Sexual harassment: how seriously do we take it?

Sexual harassment: how seriously do we take it?

John Humphrys asks: are we taking the issue of sexual harassment seriously enough or are we getting it out of proportion?

The news this week has been dominated by one issue: not Britain’s loss of its triple-A rating, nor the political stalemate in Italy that threatens to plunge the eurozone into crisis once again. What has most gripped the media’s attention have been allegations of sexual harassment or – as it is often euphemistically called - ‘inappropriate behaviour’. Are we failing to take the issue seriously enough? Or are we getting it out of proportion?

What’s put it on the agenda again in the past few weeks have been allegations that Lord Rennard, the former chief executive of the Liberal Democrat Party, had abused his position by making inappropriate advances to several women party members, including prospective parliamentary candidates. He denied the allegations and continues to do so. But a succession of women has come forward with various complaints about his behaviour.

On the BBC’s World at One programme on Tuesday one of them, anonymously called ‘Susan’, said she knew of nine women who had had similar experiences to hers. She claimed that at a training session for parliamentary candidates Lord Rennard had rubbed his leg against hers, had pursued her as she moved seats to be further away from him, had escorted her upstairs to her bedroom door despite her having made clear she did not want him to do so, and had suggested that she go to his room for a drink. When she declined, they parted.

Nick Clegg, the party leader, denied that he had ever known of any specific allegations against Lord Rennard, only of background gossip. But he acknowledged that such concerns were an aspect of Lord Rennard’s resignation from his position in 2009. The party has set up two enquiries, one to find out what actually happened in the alleged cases and the other to examine how the party handled the allegations when they were first made to party officials. The Lib Dems have also asked the police to investigate whether there are any allegations that constitute criminal wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Catholic prelate, resigned on Monday as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh following accusations by three serving priests and a former priest that he had committed ‘inappropriate acts’ dating back to the 1980s. The Cardinal too denied the allegations but nonetheless resigned and withdrew from the forthcoming conclave of cardinals in Rome to choose the next pope. He said he did not want these allegations to dominate the news when it was the election of a new pope that should be everyone’s concern.

What unites these two cases is the allegation that someone in power abused their position for sexual ends. It is also what has made many people (not just women) express outrage on the matter. The point they make is that in any other situation anyone who is the target of an unwanted sexual approach can simply say ‘No’ - with as much force as seems necessary. But when that approach is made by someone who has the power to determine their career prospects, then it is not so easy. At the very least that means the victim has to think twice before saying ‘No’. At the worst it means succumbing to a sexual advance that is wholly unwelcome. Having to face such a dilemma is what makes the advance itself so unspeakable. They make the point that such advances are far from uncommon in the workplace. In large organisations there may be means of redress but in small organisations, where power may lie exclusively in the hands of the groping boss, no such recourse is available.

The problem for an outraged society is that there is no obvious remedy except by kicking up an almighty fuss when instances of such behaviour arise that the behaviour becomes socially unacceptable and few will risk trying it on in future even though the chances of exposure are small. From this point of view, the greater the public outcry about any alleged case of sexual harassment, the better, because only that way will attitudes and behaviour change.

But others (and again not only men) think there is a real danger here of getting things quite out of proportion. In the case of ‘Susan’, for example, they point out that even if her allegations against Lord Rennard were true, she acknowledges that he did indeed ultimately take ‘No’ for an answer. And she did not claim that her career had in fact been jeopardised by her doing so.

It’s all too easy, they say, for outrage to be misplaced. As they see it, there will always be men (and women) who will occasionally try it on and if their targets don’t like it, they can always say ‘No’. Of course if the predator is in a position of power things are more difficult. But even then, they argue, it is not impossible to say ‘No’, as ‘Susan’ showed. And is there any substantial evidence, they ask, that many are having to submit to unwelcome seduction, or are having their careers or lives ruined by a refusal to do so?

Another objection to the level of outrage expressed at the Rennard allegations is that it gets the scale of alleged misdemeanour out of proportion. Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian on Tuesday: “But (so far) the Rennard allegations look less than criminal: a grubby pawing of women candidates on a training session is revolting and all too horribly common. Yet this squalid little ‘not safe in taxis’ tale is being bracketed with the serial rape of children in homes and hospitals by Jimmy Savile. It comes packaged with charges that gay-bashing Cardinal O’Brien touched young priests whose future depended entirely upon him. Or it’s blended into Cyril Smith’s grotesque abuse of boys in care. Melding all abuse into one syndrome trivialises the truly horrific in order to nail the merely repellent but everyday groping of adults.”

So is our response to such allegations of sexual harassment out of proportion, an almost hysterical refusal to distinguish between the merely repellent and the truly horrific? Or is it only by expressing outrage in the strongest terms that we can hope to do something to put an end to a wrong whose scale is, by its nature, unknowable but which has the potential to do real harm to innocent people?

What’s your view?

  • What do you make of the public response to the allegations of sexual harassment made against Lord Rennard and Cardinal O’Brien?
  • Do you think in general that sexual harassment is a problem that we underestimate, overestimate or have in the right proportion?
  • In general, do you think that the fact that people can say ‘No’ is a sufficient defence against sexual harassment? And how prevalent is it?
  • In your experience is it more common now than, say, a generation ago?
  • In the case of ‘Susan’ do you think the evidence she provided constitutes a serious case of harassment or not?
  • Do you agree or disagree with Polly Toynbee that we risk conflating the merely repellent with the truly horrific in our response to cases of alleged sexual harassment?
  • And what do you make of the argument that outrage at such cases cannot be too great if we are serious about wanting to change the attitudes and behaviour of those who may be tempted to engage in sexual harassment?

Let us know what you think.


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Authors

John Humphrys

John Humphrys is presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4 and Mastermind on BBC1. He has won many national journalism awards and written seven books.