The notion of the sexual harassment “grey area” is dishonest – and dangerous 

Men accused of misconduct can tell the difference between consensual flirting and an abuse of power. Don’t let them pretend they can’t, says Gaby Hinsliff  

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

A young woman activist says she was raped by a senior Labour party figure, and warned that it would be best for her to keep it quiet.

Theresa May’s de facto deputy Damian Green is under investigation over claims, which he categorically denies, that he made advances towards an aspiring political writer. Ugly stories are seeping from all political parties now and countless more hidden victims will doubtless be watching anxiously to see what happens to women who speak up.

And what does the senior presenter on BBC Radio Four’s flagship political radio programme ask former Conservative leader William Hague? Whether the sexual harassment scandal engulfing parliament makes it harder for men in politics to ask women out on a date

Poor old men, who are in a very real sense the victims here; poor terrified men, who now live in fear of jail for putting kisses on emails, or something. What about their rights to feel safe at work, eh, when looking down the intern’s top and suggesting that dinner a deux would be an excellent place to carry on this conversation about getting a permanent job? How will humans still reproduce, if defence secretaries cannot even put their hands on women’s knees at dinner any more?

For as many of you will have noticed, the real problem in Britain today is the courts filling up with men who once said they liked Sandra in sales’s new haircut and whose lives are now in ruins.

Oh, enough of that nonsense. Enough of pretending that men and women are actually this stupid; enough, too, of always putting the onus on women to make life easy and smooth for everyone else, rather than on men to interrogate their own behaviour. It’s really not that difficult to tell the difference between being asked out, perfectly nicely and inoffensively, by someone you simply aren’t interested in and being backed into a corner by the resident office heavy breather. Millions of people (I’m one of them) met their life partners at work. God knows how many people have also had a creepy experience at work, but I’m also one of them, and trust me – the two aren’t easily confused.

Millions of people (I’m one of them) met their life partners at work. God knows how many people have also had a creepy experience at work, but I’m also one of them, and trust me – the two aren’t easily confused

Yet the idea that there is some vast mysterious grey area here, a place in which the best of men can innocently get lost, persists and is all too easily deployed to stop women reporting harassment. Victims are often afraid of their experiences being miscast to make them look hysterical, deluded or silly for complaining. And one of the most depressing aspects of the last few weeks is the way in which some of those fears have been vindicated, as women brave enough to come forward are accused on social media of chasing publicity, jumping on bandwagons or dragging their parties through the dirt for nothing. It’s always so much easier to shoot the messenger than read the message, which is that if men focused a bit harder on eradicating the real problem then maybe we’d have more time to worry about their dating conundrums.

But for any man who really needs it, here’s a useful basic rule of thumb. When approaching a woman sexually who you know in some sort of professional capacity, ask yourself one question; am I this person’s boss, professional mentor or person to whom they feel in any way beholden? If so, proceed with the utmost caution, and let her take the lead. (And if you're a teacher, GP, or in any other kind of professional relationship covered by the law on abuse of trust, forget it).

For politicians, it might be wise to add the following questions: if a constituent saw me doing this – say, standing outside a Soho sex shop waiting for my Commons secretary to buy my constituency assistant a vibrator – would they think that was absolutely fine, and very much the sort of thing they sent me to parliament to achieve? If my wife walked in on this conversation right now, or read these texts, would she be proud that I’m so generously nurturing a rising star here or hopping mad? Seen through other people’s eyes, it’s amazing how clear these supposedly puzzling situations can suddenly become. You’re welcome.


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Gaby Hinsliff
Sexual abuse

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