I’ve seen Boris Johnson’s ‘touchy feely’ nature up close. And it’s why I believe Charlotte Edwardes

Making this public might bring out the trolls, but damn it, we are sick of humouring this kind of behaviour

Shaparak Khorsandi
Tuesday 01 October 2019 20:13
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Boris Johnson comments on groping allegations: 'I've said what I've said about that. They are not true'

I got into a bit of a Twitter furore this week, something I usually avoid. But I was, as they say, “triggered” by the response from some quarters to Charlotte Edwardesclaim that Boris Johnson squeezed her thigh at a party 20-odd years ago.

People were saying that she was lying. People were also questioning her motives for flagging it up now. But it was Edwardes being called a liar that meant I couldn’t stand by.

I was a young woman at a time when men touched you, squeezed you, rubbed against you, and we rarely said anything. In fact, very often you would tell yourself that these men were “just being friendly” or scoff with your friends and call him a “perv”.

“Watch out for him, he’s got wandering hands,” we’d say, with no thought to make him accountable for those hands and where they travelled. No, we were the ones who had to watch out.

Those who responded to Edwardes’ allegations this week by calling her a liar are the reason so many of us stay quiet.

When I read her article, I just thought, with a shrug, "yeah, I can well believe he did that". He had reached under the table and squeezed my hand while I was sitting on the panel for Question Time after knowing me for roughly 20 seconds.

My hand, to be clear, was resting on my thigh. It wasn’t a frightening experience, just odd and discombobulating a few seconds before the beginning of a live TV debate. I mentioned it in my stand-up routine for a while and thought nothing more of it. I’m sure he won’t even remember being on the programme with me, let alone the rogue squeeze of the hand.

But that moment came roaring back into my mind when I read Edwardes’ column. It made her account instantly believable – and I wanted to stick up for her.

People have derided me since I spoke out on Twitter, saying the gesture was merely a reassuring squeeze of the hand offered because the prime minister knew I was nervous. Indeed. That’s exactly what it would have been – if he’d been my mother, a friend, or someone I had a rapport with, who I’d been acquainted with for more than a few moments.

It was not assault, and I’m not saying it was a sexual advance. But it was a gesture by a man who is not used to giving women the same respect he grants to a man. He would not, for example, have held Nish Kumar’s hand when he was on Question Time. And in my experience, if a man is that comfortable holding the hand of a woman he doesn’t know, then I believe the other woman who says he grabbed her leg at a party.

There’s a scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral where Carrie is hiding behind a sofa in a hotel lounge, hiding from a drunken toff who is telling Hugh Grant, somewhat deludedly, “I was in there, damn fine filly”. Richard Curtis was sending up Boris Johnson’s type, the spoilt sort who considers himself a gentleman because he holds doors open for women but can’t understand for the life of him why he should have the same boundaries with them that he does for men.

This inappropriate squeezing and touching doesn’t always have a sexual motive; it’s power play, an effective way of pulling the rug from under someone’s feet to undermine them.

It’s happened to me many times. One example was at a charity awards show, some time ago, when a man asked to take a picture with me. I had hosted the event, and I obliged. As we posed, he ran his hand up and down my backside and squeezed it. He and all his friends laughed. “Sorry love, they dared me to do it,” he chortled.

It was horrible. I shouted at them, complained, and was met with blank looks. I came home and raged about it on Twitter. It was just a short time after the first #MeToo revelations, and in hindsight I wished I’d just called the police. Before #MeToo it was extremely hard to take incidents like that through the proper channels. We had been, so many of us, conditioned not to make a fuss.

Some imagine I supported Edwardes this week in order to score political points against Boris Johnson and his Conservative government. I’m not interested in those kinds of games. I hated the fact that Johnson’s audible argument with his girlfriend was being used by some to insinuate domestic abuse; we have all had hideous rows, and it’s shabby to record your neighbours fighting.

I don’t believe in trial by media; I don’t believe in tearing someone down without proof and without a chance to make amends.

This is not about behaviour on the left or right, either. A prominent left-winger groped my backside before I went on a stage once, and it totally sabotaged my performance. Which, I imagine, was his intention far more than sexual gratification. I shook with rage and informed producers what happened. He was dealt with, and I was satisfied by his apology.

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I understand that sometimes people are bloody idiots, but don’t call someone a liar. Own up! I respect anyone who owns up and says they are sorry.

Edwardes being pilloried, mocked and called a fibber upset me. I had to mention that I believed her based on my own encounter with Johnson.

Make no mistake, speaking out publicly like this is not “great PR” for me. As a woman, honesty does not help your career, and nobody seriously thinks calling the PM out for being lascivious is going to stop Brexit. But I just had to stand up for her.

I’m not brave. It took me an entire day and a half to decide to do so. Nobody needs the headache, nobody needs the dramatic headlines, nobody needs the trolls who attack but never listen, or the disruption to their day.

But dammit we are sick and tired of hiding behind the sofa and humouring this kind of behaviour.

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