Dismissing the Rennard allegations as mere 'gropings' reinforces a dangerous worldview

A paragraph in Polly Toynbee's recent Guardian article about Lord Rennard and the Eastleigh byelection is a powerful example of rape culture in action

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dom Joly owns a pig. That thinks it's a dog.  

I'll bow out. Let Wilbur, the pig that thinks it's a dog, bring home the bacon

Dom Joly
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'