Last month, the allegations of sexual harassment surrounding Lord Rennard dominated the headlines. The concept and impact of sexual harassment has been hotly debated in the public sphere including on Wednesday's Newsnight programme. We invited Natalie Collins, founder of Spark, to share her reflections.
In February 2013 it emerged that 'half a dozen' women had contacted the Metropolitan Police about Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Rennard’s behaviour towards them. Politics lecturer, Alison Smith, is reported to have said, 'that prospective women candidates felt they faced the choice of sleeping with Lord Rennard in exchange for support or seeing their political careers harmed'. Bridget Harris, former special advisor to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, reportedly described Lord Rennard’s behaviour as 'furtive and menacing'. An incident described in the Daily Mail suggested a woman fled Lord Rennard’s room crying hysterically, after being 'groped' by him. It is alleged she ran from Lord Rennard’s room into a room filled with Liberal Democrat officials and MPs, who saw her visibly distressed and did nothing. In September 2013, the Metropolitan Police announced that the case against Lord Rennard would be dismissed due to lack of evidence. By this time 'at least ten women' had made allegations towards Lord Rennard.
After the Police announced the case would be dropped one source stated that the women who had brought allegations against Lord Rennard were 'angry and frustrated with the police, especially after they found the strength to come forward.' The person went on to say, 'It is not as if he has been cleared, it is that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with the investigation. The women’s main concern now is that the Liberal Democrat’s own investigation will prove to be a whitewash. This is the third time they have looked at the issue so they do not feel that encouraged.'
After the police investigation was concluded, the Liberal Democrats began an internal investigation; and earlier this month the result of their own investigation was published online. Alaistair Webster QC conducted the investigation and he found that: 'In my opinion, the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible. However, it is my judgment, considering all of the evidence collected, that it is unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way. Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable. I stress that I am not finding that the evidence of the complainants was unreliable. I have specifically discounted suggestions made during the investigation that the incidents had been invented as part of a political campaign against Lord Rennard. It is my view that Lord Rennard ought to reflect upon the effect that his behaviour has had and the distress which it caused and that an apology would be appropriate, as would a commitment to change his behaviour in future.'
These findings have resulted in Nick Clegg stating that Lord Rennard must publically apologise to the women who have been impacted. Lord Rennard responded to this by providing a full statement in which he refuses to apologise, mentions his ill health and depression and insists that the allegations were part of a wider political agenda. Alastair Webster gave an updated statement in response to this. Currently, Lord Rennard has been suspended from the Liberal Democrat party again while another investigation takes place. He has warned that he may take legal action against the Liberal Democrats.
Responses to the allegations have varied from focusing on the lack of leadership displayed by Nick Clegg to Liberal Democrat’s MEP Chris Davies stating that 'This isn’t Jimmy Saville. This is touching someone’s leg six years ago at a meeting through clothing. This is the equivalent of a few years ago an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom' and Lord Rennard’s brother complaining '[Lord Rennard’s] treatment amounts to a ‘witch hunt'.
The allegations, investigations and discussions around what this means for the Liberal Democrats may continue for weeks or months to come, and as was stated in the internal investigation, the on going distress to the women who have reported their experiences is unlikely to subside anytime soon.
The use of the term 'witch hunt' against Lord Rennard is interesting, as is the idea that Italian men pinching women’s bottoms was normal. Alongside that, creating a scale of offence that holds Jimmy Saville up as the standard of what it means to be bad reveals attitudes to sexual harassment, which are perhaps quite prevalent across society. It is these responses I would like to focus on, not in relation to the on going case of Lord Rennard, but more generally around the beliefs and misconceptions held by many about sexual harassment and the wider context.
Recently various articles including one within the Feminist Times have debunked the myths around ‘witch hunts’. Describing someone’s experience as a 'witch hunt' prefaces them as the victim of a large scale campaign to discredit them with allegations that are utterly nonsensical. It puts those who have made accusations in the role of perpetrator and seeks to define the power dynamic; with the accused being the most vulnerable, and least powerful person in the situation. This could not be further from the truth in cases where sexual harassment has taken place. While such behaviour is often assumed to be about sex, it is actually about power; power over the victim, rooted in a belief of entitlement; the personal right to treat another person disrespectfully. This is often rooted in beliefs about the nature of men and women. Where there is an existing power differential e.g. between an employer/employee or lecturer/student, unwanted and uninvited sexual behaviours increase the power differential between the victim and perpetrator exponentially, and the impact of such behaviour is likely to be greater.
The idea that an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom is an acceptable action reveals an enormously problematic view of the nature of men, women, and people from Italy. The NSPCC’s recent Underwear Rule campaign includes the following instruction to children: 'Anything covered by underwear is private. No one should ask to see or touch parts of the body covered by underwear.' Although this is information for children, it is accepted that the same areas of the body remain private into adulthood, and unless I’m very much mistaken, nobody has given Italian men a free pass on respecting the human rights of girls and women across the globe.
Such a view of men and women is founded in and reinforced by the wider context of the objectification and sexualisation of women. As Caroline Heldman explains in this TED Talk, 96% of the sexualised images across the media are of women and women are conditioned to be sexual objects, while men are condition to be sexual subjects. Women are encouraged to see sex as something that is done to them, while men are told they are the actors, initiators and controllers of sexual interactions.
By suggesting that someone 'is not Jimmy Saville', a standard has been set. According to this logic, the predatory and systematic abuse of children and young people over decades is now the measure for which all other choices and behaviours can be measured. Using the measure of 'someone else did worse things' is a tactic, which minimises the offence that it is being compared to. According to Finklehor’s 'Preconditions to offending' all sex offenders must overcome internal inhibitions in order to abuse. One of the ways this happens is through justifying that 'my crimes are not as bad as his crimes therefore what I am doing is not that bad'. The focus on personal responsibility and a full acknowledgement of the impact of someone’s behaviour is necessary in cases where someone has behaved wrongly. If my daughter is unkind to her friend and my response is 'Oh don’t worry dear, that other girl in your class keeps hitting everyone, and so your behaviour is fine,' I enable her to think that her behaviour is a) acceptable and b) something she can continue to do. Unacceptable behaviour can be likened to missing a train; it does not matter whether someone misses the train by 30 seconds, or 3 hours, they still missed it, and have to deal with the consequences.
As Christians, how do we respond to issues of sexual harassment? There are some who would believe there are no problems within the church that it is 'out there' in the world where the problems lie. However the statistics suggest domestic abuse, sexual abuse, incest and pornography differs little within Christian communities, compared with wider society. In fact, some theology contributes to the viewing of women as inferior, and men as entitled. Teachings around modesty can leave women feeling responsible for men’s behaviour and the perpetuation of neuro-sexism across Christian literature can lead Christians to fully believe that men cannot help their sexual urges and that women do not have any.
Sexual harassment, everyday sexism and structural inequality are the reality for most women across the UK. Globally violence against women is at pandemic proportions, and although women also have access to various levels of power and privilege through their race, sexuality, class or other factors, it is the gendered nature of this struggle that the church and individual Christians must be willing to acknowledge and work towards addressing.
Gender injustice is as old as sin itself; it is a primary consequence of the Fall (Genesis 3:16) and the power and principality that is patriarchy continues to prevent women and men becoming free. For many the enormity of the problem and the depth of its roots mean it either goes unnoticed or when it is seen it feels impossible to address and yet, we have the Good News. We are free of sin, free to live in a new way, no longer subject to the yokes of slavery (cue some Mission Praise singing…). Jesus modelled a right use of power, empowering people with love and the gift of Holy Spirit. He called women who had been cast out 'Daughter'; he removed the power of the father, of patriarchy, declaring only God as powerful, and the rest of us as brothers and sisters. He showed us that it is our hearts that need to be transformed, not our ability to get the rules right. He taught us to die to ourselves daily and rise with Him to a life of learning to live in full submission to an awesome God. If we all begin to live that life, secure in the truth of the Good News, speaking out against the injustice of sexism and sexual harassment, we will see the church becoming a prophetic voice in our nation, at a time when that is needed more than ever.
Natalie Collins set up Spark and is an independent consultant working to prevent and respond to violence against women and enable others to do the same. She is also the creator of DAY, an innovative youth domestic abuse education programme. Natalie speaks and trains on understanding and ending domestic abuse and gender injustice nationally and internationally.
 This analogy comes from Gender and Grace by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen.