Assault is not a 'sexual indiscretion'

I used to do a lot of university debating, and what that means in practice is that you spend a lot of time sitting on buses going to and from a university on the far fringe of an exotic-sounding city. One way to pass the time on these bus journeys is to play categories: somebody picks a category, and you go round the circle naming things, knocking people out when they can't think of one.

On one particularly long bus journey in Chennai, about four years ago, we found ourselves playing the category 'famous sex scandals', and someone said Jimmy Savile. After the initial moment of pure shock, we agreed that he was out of the game. Not because of some backup, how-could-you rule, but because rape is not a sex scandal and there is no category that encompasses consensual behaviour that people are a bit shocked by and also sexual violence.

This, apparently, is not how things are understood at Westminster. The sudden fall of Harvey Weinstein is reverberating, and there's a lot more talk among politicos of MPs and ministers who have committed 'sexual indiscretions'. Theresa May reportedly gets regular briefings on these indiscretions, which include one minister who sexually assaulted a journalist and another who is having an affair with another MP. At the risk of repetition: these things are not the same. You could only lump them together if you thought that the sin here is "doing something your wife would be angry to find out about". One is something that the government whips might want to keep track of, in case it turns into an opposition attack line, but otherwise shouldn't be that fussed about. The other is something that they quite possibly should be criminally liable for not reporting.

It's almost impressive that people in influential political and media positions, at this moment, are still failing to grasp that it's consent that matters here, not lewdness. It's a blind spot that led conservatives to be baffled, a year ago, by outrage on the left about Donald Trump's Access Hollywood tape. How can you be angry about that, when you're always saying women should get free contraception so they can have casual sex? (Or, in some of the particularly unhinged versions, how can the Obamas claim to be upset when their daughters dress like that?) This week, Paul Staines' Guido Fawkes website, even while trying to weaponise the new anti-harassment movement against Labour MP Jared O'Mara, demonstrated its similar lack of understanding of what the actual issue is. O'Mara's said and done a series of aggressive and demeaning things to women, on top of the racism and homophobia, and really he should have resigned. But the attack line was muddied because Guido mixed in a bunch of stuff which, to left-wing eyes, is weird but not much worse than that. Posting online about how you'd like to sleep with members of a girl band or writing bizarrely sexual music reviews is not worth mentioning in the same paragraph as some of the other allegations. "Jared O'Mara is quoted as making another series of very lewd comments", starts one post. 

They don't get it. That's more confirmation, if you needed it, that most of this mudslinging is a transparently bad faith effort by conservatives to use left-wing ideas that they neither care about nor understand to give left-wingers a black eye. But it's also pretty troubling that, forgetting about Paul Staines, people with positions of great responsibility in Parliament don't seem to grasp the importance of the difference between actions that are embarrassing and ones that are criminal.

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