The viral spread of the #MeToo hashtag over the last few weeks and the accompanying avalanche of women’s testimony of sexual harassment and assault feels like a cultural milestone. Most of those who have spoken out have done so in the hope that it leads to a real shift in the entrenched imbalance of power between the sexes and the way male violence in all its forms is used to uphold that imbalance. Let’s not let this moment slip through our grasp. We must use it to demand lasting change.
It may have started in Hollywood but it quickly spread and it wasn’t long before women were speaking out about the sexual harassment and assault that is endemic in the British political establishment. No time was wasted however before politicians and the media started minimising and trivialising it, as Suzanne Moore identified and showed how the real issue – systemic inequality between the sexes and a culture that rigidly maintains it – is thus obscured. When the perpetrators are making decisions that affect women’s lives, this is of utmost seriousness. She says:
“6. Make sure that no one connects the predatory behaviour of some of these guys to their day jobs. In Westminster, their day jobs are pursuing policies that we know have hit women hardest. Men who don’t require consent to touch are not sensitive to our needs. I mean, who needs rape crisis centres, more midwives, decent childcare and benefits that enable wives to leave violent men? Yes, it’s us women.”
For anyone who is not clear how sexual harassment serves to keep the male-dominated power structures firmly in place, I recommend Kate Maltby’s account in The Times of her treatment by Damian Green, who is 30 years her senior, an old family “friend,” and now the deputy prime minister. During a private chat he asked if she was considering a political career and then:
“He steered the conversation to the habitual nature of sexual affairs in parliament. He told a funny story about finding himself in a lift with the Cameron aide Rachel Whetstone and her alleged lover, Samantha Cameron’s stepfather, Lord Astor. He mentioned that his own wife was very understanding. I felt a fleeting hand against my knee — so brief, it was almost deniable. I moved my legs away, and tried to end the drink on friendly terms. I then dropped all contact for a year. I wanted nothing to do with him.”
She railed against the system that allows young men to enjoy mentoring by older politicians but deprives it to young women on the same easy terms. Thus the male-dominated establishment reproduces itself in its own image.
Green, of course, denies he ever made any “sexual advances” towards her. According to Maltby’s own account all he physically did was to briefly touch her knee. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that he was making it clear that if she wanted him to help her political career, she needed to grant him sexual access. And I have no doubt he knew exactly what he was doing.
A man, usually white, always a beneficiary of the structural inequality that systematically deprives women of equal political and economic power, refuses to hire or promote a younger woman or help her career unless she allows him to sexually use her. Other common forms of harassment, like male MPs making a gesture indicating breasts when a woman stands up to speak in the House of Commons, serve to make the environment so hostile that women are silenced and often step back. And so the male-dominated status quo continues.
When I read Maltby’s account, I was struck by the parallel with the system of prostitution, whereby men use their unfair economic advantages and women’s unfair economic disadvantages to financially coerce women into allowing them to sexually use them. And then they justify it as her choice – just as no doubt Green would have justified any sexual activity if Maltby had succumbed to his blackmail – completely missing the point that if the system was not so skewed in men’s favour, she would not have needed his money or his patronage in the first place, and he would not have been in a position to buy sexual access and flattery with favours or crude cash.
To any of us still in doubt about how the institution of prostitution and its acceptance by men underpins the structural inequality between the sexes, it is time to open our eyes.
In the words of Julia O’Connell Davidson, in prostitution the punter is allowed to treat the woman as if she’s socially dead; as if she’s not a human being. Or in the words of a survivor, “like a public toilet.” When prostitution is sanctioned – even by insisting it’s regular work or attempting to legalise it – men’s sense of entitlement to sexual access to women is reinforced and legitimised. And women’s status as objects to be used, as lesser beings, not quite fully human, is enshrined in the collective psyche. The lower status of women and their sexual harassment and abuse, and systematic disadvantaging inevitably follow on from that.
The dodgy dossier of Tory MPs who have purportedly engaged in dubious sexual activities names two men – John Whittingdale and Mark Menzies – who are alleged to have “used prostitutes for odd sexual acts” and “used male prostitutes,” respectively.
One can’t help wondering how many more Tory MPs would have been listed as prostitution users if prostitution were recognised as the intrinsically violent practice that it is, and that using prostitutes is a potential conflict of interest for all MPs – given how it affects their empathy for women and how their job includes making policy that directly affects all women.
Last year, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) published an interim report on its inquiry into prostitution. When I read it, I was chilled by its lack of empathy for the women involved and its lack of concern for women’s human rights, including for equality with men. It wrote off women’s concerns about the serious and significant harms of prostitution as “moral values” and “emotive” reactions, while accepting men’s contributions at face value even when they were infused with male entitlement.
It immediately crossed my mind that the report had been written by a prostitution user. I was familiar with the studies that show that prostitution users tend to lack empathy for women, to see them as less than men, and are nearly eight times as likely as non-users to say they’d rape if they could get away with it. These results are also borne out by studies that start by looking at violent men. It did not surprise me therefore when a few weeks later, Keith Vaz, who was the chair of the inquiry and, I am reliably informed,* the main author of the report, was exposed as a prostitution user.
Just like how the allegations of sexual harassment at Westminster are being minimised now, the significance of Keith Vaz’s behaviour was minimised and Jeremy Corbyn even claimed it was a private matter. The fact that Vaz had clearly flouted the parliamentary rules on conflicts of interests did not stop him getting elected onto the Commons Justice Committee or retaining his powerful position on the Labour Party NEC.
At the time we called for the HASC interim report to be scrapped on the basis that it was fatally compromised by Vaz’s conflict of interests and its lack of objectivity. Unfortunately our arguments were ignored and the Home Secretary dignified it with an official response, completely ignoring its shocking bias.
So the report is still sitting there in the House of Commons and is being used to give legitimacy to arguments for the blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade (including pimps and brothel owners). We call again for it to be scrapped.
We do not believe that there will ever be an end to men’s sexual harassment and assaults on women or to the male domination of politics while prostitution-buying is considered acceptable. We therefore call for a new code of practice for MPs and parliamentary staff that not only bans sexual harassment and assault, but also prostitution buying – just as the United Nations does for all its staff:
“Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation & sexual abuse: Section 3
Prohibition of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse
3.1 Sexual exploitation and sexual abuse violate universally recognized international legal norms and standards and have always been unacceptable behaviour and prohibited conduct for United Nations staff. Such conduct is prohibited by the United Nations Staff Regulations and Rules.
3.2 In order to further protect the most vulnerable populations, especially women and children, the following specific standards which reiterate existing general obligations under the United Nations Staff Regulations and Rules, are promulgated:
(a) Sexual exploitation and sexual abuse constitute acts of serious misconduct and are therefore grounds for disciplinary measures, including summary dismissal;
(b) Sexual activity with children (persons under the age of 18) is prohibited regardless of the age of majority or age of consent locally. Mistaken belief in the age of a child is not a defence;
(c) Exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour, is prohibited. This includes any exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries of assistance;
(d) Sexual relationships between United Nations staff and beneficiaries of assistance, since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics, undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations and are strongly discouraged;
(e) Where a United Nations staff member develops concerns or suspicions regarding sexual exploitation or sexual abuse by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not and whether or not within the United Nations system, he or she must report such concerns via established reporting mechanisms;
(f) United Nations staff are obliged to create and maintain an environment that prevents sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Managers at all levels have a particular responsibility to support and develop systems that maintain this environment.
3.3 The standards set out above are not intended to be an exhaustive list. Other types of sexually exploitive or sexually abusive behaviour may be grounds for administrative action or disciplinary measures, including summary dismissal, pursuant to the United Nations Staff Regulations and Rules.”
* Private conversation with an MP