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

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Full Stack Developer (.NET 4.0, ASP.NET, MVC, Ajax, WCF,SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Full Stack ...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn