Opinion: Reflections on sexual harassment

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

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  • Very good article, Gillian. I have been driven to distraction by some of the attitudes on display in the last few days and quite frankly, outraged!! Well done for bringing this out in the open, you are doing the Party a great service and hopeful an honest and open debate on this will eventually lead to more women in the Parliamentary Party.

  • Richard Dean 27th Feb '13 - 4:19pm

    Being old enough to remember, I am also struck by how women’s attitudes have also been slow to change. And men can be harassed too. And some of us are victims of domestic violence, marital coercion, or even marital rape.

  • paul barker 27th Feb '13 - 4:21pm

    Another reason for not complaining is because your fellow workers are watching & laughing, if that includes your supervisors youre not going to complain to them either.
    Can I give one piece of advice to victims – complain the first time it happens. The longer you leave it the harder it gets to say anything.

  • Rachel Coleman Finch 27th Feb '13 - 5:33pm

    Richard Dean: women and men live in the same society and absorb the same messages. That’s another reason women may not report harassment when it happens – because they have absorbed the message that somehow the person attacked is at fault rather than the person doing the attacking.

  • paul barker 27th Feb '13 - 7:02pm

    Lord Stoneham, a Libdem peer, apparently rang one the women who complained & angrily berated her for raising the issue. Clegg has described Stonehams behaviour as “completely unacceptable” & he has been “reprimanded”. That doesnt seem to me to be an adequate response to Lord Stonehams action, he should be facing the same sort of disciplinary procedure as Lord Rennard.

  • Having had the experience of complaining to my boss and being told to ignore it because it’s part of the job in more than one job, I can confidently state that this is NOT just an issue in politics, in fact, in politics (where I now work) it is markedly less prevalent than every other job I have ever had.

  • “It’s just that nice Liberal men don’t say them out loud, at least not to nice Liberal women.”

    Not if the reports of what people have been saying the the “private” forums is too be believed!

  • Richard Dean 27th Feb '13 - 8:25pm

    Rachel Coleman Finch. men too.

  • @ Jennie

    I am interested to know what industry you previously worked in as the attitudes I have seen displayed by certain senior party members (defending unacceptable behavior) would not have been tolerated in any work place I have worked in. Seriously worrying for the party.

  • Radio 4 Today Programme just now – woman saying that women in politics need to ‘toughen up’ to deal with sexual harassment and that they need to be ”sisterly’ towards each other. Cannot believe this is happening in 2013.

    Also, very revealingly, that there was a big culture change in 1997 when big influx of women in Parliament. All-women short lists perhaps need to be considered again by Lib Dems?

  • I find it progress that the most strident feminism can be found in the most patriarchal of newspapers during election times.

  • Helen Tedcastle 28th Feb '13 - 10:38am

    Agree with the points in this article wholeheartedly. The idea that Liberal men are somehow above and beyond unacceptable behaviour towards women – whether it be subtle and low level or blatant sexual harrassment – is being overtly challenged by brave Lib Dem women speaking out.

    I think it’s time for the introduction of positive discrimination in the Party.

    The Lib Dems is male -dominated in parliament and in positions of authority within the Party – this must end in order to change the boys club mentality and culture of ‘acceptable’ harrassment – it’s a Liberal issue.

  • “there was a big culture change in 1997 when big influx of women in Parliament. All-women short lists perhaps need to be considered again by Lib Dems?”

    This looks like the most effective way to get more women into parliament. Parties which have not used this method have suffered in their gender balance. From an evidence-based policy making viewpoint, I agree with Phyllis.

  • James Sandbach 28th Feb '13 - 11:33am

    Wholehartedly agree with this article – the issue needs to be moved on from purient discussion of the specific allegations to adressing this as a wider cultural problem within the Party. It is difficult territory for liberals because at one level “zero tolerance” does not sound very liberal. But we cannot begin to deal with this if we do nothing – all the party’s policies and procedures should include provisions to ensure that all staff, candidates and activists can do politics in an environment that is free from harrassment and other inappropiate behaviours.

    It’s also disgraceful that Jo Swinson – who herself has been dragged into the current controversy over the Party’s inaction – is taking reforms to the Equality Act trough Parliament which repeal key legal protections around harrassment (I have written to Jo to point out this is unfortunate both in terms the bad timing, and message this sends out, and the protection that is weakened)

  • Rachel Coleman Finch 28th Feb '13 - 11:48am

    Peter Tyzack raises the “but how are people to flirt in case they are accused of sexual harassment” argument. I’ve seen this come up again and again in discussions of harassment, usually by men resisting the idea that they might have to change their behaviour to avoid a bit of fuss.

    The best response I’ve seen is a post on the “Doctor Nerdlove” blog, which is a blog aimed at helping shy “nerdy” men gain confidence talking to women. http://www.doctornerdlove.com/2012/09/dating-101-meet-women-without-creepy/all/1/ is worth reading in full, but the highlights are:

    1. Pick an unthreatening time and place to approach.
    2. Make sure you are not blocking the other person’s exit so they do not feel trapped.
    3. Before you approach check body language for signs the other person would rather be left alone, and leave them alone if so.
    4. If you make a mistake, upset the other person, or they seem to be trying to withdraw, apologise and back off.

    In general I think if you are worried that what you are about to do might be considered harassment, then Don’t Do It. The downside if you are too cautious is that maybe nobody gets to have sex as soon as they would have liked to. The downside if you are not cautious is that someone feels harassed, upset, ashamed, etc. One of these things is much worse than the other, so err on the side of least harm.

    If you are in a position of power over someone, especially over their career, you probably shouldn’t be making sexual advances to them, and you probably discourage any advances they are making towards you. At the very least you need to be very very careful about making sure that sexual interest is consensual and reciprocated, and has nothing to do with the power imbalance between the people involved. The responsibility for this rests with the person who has the power, not the other way around.

  • Richard Dean 28th Feb '13 - 2:16pm

    Dr Nerdlove is writing about talking to people, even asking for a date, which is NOT sexual harassment surely? Or is this No Sex Please We’re British?

  • Richard Dean 28th Feb '13 - 2:24pm

    Rachel Coleman-Finch. The four rules you quote seem to assume that someone has decided they want to have sex with a complete stranger. That really is the wrong way to go about things! A workplace is not a Benidorm disco! Nor is a party meeting or conference. Or is it?

    Call me old-fashioned, or perhaps someone who has learned through mistakes, but you need to get to know someone first, before any decision about sex acts is seriously contemplated. Dr Nerdlove seems to be discussing how to get a date, not how to get laid. Asking someone you don’t know for a date is not sexual harassment.

    Here are Nerdlove’s words: “Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: going up and starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is not inherently creepy. This is how you get to know people”

  • Helen Tedcastle 28th Feb '13 - 3:00pm

    ” It’s also disgraceful that Jo Swinson – who herself has been dragged into the current controversy over the Party’s inaction – is taking reforms to the Equality Act trough Parliament which repeal key legal protections around harrassment”

    Is Jo Swinson the right person to be trying to change the laws on ‘equality?’ That is a very good question in light of complaints by Lib Dem women recently. Shouldn’t we be getting our own house in order before dictating to others?

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Feb '13 - 3:39pm

    The problem is that as soon as allegations like this emerge, the argument “But things like this happen in many organisations, there’s nothing unique about organisation X which makes it particularly prevalent there”, it sounds like you are making light of the allegations, which you are not. You are simply questioning the argument that there is something particularly bad about organisation X, especially when it is being made by people who have a vested interest in organisation X or a prejudice against it.

  • I would hope we can all tell the difference between a verbal flirtatious advance between two free agents and persistent, lechery consitiuting an abuse of a power-unequal situation without having to condemn society to permission-slip ‘foreplay’! Dr Nerdlove sounds like a Private Eye parody of the Guardian Womens page at its height. I have raed this week that no-one should be subject to an ‘unwanted’ proposition. May I ask how one is to know whetherits unwanted until it has been delivered – too late, apparantly! Are we all supposed to be psychic?

  • Gillian Gloyer 28th Feb '13 - 6:28pm

    Thanks to everybody for your comments. I’m glad that my piece has generated rational discussion! Jennie, I’m horrified by your experience of complaining about sexual harassment and being told to ignore it – a depressing example of why many people don’t complain. Rachel, your most recent post, especially its last two paragraphs, seem to me to be brilliant advice for those who are concerned that they won’t be able to tell the difference between flirting and assault. Thanks again to all.

  • “If you are in a position of power over someone, especially over their career, you probably shouldn’t be making sexual advances to them”

    You should definitely NOT be making advances to someone over whom you are in a position if power. It’s the same for doctors, teachers, etc etc.

  • David Allen 1st Mar '13 - 12:35pm

    The issue which hasn’t yet been addressed here is that a political party is different. When Megabiscuits Ltd discover a harassing manager or even director in their midst, they will not generally be too fearful of serious reputational damage should they do the right thing and discipline or fire the guy. They will convincingly argue that Bill did a fine job running the factory, he didn’t do anything to spoil the biscuits, and his successor won’t either. A political party is different.

    When this issue arises within a political party, and apparently nobody wants to make a formal complaint, what does that mean? Does it mean that potential whistleblowers would like to see the perpetrator quietly duffed over in a back alley, so that the party itself does not suffer? Or does it mean that others in the party would like to believe that whistleblowers felt that way? Or is it that potential whistleblowers feel that, however justified their complaint might be, they would inevitably themselves suffer, because their complaint would be seen to have led to reputational damage to the party?

    If a political party tells any potential whistleblowers that they should just go ahead, shout their allegations from the housetops, and that no consequences will rebound on the whistleblower – is that realistic? But on the other hand, if a political party firmly tells its potential whistleblowers that there is a private in-house procedure for complaints that must be followed – is that fair, reasonable, and trustworthy?

    There are no simple answers. However, Paddy Ashdown seems to be clear that it is the latter alternative which should apply. He says “What is very clear is that we will get to the truth through the trials ahead – carefully, painstakingly and within the counsels of our party, rather than on the pages of the tabloid press.”


    Well, that worries me a bit.

  • @ Phyllis

    I think for all the longer explanations above you have picked out the first of the two key rules:

    1. If you are in a position of power over somebody you should not be making advances towards them.

    The only other rule needed is:

    2. A rejection (pulling away or saying “no”) should be accepted on the first instance and repeated messaging should not be required.


  • Richard Dean 2nd Mar '13 - 6:00pm

    Rule 1 seems wrong to me. Just because you have power doesn’t mean you have to stop yourself being attracted to someone. And anyway there are plenty of marriages that result from Rule 1 being broken, and quite a few powerless people who enjoy it when some powerful person breaks the rule with them.

    Rule 2 also seems wrong. Persistence is not a crime, not even a social one. It can sometimes even be desirable. But excessive persistence is certainly wrong. Of course a decision is needed on what is “excessive”., but it’s probably wise to usually let the people involved decide that, rather define it for everybody in the same way in a rule.

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