I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a serious case of déjà vu this week. A little over a year ago the tapes of Donald Trump joking about ‘grabbing women by the pussy’ were released and a debate was raging about whether such ‘locker room’ (aka sexist crap) talk is actually harmful or something only picked up on by sensitive snowflakes. Well, more than 365 days later things we find ourselves in an uncomfortable state of transit between progress and regression, the outcome of which is, as yet, still very unclear.
Following the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo saw women all over the world share their stories of sexual assault and harassment. Public facing industries like film and media have, unsurprisingly, had the most attention and Twitter accusations of bad behaviour have lead to more than one male journalist being let go. This week, it was the turn of politics.
It has emerged that Bex Bailey, a well-known 25-year-old Labour activist, who reported being raped by a senior part official to the party was effectively told to ‘keep her mouth shut’. Then, a list of Conservative MPs which was reportedly put together by angry Tory staffers, was published containing details of MPs and ministers who have harassed and, in some cases, seriously abused their women colleagues. There was also some stuff on the list that really does not belong in this conversation, but we’ll get to that later.
The culmination of all of this, so far, is the resignation of Michael Fallon as Defence Secretary (but not as an MP), he was accused of touching journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee, which she describes as ‘mildly amusing’ and making sexual comments about colleague Andrea Leadsom, which he denies. Yesterday on the BBC’S Today programme, Nick Robinson reported that a friend of Fallon, had called the entire Westminster sexual assault and harassment scandal ‘snowflake nonsense’.
Ah, there is is again, serious conversations about serious things are being watered down and undermined by questioning the ‘snowflake’ fragility and sensitivity of younger generations and feminists instead of talking about the hubris of men who think they can assault or harass women.
Once again, the so-called snowflakes are right and because of the conversations they are forcing change will come. Problematic is #metoo might be, it has started an important process. But, because some are intent on muddying the water and preventing that change from occurring, let’s be clear about what this conversation is not about.
This is not a conversation about consensual sex or misjudged sexual advances. Among the very serious allegations on the Tory list such as the man who stands accused of impregnating his researcher and then ‘compelling her to have an abortion’, a minister who is ‘handsy in taxis’ and another who reportedly spiked an aides drink with a date rape drug, there are notes about sexual preferences and sexuality which have no place in this conversation. The redacted spreadsheet covers ‘odd sexual penchants’, ‘affairs’ and golden showers. Let’s be clear: the later are perfectly legitimate consensual sexual acts and inclinations.
In an interview with Laura Kuenssberg, Michael Fallon fell back on the snowflake defence without saying that in so many words. He said ‘things that were acceptable 15, 10 years go is clearly not acceptable now’ what he really means is ‘things that men in power got away with 15, 10 years ago they are clearly not going to get away with now’ and that is absolutely as it should be.
In some ways, Fallon, like those golden showers, is a red herring. Hartley-Brewer told Fallon to stop and said she would ‘punch him in the face’ if he did it again, he stopped and didn’t do it again. Whether or not he resigned over Hartley-Brewer’s knee we may never know and, perhaps, its besides the point. Not everyone who is touched when they don’t want to be touched feels that they can say no. Not everyone who is touching someone without their consent will stop when they are asked to stop.
In the wake of Weinstein that is what is being discussed. We are talking about unprofessional and, even, criminal behaviour, not sex. Rape is not sex and harassment is not foreplay. Rape, assault and harassment are very specific crimes of violence and power, not sex and they should only ever be discussed as such. That isn’t complicated, it’s very clear.
The reason people get confused about rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment is because the perpetrators of these crimes target their violence and aggression at sexual organs which make it seem as though it’s about sex, but it’s not it’s about power or, more specifically, asserting your power over another person through force. The implicit threat of such an abuse, which is what assault and harassment are, is a misogynist’s way of limiting women’s autonomy and power, holding them back and keeping them in their place.
To truly deal with rape, assault and harassment you need more than legislation. We have legislation, these are crimes and yet, still, they happen. The ripple effect of Weinstein has been an attempt by many to understand how the sexist and misogynist power puzzle fits together.
Historically powerful abusers do not have to face the consequences of their actions, that’s how it has always been. Everybody knows about them. Nobody talks about it. There’s an important point here, the wave of truth about Harvey Weinstein gathered momentum because his influence in his industry had began to fade. The kinetic energy of the women who spoke out about him empowered other women to speak out, tipping the power balance slightly. Westminster is a good example. Our government is weak, our parliament is also arguably weaker than it’s been in quite some time, hamstrung by ‘the will of the people’ over Brexit but it seems this has presented an opportunity for people to speak up about what goes on there because, right now, as an institution, it is most definitely not beyond reproach.
Things have changed, and continue to change. Fallon was right, the landscape is different to what it was 10 or 15 years ago. That doesn’t mean what happened then was right, it means women weren’t secure enough to do anything about how wrong it was. This conversation is happening now because there are more women in parliament than ever before, just as the number of women in other industries alongside the number of women with public platforms is growing. Power balances are, thankfully, shifting.
What’s going on in Westminster or happened with Weinstein seems unique at first glance, but it is universal. Think of Westminster as the most distilled down, potent example of the problem. Work out from there and it says a lot about the state of affairs in our country as a whole. Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, has said the ‘damn has broken’ and called for a ‘house cleaning’, we don’t just need that in Westminster.
If we need to have a conversation about where the boundaries are, again, then let’s have it. Bring it on. If there is still confusion about what is and isn’t consensual then let’s clear it up, again. No time like the present. If anyone, anywhere is in any doubt about the difference between a sleazebag and a predator then put them straight. And, if we need to say, for the millionth time, that it is not the job of women to protect themselves from harassers and abusers but the job of men not to harass and abuse, then let’s shout it because it’s time to move on once and for all.
The old guard will continue to use the term snowflake to undermine that conversation because it reminds them that they’re dinosaurs. But, once again, so-called snowflakes on the internet are doing everyone’s dirty work and sifting through the soup of sexism to work out how we move forwards.
This is what real change looks like. It’s messy, it’s awkward, it’s emotive, it’s uncomfortable and you don't always know where it will lead to. That’s how you know it’s necessary.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.