The latest allegations to come out of Westminster about harassment and inappropriate touching are disappointing, but sadly, not surprising. The journalist and activist Kate Maltby has written a Times column alleging that First Secretary Of State Damien Green - a friend of Maltby’s family, and a man who is 30 years her senior, who has known her since she was a child - touched her knee, made a reference to his wife being “understanding” and later sent Maltby a message after seeing a photo of her accompanying a feature she had written about corsets. Green (who is reported to have hired lawyers this morning) has denied the allegations, calling them “untrue” and “deeply hurtful”.
What is both disappointing and surprising, in 2017, is the number of social media users who have dismissed Maltby and accused her of “jumping into the limelight” and “leaping on the bandwagon”. Really? You think that Maltby would want to become the subject of this level of scrutiny because harassment is hot right now? The fact that there’s a ‘bandwagon’ is proof that harassment and assault are endemic, and women are having to deal with it everywhere, whether they’re in Whitehall or just walking to work.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that there is no “right” way to deal with it. If you bravely speak out like Maltby, you’ll be shouted down and told that your experiences aren’t serious enough. If you name your accused harasser, as Kate Leaver did, you’re a liar or an attention-grabber. And if you stay sad and quiet, Anne Robinson will accuse you of “fragility” and claim you can’t cope with the demands of the workplace. If we’re not the ones who can’t keep our hands or flirty messages to ourselves, I don’t think we’re the ones who are failing to cope with the demands of work. We’re told to shout, to shut up, to feel bad for not involving the police, to laugh it off - effectively, we’re told to avoid placing blame or responsibility on anyone but ourselves.
The thing about sexual harassment is that it’s very rarely extreme, sudden, shocking - or clear cut. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a hand on a knee that doesn’t feel quite right, but while your body thinks “get off!, your head has heard the messages that tell you not to make a fuss, and to stop overreacting. It’s your boss standing too close to you in the lift, and feeling his breath on your neck and knowing it’s inappropriate, but knowing that it wouldn’t be wise to speak out because he’s the one who decides how much you get paid, and whether you stay employed. (Lesley Agams, a former Oxfam employee, has alleged that she was fired by the person who sexually assaulted her after making a formal complaint. )
If as much energy was spent on establishing a zero tolerance policy of sexual harassment as is invested in policing women’s reactions to harassment, we probably wouldn’t have a problem
It’s a lifetime of being told to be polite, that it’s your job to make everyone else feel comfortable, regardless of your own discomfort; that no-one likes an attention seeker and that the very worst thing you can possibly do is make a fuss. Even now, when it feels as though we’re reaching a tipping point and finally starting to understand that this problem is a global issue and a widespread cultural problem, affecting the safety and wellbeing of millions of women, we’re being shouted down. The way we feel is less important than the way strangers judge our responses and behaviour. Once again, we are told that we’re unreliable narrators of our own lives. If as much energy was spent on establishing a zero tolerance policy of sexual harassment as is invested in policing women’s reactions to harassment, we probably wouldn’t have a problem.
We need to tell women that it’s OK to make a fuss. It’s OK for us to draw attention to ourselves, and it’s OK to react if our instinct tells us that something is off. We don’t have to brush it away. It isn’t “just” a flirty message, or “just” a hand on a knee. Of course, it isn’t fair that we’re the ones who have to establish and defend our own boundaries. We shouldn’t need to constantly call people out for bad behaviour; other grown adults should know how to behave respectfully and politely. Yet, men and women can make a difference with amplification. If you’ve been harassed, if someone in a position of power has exerted that power over you and made you feel obligated and uncomfortable, I’m going to be right behind you, shouting and making the noisiest fuss I can muster.
People who sexually harass and abuse women want us to feel silenced and insignificant, and use their power to make us even more powerless. But if we come together and shout for each other, no-one can shut us up. We must remember that there’s no “right” way to respond to harassment, but there is a “right” way to treat women, and it begins by listening respectfully. Don’t tell us that our stories don’t matter. Instead, give us a good reason to start telling brand new ones.