emptively accuse women of making false allegations, based on nothing but conjecture. And if women can’t be trusted in that respect, how can you trust them professionally?
Well, there is certainly a lot that falls into this category. It’s bizarre, not because of the nature of the acts that are listed, but because those named actually thought it was OK to behave like that with colleagues. A lot of these involve inappropriate behaviour with, and demands of, junior researchers; an obvious abuse of power. And some of them are just so egregious, you have to consider whether those implicated have any moral barometer at all. Impregnating numerous women, forcing some to have abortions, groping, asking their staff to purchase sex toys, paying people to keep their mouths shut. These acts are so obviously wrong, and yet we have numerous commentators saying that if we clamp down on harassment, people won’t ever be able to ask anyone out on a date again, ever. They’re conflating sexual assault, rape, and bullying, with ordinary human interaction. And that is really the icing on the Bad cake.
The sensationalism of tabloid journalism leaves many embarrassed victims in its wake. A good story is as lurid and scandalous as possible, with a slew of highly personal details laid bare for the readership’s delectation. The effectiveness of this sales technique relies on upholding social taboos, and openly condemning anyone who breaches them. MPs that have fetishes, or engage in same-sex activity, have been outed on this list of sexual misdemeanours. It’s no-one’s business but their own, and it definitely has no place on a list of predators.
And when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…not only did the Conservative Party know about these claims, there is evidence that similar allegations have been used as a tool of blackmail. The Whips Office was aware (as was the Prime Minister), and seeing as no disciplinary action was brought, it served as a useful means to sway the Commons vote. Victims were let down badly, too. Those reporting rapes were advised that pursuing a claim would harm their career and that there was no support available for them.
So what now?
This exposé could have been avoided if:
- MPs had behaved appropriately and respectfully in the first place;
- If those who had behaved badly were held to account.
Neither of these things occurred and so we have an even bigger shitstorm to deal with. It always comes out in the end; there’s only so long you can force people to keep their mouths shut. And thank goodness for that; toxic working environments have long maintained their poisonous cultures, and supported abusers while further disadvantaging victims. But something has changed in the last few months. I don’t know precisely where the tipping point was, but we’re now well beyond the point where we’ve decided we’re just not going to tolerate sexist abuse anymore. It was an unwritten rule in workplaces everywhere, that it was more important to uphold the reputation of the organisation and powerful men within it, than it was to protect employees from the actions of entitled misogynists.
We need to exercise a degree of discernment. There are existing laws and policies about harassment and sexual misconduct — we should enforce them. But we also need to ensure we don’t cross a line into people’s private lives, while at the same time ensuring that those getting into office relationships do so on an equal and fair footing. An awareness of the ways in which office dynamics promote harassment and inhibit healthy relationships is necessary. Decent sex and relationships education, from primary age and continuing into adulthood, should be compulsory. The issue is complicated, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult or scary. As a society, we need to change our mindset around sex in general (we are incredibly prudish) and about power relationships and gender roles. All the right conversations are happening, but we need to make sure we take everyone with us — these abuses have been illegal for decades, but it didn’t stop them from happening.
So enjoy your moments of pleasure in the office, but keep it safe, legal and consensual. And outside of working hours, unless you want an audience…