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The Grim Circus of Power

Bleak truths encircle the UK’s sexual assault and harassment crisis

The first version of this article began sarcastically. I attempted to write about the sexual assault and harassment crisis currently engulfing UK politics—with reference to similar crises spreading through the media and entertainment industries—with a wry raised eyebrow and a savvy tone. Ironic detachment feels like a safer bet when you’re writing on certain topics. The alternative is sincerity, which means emotional vulnerability. And when something is published online, the writer has no control over its reception. In my experience, it’s very difficult to write honestly about this sort of thing without it being weaponized against you.

Even women who’re lucky enough to escape victimization live with the constant, lingering threat.

The problem is my finished, snarky piece didn’t accurately reflect anything I’ve been thinking or feeling. The sardonic, world-weary character I ended up constructing was kind of a callous dick, and if I encountered her as a reader, I might have wondered if it was a man writing under a pseudonym. Not that men are immune from experiencing sexual violence. Navigating the world without ever encountering it is, though, at least plausible as a man. Even women who’re lucky enough to escape victimization live with the constant, lingering threat. Teenage girls are taught to take precautions to protect their bodies the same way they’re advised to keep a close eye on their handbag in crowded public spaces.

It’s a mundane fact of life that navigating the world while visibly female comes with additional risks. You hear whispers about men you should avoid ever being alone with. You know not to walk home in the dark on your own, and especially not down certain streets. You know getting too drunk or high is dangerous. Possibly, you believe you’ll stay safe if you take the necessary precautions. But if you’re anything like me, you sometimes take risks anyway. And when something happens, if something happens, you know deep inside that you tempted fate. If you’re particularly unfortunate, you take precautions and something still happens. There’s no way to have a normal life that is completely risk free. It might be your boss, or a close friend of your family. Avoiding being alone with them is not necessarily an option. It could be someone you loved and trusted and didn’t believe you had any reason to fear.

What’s strange about the current crisis in UK politics is how unremarkable many of the accusations are. I don’t say that to undermine the victims or suggest their stories are unimportant. The fact the behavior described is so pervasive as to be unremarkable is surely why speaking out is so vital. But what we’re talking about is hands on knees, inappropriate lunges, and drunken bum squeezes. It’s men with power propositioning women in subordinate positions, knowing that the dynamic of their working relationship makes it harder to decline. In a smaller number of cases, it’s men with power doing these things to other, less powerful men. It’s lewd observations about body parts and gross jokes, and all those other little comments that seem designed to remind you that, whatever your various skills and accomplishments, what really matters is your fuckability or lack thereof. In other words, it’s the sort of stuff that most women and many men have experienced at some point or another. A month ago, similar accounts would have generated comparatively little attention. Post-Weinstein, something has changed, but I’m not yet convinced it’s the beginning of a lasting cultural shift.

The bleak truth is that even the more serious allegations are nothing unusual. Every woman I’ve spoken to has either experienced something similar or knows a close friend who has. Take Labour activist Bex Bailey, who was seriously sexually assaulted by a senior party figure when she was nineteen years old. Her story is upsetting not because it’s shocking, but because it’s so familiar. So many of us are able to feel her pain because we’ve already felt it first hand. The attack happened at a Labour social event, and initially Bex didn’t tell anyone, for fear of being gossiped about and disbelieved. Two years later she plucked up the courage to report it to a senior Labour staffer and was advised to avoid taking the allegation any further, on the grounds it could damage her career. It’s hard to judge how this was intended. Certainly, it’s not what anyone is supposed to say in that situation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue. Harvey Weinstein went as far as hiring ex-Mossad agents to spy on and discredit women accusing him of sexual violence. UK political figures might lack the financial means of a Hollywood producer, but they also have reputations to maintain. Parties are also keen to avoid negative press. Bex’s confidant could have been threatening her, but they may well have believed they were offering sensible advice. Perhaps it was both at the same time.

There’s something specifically dangerous about the political world, where members are expected to sacrifice their personal well-being and serve the greater good of the party. Shortly after Bex Bailey spoke out, ex-Liberal Democrat Kav Kaushik posted a Twitter thread claiming that young activists are treated similarly by all of the major political parties. It’s tempting to dismiss this enforced loyalty as cult-like, but it’s easy to see how it is rationalized. If you believe that your party’s success is essential to the success of the nation, the stakes are frighteningly high. You are just one person—politics affects the lives of millions. Abusers who’re already in a position of structural power, because of their seniority within the party, are able to use this power to their advantage. If their intended victim isn’t loyal to the party, they wield power in other ways. Journalists report being too scared to report harassment and groping for fear of losing the access required to do their jobs. Several women who’ve spoken out in recent weeks have been virulently attacked on social media and, in some cases, in the pages of national newspapers. What’s more, former Conservative whips admit having helped MPs cover up allegations of child sex abuse and other serious crimes, in order to buy their loyalty to the government. Their exact methods are unclear. Campaigners are currently calling for an inquest into the 1990 death of Carole Kasir—who ran a notorious pedophilia brothel in South West London and is alleged to have kept a dossier of VIP guests’ names and photos—as newly released files cast fresh doubts on the verdict of suicide.

Sexual violence and exploitation is always an exercise of power, but most perpetrators are not powerful in the way MPs (or even men like Harvey Weinstein) are. As such, their actions are not thought to be inherently interesting. Of the tens of thousands of sexual offenses reported to UK police each year—a fraction of the total number of incidents—only the most lurid and extreme are considered newsworthy. Several outlets covered the story of a barmaid who worked in the House of Lords and alleges she was sexually harassed by up to thirty MPs, who “fancied their chances because [she] was just a young barmaid and in their minds they were very important people who presumed [she] would be available.” (Predictably, the Daily Mail included pictures harvested from Instagram in which she was dressed in lingerie or posing provocatively.) However, countless other customer service workers have similar stories. Up to 80 percent of waitresses report having being sexually harassed while doing their jobs. The root of the power imbalance is the employment relationship. People doing this sort of work are disproportionately likely to be employed on insecure terms. Employers often like to remind them they’re replaceable. Kick up a fuss about harassment by a customer, and there’s no guarantee your boss will take your side.

Often, managers themselves are the perpetrators. I read an article a few months ago that has stuck with me, about a zero-hours care worker who was pressured into sex on the promise of a secure contract. It made me wonder how many similar incidents have never been reported. The dynamic is similar to Hollywood “casting couch” culture. A secure, minimum wage job might seem a fairly meager prize for acquiescence, but the threat of poverty is a powerful coercive tool.

The famous actresses who spoke against Harvey Weinstein were uniquely placed to spark a public conversation. And it’s unsurprising that subsequent media coverage has mainly focused on entertainment, journalism, and politics— industries in which it’s easier to be heard. Speaking out against prominent, powerful abusers does take a particular bravery. Anyone doing so knows they’re likely to be publicly attacked, ridiculed, and discredited as a result. But we also have a duty to speak up for the victims who have a far harder time getting anyone to pay attention. The kinds of people newspapers only tend to write about in aggregate. Forty percent of female fast food workers have been sexually harassed at work. Ten percent have been groped. Two percent have been sexually assaulted or raped. An open letter on behalf of approximately 700,000 female U.S. agricultural workers expresses solidarity with Hollywood actresses. It explains:

Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything—even sexual harassment—seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.

As of yet, this gesture of solidarity has not been returned.

Watching UK politicians talk about fighting sexual harassment and violence in politics, I’ve found myself rolling my eyes.

Watching certain UK politicians talk passionately about fighting sexual harassment and violence in politics, I’ve sometimes found myself rolling my eyes. It’s not that I don’t believe they mean it. I trust Anna Soubry, Theresa Villiers, and Amber Rudd are horrified by recent revelations and genuinely want to clean up politics (though I do find the latter’s naivety confusing given she spent a year in the whips’ office). It’s just . . . what about everyone who doesn’t work in politics? As a Conservative MP, what kind of cognitive dissonance is required to care deeply about this issue in your own sphere while voting for policies that increase the risks for other women?

Tribunal fees—which the Supreme Court ruled unlawful back in July—have made it significantly harder for workers to bring sexual harassment cases. This wasn’t merely a foreseeable consequence of the policy, reducing the number of cases brought to tribunal was the deliberate goal. It’s similarly unsurprising that legal aid cuts are a barrier to justice for sexual abuse victims. Welfare changes have made unemployment an even more terrifying prospect, leaving workers are at the mercy of their employers. Housing benefit has been entirely eradicated for eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds—anyone could have predicted that “sex for rent” arrangements would become more common as a result.

It’s clear there needs to be a cultural shift within Westminster circles. But until the conversation broadens to cover the impact of policy this whole thing feels hopeless. At best, a campaign by the privileged for the privileged—which barely even acknowledges the existence of working class women. At worst, a grim circus of power games and point-scoring that won’t change anything at all.