In Polly Toynbee’s recent Guardian article about the upcoming Eastleigh by-election, “Eastleigh byelection should be about economics – not gropings or smears”, she addresses the emerging (hotly denied) allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard, the former chairman of the Liberal Democrats. Ms. Toynbee contends that the true focus of the by-election should be upon the damaging effects of the Coalition Government’s austerity policies, rather than “gropings or smears”. During the course of her argument, there is one paragraph whose content is entirely problematic. It reads:
“…(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 on 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.” [My italics].
These lines apparently amount to a world-weary concession that this is just the way things are: that women’s sexual harassment in the workplace is just part of the unfortunate current of everyday life, and in the context of this crucial by-election it is something that should be overlooked for the greater good. This sense of futility, however, lies at the root of a very dangerous argument. It is an argument which to me suggests that only particularly appalling examples of sexual assault should distract us from the urgent national conversation about the country’s ailing GDP. Moreover, it is an argument which neglects the fact that, if so many brilliant women had not been lost to politics through harassment such as that alleged against Lord Rennard, then their strategic skills might have averted Britain from its currently ruinous economic course.
If we look more closely at the wording of that paragraph, then we see further issues. Ms. Toynbee seems concerned that Lord Rennard’s alleged acts should not be packaged with those of a Cardinal who allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with young priests - claims which he too denies. Yet those young women in the Liberal Democrat party were presumably just as dependent on Lord Rennard’s good grace for their career advancement as the young priests were dependent upon the favourable patronage of Cardinal O’Brien.
The final line of the quoted section gives cause for the greatest concern. It does not follow that drawing national attention to the “merely repellent but everyday groping of adults” trivialises the “truly horrific” abuse of children. The use of the word “merely” could scarcely have been less appropriate. What is truly repellent is that we apparently live in a society where adults feel so entitled to harass other adults sexually that it should be more or less regarded as the natural way of things. The thought that it is commonplace for women to feel "not safe in taxis" with the male superiors is wholly disturbing: and there is nothing “squalid” or “little”, about such a state of affairs. Indeed, it is hard to read Ms. Toynbee’s words as anything other than a powerful statement of the ubiquity of rape culture.