Sexual harassment allegations sweeping UK politics hint at a much wider culture of abuse in democratic institutions.
I t began with a tweet. Actress Alyssa Milano implored that “if you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Here was a simple mission to show the world “the magnitude of the problem”.
Three weeks later, #MeToo has inspired millions of responses. Allegations have reached studio executives, leading journalists, and award-winning actors. Powerful individuals have been put in check, and nowhere more so than those elected to represent and improve society: politicians.
The presence of sexual abuse allegations in politics is not a new phenomenon. Serving in public office places vast public scrutiny over an individual’s behaviour. #MeToo, and its escalating acts of openness, turned this drip of public allegations of - largely male - politicians abusing the power of their office to target - largely female - victims into a torrent.
American national and state level legislatures were quick to add their voices to the movement. California Congresswoman Jackie Speier started #MeTooCongress. One open letter, signed by 170 men and women who work in the Illinois State Capitol declared that “every industry has its own version of the casting couch. Illinois politics is no exception.”
UK politics has seen sweeping exposés. The focus has been on the leaked Conservative Party “dirty dossier” containing various sexual harassment allegations against around two dozen Conservative MPs. One week later, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was gone, declaring that he “may have fallen below the standards we require."
It also inspired numerous local language alternatives like the Spanish #YoTambien and the Italian #quellavoltache. In France it was #BalanceTonPorc (rat out your pig), followed by stunning revelations of an informal “blacklist” amongst aides of MPs “with whom you couldn’t take risks”.
Harassed because of their gender
A 2016 study from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) conducted interviews with 55 female MPs from 39 countries. The women testified to a wide array of abuses: 7.3% had faced sexual assault, 65.5% of respondents had experienced humiliating sexist comments, and 81.8% had suffered psychological violence.
The UN defines sexual harassment as “actions, language or visual materials which specifically refer to, portray or involve sexual activity or language.” Sexual assault is differentiated, according to the US Department of Justice, by direct “sexual contact or behaviour that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.”
Political office does not protect women from sexual assault. A survey carried out by the Swedish newspaper Expressen found that 23 Swedish MPs (out of 101 respondents) had been harassed or assaulted during their work in politics. Annie Lööf, leader of the Centre Party, claimed that she had suffered “unwelcome hands on my body within a political context”.
Female MPs face aggressive objectification. The IPU survey found that female MPs from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East shared the experience of “photomontages showing them nude, photos of them accompanied by disparaging comments, obscene drawings of their person or information published on social media suggesting that they had marital problems.”
This is combined with a diminution of women’s political contributions. An Asian parliamentarian told the IPU that “during my first term in Parliament, parliamentary authorities always referred to statements by men and gave priority to men when giving the floor to speakers”. UK Labour councillor Rachael Saunders said that women are left stranded, “ignored if you are too quiet, demonised if you are too loud,” with their contributions feeling “trivialised”.
On frequent occasions, abuse can veer into extreme sexual harassment - particularly online. UK Labour MP Jess Phillips said she faced 600 rape threats in a single day in 2015. Lenore Zann, member of the Nova Scotia legislature in Canada, told local media one online message she received said, “I’d take you out behind the shed and rape you and shoot you.”
Mona Lena Krook, professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, wrote that this harassment communicates “the general message that women as a group should not take part in politics.”
Silenced by the powerful
At the heart of these abuses is power. “Academic research is quite emphatic that sexual harassment is not an expression of sexual attraction or desire,” Professor Krook told The World Weekly, “rather, it is about power and domination: harassers seek to gain status by attempting to demean their targets.”
Whilst not unique to politics, politics has hierarchical structures that facilitate harassment. “Politics is fundamentally driven by the question of who has the power to set policy; who has the power to advantage one group over another,” says Gloria Feldt, president of female leadership non-profit Take the Lead. “It’s traditionally a winner-loser game, no matter how much they talk about compromise.”
This desire for access to lawmakers can be all-consuming. Women involved in Californian politics informed The Los Angeles Times they had regularly faced sexually degrading comments, propositioning by married lawmakers, and non-consensual physical acts like a lawmaker running “his foot up and down her leg under a table.” The fear of being tarnished by speaking out often leverages their silence. One woman’s first thought after being sexually harassed was: “How do I get out of this graciously without embarrassing him because I need this relationship down the road?”
Equally, Professor Krook says politics’ employment structures make it “a job not like many others. In many countries, parliamentarians are considered self-employed and they hire their own staff.” This is evident in the US, EU and UK, where lawmakers’ offices are quasi-independent structures set up by the representatives themselves with limited central oversight.
“They feel they can do whatever they want,” one assistant to a member of the European Parliament told The Times. “MEPs feel powerful because they can fire assistants whenever they like,” and are backed up by MEPs’ parliamentary immunity. Again, the power of abusive representatives over the careers of those they abuse incentivises silence.
Even when complaints are made, internal complaints mechanisms give at least some control to party officials. Professor Krook argues that they have “strong reasons to suppress information that may reflect badly on their organisations.” Enter prominent UK Labour Party activist Bex Bailey. Ms. Bailey alleges that she was raped by a senior party member in 2011. “I told a senior member of staff… it was suggested to me that I not report it. I was told that if I did, it might damage me.” The implication was that party interest, in this case, had superseded reporting criminal behaviour.
A turning point?
Ms. Feldt likens #MeToo to a moment of “#SisterCourage,... finding one’s voice and using it with others who are like-minded. That gives women the courage to speak about what was previously unspoken.” This should be the spark “to change the culture” for the better, as each “woman learns to embrace the power she feels when she says #MeToo.”
#MeToo has prompted rapid tabling of legislation in multiple countries. Debates have denounced sexist culture in legislatures. In the US Congress, Representatives Brenda Lawrence and Jackie Speier are introducing bills to make sexual harassment training mandatory for all Capitol Hill employees. Facing the onslaught of the “dirty dossier,” the UK Parliament has gone further, combining proposals for mandatory codes of conduct with independent arbitration on charges of sexual harassment in order to end the victimisation of junior staff members.
There are even plans to push this change into wider society. France’s Secretary of State in charge of Equality between Women and Men, Marlène Schiappa, has recently begun nationwide consultations for a law that would include fines for sexual harassment on the streets of France. Only with this enforcement, she argued, could societal culture begin to change.
Yet lingering obstacles remain. Secretary Schiappa’s proposed legislative changes were met with catcalls from isolated individuals in the chamber. Male MPs were conspicuous in their absence from the UK House of Parliament debate on sexual harassment. Labour MP Jess Phillips said she heard two men outside the chamber liken the exposés to a “witch-hunt.” Without the support of their male colleagues, lasting change could be passed over.
In Secretary Schiappa’s words, the problem is “not women who don’t speak, but society which does not listen.”