It has been a week for thinking about sexual harassment, and for talking (in both its old-fashioned and its electronic variants) about it more than I usually do. During this thinking and talking, I have been struck by how similar the attitudes towards it among men (or at least some of them) are to the way I heard men talk thirty years ago about rape and domestic violence.
I bet most of the women reading this have been sexually harassed in some way or another during their professional (in which I include political) careers, even if they have been reluctant to define it as harassment. Like me, many will have chosen to take no action, generally for a mixture of reasons – the exact mix will certainly be different in every case. There’s not knowing who to complain to: it’s almost certainly going to be a colleague of your harasser – perhaps they are personal friends, too. There’s not believing your complaint will be treated seriously: “Calm down, dear, it was just a bit of fun!” And there’s the overwhelming feeling that complaining will jeopardise your career.
Much of the analysis and comment in Lib Dem Voice has been notable for its fair and measured tone. Outside this space, however, I have been taken aback by the attitudes of some men in the Party, some of whom I have known and liked for many years and whose innate Liberalism I have never doubted before. They can be broadly summarised as “This sort of thing goes on all the time at Conference.” Well, no it doesn’t. Making a pass at someone you’ve met in the bar at Conference is not the same as making a pass at someone whose job depends on your goodwill, or who thinks it does (which amounts to the same thing). Even groping someone’s knee, if it only happens once when you’ve had too much to drink, is not the same as systematic harassment.
If men believe that this kind of sexual harassment is “what always goes on at Conference, we’re all adults, nobody got hurt”, it helps to explain why – when complaints are made and are put before the harasser (and I do not refer here to any individual) – the latter’s response is so often to deny it. They have done nothing wrong, after all; it was just a bit of fun, the sort of thing that goes on all the time. In other words, it wasn’t real sexual harassment. That’s what other kinds of men do! Do you remember when apparently reasonable men used to say that it wasn’t real rape if the woman had had a drink with the man, or was wearing a short skirt? Do you remember when men used to say that it wasn’t surprising that Mr X had given his wife a bit of a slap, after she’d shouted at him like that? Real domestic violence was things like breaking your wife’s arm or pushing her downstairs.
Oh. You probably do remember, because it wasn’t only thirty years ago that men used to say these things. They still do. It’s just that nice Liberal men don’t say them out loud, at least not to nice Liberal women. Perhaps it won’t take thirty years for them to realise they can’t talk like this to us about sexual harassment either.
* Gillian Gloyer is a member of Edinburgh North East and Leith LIberal Democrats