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The rules of flirting have not changed. So don’t dare trivialise sex harassment

As Westminster continues to reel from sex revelations, JANE MERRICK says it was wrong 20 years ago and it’s wrong now

Sir Michael Parkinson has added his name to a growing list of people apparently confused about where the current harassment scandal leaves their ability to speak to and interact with the opposite sex.

In an interview this week, Parkinson was worried he would be no longer able to kiss or even flirt with women, as he did on his chat shows over the years.

Charles Moore questioned whether greeting a female friend with a peck on the cheek at parties would become forbidden and warned of a ‘unilateral masculine disarmament’ in our society. The writers Giles Coren and Rod Liddle fretted about ending emails with a ‘x’ for fear of being accused of sexual harassment.

I don’t know whether these intelligent men are suffering from genuine bafflement over this issue, or whether these comments are the disingenuous creation of straw men – presumably, in their eyes, straw men who have been castrated and subjugated by what they see is this new crushing matriarchy – in order to trivialise genuine complaints about sexual harassment.

Let’s be clear, there are no post-Weinstein ‘new rules’ about social interaction. Our society has not suddenly turned into a gender-reversed Handmaid’s Tale – the Manservant’s Tale, perhaps. Nothing has changed.

It is still wrong to try to stick your tongue down someone else’s throat when that person doesn’t want you to, just as it was wrong 20 years ago. It was wrong then and is wrong now to persistently grab a woman’s thigh when she’s asked you to stop.

And rubbing your crotch against a young activist from your political party, and then following this up with creepy texts? Wrong in any decade. Nobody is threatening to take away your right to greet a friend with a peck on each cheek.

I did just that with a male politician I’ve known for years when I bumped into him in Westminster this week – there was no hesitation, no awkwardness, no sense of ‘we can’t do this now’. And of course ending a text message or email with a ‘x’ is not harassment.

Scores of messages of support I’ve received from women – and men – since writing about how Sir Michael Fallon lunged at me after a lunch when I was a junior political reporter, there have been enough ‘x’s to discombobulate Giles and Rod into next week.

What has changed, however, is our tolerance towards sexual harassment and assault. Instead of keeping secret that incident of inappropriate behaviour, or tolerating the power games where the promise of advancement in politics is freighted with the suggestion of an affair, we are ready to complain.

This moment is long overdue, and has taken something as huge as the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood to shake the iron-clad Westminster establishment.

Every woman and man who has come forward in the past two weeks to complain about sexual harassment or assault in Westminster has had their accounts questioned, their motivations doubted. Instances of alleged groping or inappropriate behaviour have been explained away by some, who ask whether perhaps it was an inadvertent misplacement of a hand, or a misreading of a situation. In some cases, women have been asked why they maintained contact with their alleged harasser after the event – as if this made them complicit in the behaviour.

Friends of Damian Green, the de facto Deputy Prime Minister who denies making inappropriate advances towards the journalist Kate Maltby, have set up what must become known as the ‘tablecloth defence’, suggesting it was this, and not his hand, that brushed against her knee.

There is an attempt to mitigate misdemeanours, to try to explain away every instance, or suggest that some individuals are somehow following a script of male sexual behaviour that they cannot help.

I have heard comments that young women political journalists act like ‘predators’ with older male MPs – which is insulting to my female colleagues in the lobby, who just want to be treated with respect in their professional lives.

In my own case relating to Sir Michael Fallon, which I reported to Downing Street hours before he resigned last Wednesday, I asked myself at the time of the incident whether I could have led him on by sharing a couple of glasses of wine over lunch. The endlessly twisting contortions we put ourselves in to ask whether an incident really is harassment disguise the basic facts.

While rape and serious sexual assault are, rightly, treated as matters for the police, the debate around the ‘grey areas’ of harassment, including knee touching, groping and lunging has been reduced, by some, to a trivial matter.

The backlash against those who have spoken out underlines how Westminster is the ultimate self-preservation society; anyone who tries to take on a powerful institution like this finds that it fights back.

I have had contact with women over the past fortnight, since this story first alighted on Westminster, who have told me of their allegations of sexual harassment, assault and coercion. They have found it difficult enough to discuss their experiences in private, let alone think about reporting them to senior figures in their own political party – fearing that their complaints will not be dealt with, or hushed up because of party tribalism. The story of Bex Bailey, the young Labour activist who says she was raped at a party event, is doubly harrowing because she was told by the party not to pursue her complaint.

This is why the creation of an independent complaints process in the Houses of Parliament is essential, and welcome. However, it must extend to victims who are not parliamentary passholders but still have complaints relating to politicians and their staff.

Women who have been harassed or assaulted often want to forget about their experiences. In the case of rape and sexual assault, being told to ‘just report it to the police’ can be distressing, when that involves detailed questioning about the incident – as is right. Yet what the events of the last fortnight – and indeed the revelations about Weinstein and others in Hollywood – have shown is that staying silent carries the burden of worrying that you are failing to protect other women.

Of course, sexual harassment and assault is not confined to Westminster. It is used to exert power over an individual, and this happens in workplaces across the country. We have heard allegations relating to the film, theatre, fashion and media industries, and no doubt cases relating to other sectors will be heard in the weeks to come.

The news that Carl Sargeant, who was sacked from his Welsh government post after a number of allegations involving women emerged, has taken his own life is incredibly distressing, most of all for his family, who must be given privacy. It would not be appropriate to comment further on his case.

But nothing should change the fact that women and men need to have the confidence to come forward to report the harassment they receive, wherever it takes place. There should be due process for any allegations that are made – both for the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.

When the expenses scandal erupted in 2009, Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, failed to capture the moment, leaving it to his opponent, David Cameron, to seize.

The then Conservative leader gave a speech saying that MPs’ behaviour had to be judged by court of public opinion, echoing Tony Blair’s declaration in 1998, amid a lobbying scandal, that his new government had to be ‘purer than pure’.

Now there is an opportunity to be seized by Theresa May over harassment. On Monday, she called for a new ‘culture of respect’ in British politics that could be reflected back onto society, and later that day she held talks with fellow party leaders on a new independent grievance process that complainants could use, so they would not fear party loyalties blocking access to justice.

The Prime Minister acted swiftly and authoritatively in relation to my reporting of Sir Michael, which, considering she is in a weak position over her government generally, showed leadership. Yet there is also an opportunity for her, as Britain’s only second female Prime Minister, to make this issue her own. May should have delivered her message on a ‘culture of respect’ in a speech devoted to the issue, not during a wider address on Brexit.

It is undeniable that the PM has challenges piling up on her desk – not only on the biggest issue of the day, Brexit, but on the forthcoming Budget and enforcing discipline over her crisis-prone Cabinet ministers. Yet sexual harassment and abuse of power, while perpetrated by a minority of individuals, is nevertheless such an entrenched problem in our society that May should use this opportunity to shift the debate.

Jane Merrick is a freelance journalist and columnist; follow her @janemerrick23

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