Dr Rosalind Beck is a doctor of Criminology and a Conservative Party member in South Wales.
In Eric Pickles’ review into why the Conservative Party lost its majority in the recent general election, he acknowledged amidst the 126 recommendations:
“…that the candidates’ conduct, character and pronouncements reflect for good or ill on the Conservative party…”
Clearly, then, any behaviour construed to be discriminatory, including for example, ‘rape jokes,’ would be deemed to reflect badly on the party, as well as betraying a lack of compassion for the victims of serious crimes.
It is therefore regrettable that after the initial reaction against Michael Gove and Neil Kinnock’s Harvey Weinstein jokes on the Today programme, there has now been a tangible move to play down the whole episode, in effect missing an opportunity to challenge ‘low-level’ sexism as part of a zero tolerance strategy.
Instead, those who continue to express disapproval of the jokes will no doubt be seen as having no sense of humour, much as black people used to be viewed when they were unwilling to laugh at jokes which demeaned them. Whereas times have changed and racist jokes have now become much more culturally unacceptable, we have not progressed nearly as much in terms of sexist jokes.
This is not to say that a couple of men should be singled out for condemnation, when they have just behaved like many men do. But it has highlighted the fact that there is so far to go before anti-women attitudes are banished to the annals of history and women are raised from second-class status.
Psychologists explain this by suggesting that women, as well as gay people, constitute groups where there is still no consensus around the need to not hold discriminatory views about them. This has further repercussions as it has been found that:
“… if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.”
There can thus be a direct route between the kind of ‘humour’ expressed by Gove and Kinnock, condoned by those members of the audience who laughed and by those who downplay it and outright physical and verbal attacks on women.
A distinct lack of empathy for women and girls lies behind this. Would Gove and Kinnock have made these jokes, for example, if either of them had a daughter who had been attacked by a predator like Weinstein, or indeed if they had been attacked by one themselves? They may be highly-educated men, but they need their awareness raised on this issue.
Rapidly following on from their jokes, we heard about the Downing Street briefings on the ‘ins and outs,’ which indicated that the Prime Minister and others have been treating MPs’ bad behaviour, often against women, with levity.
I have some sympathy for Theresa May: as a woman in the largely male-dominated world of politics, she has a fine balancing act to perform. On the other hand, it is disappointing that she did not stand up for other less powerful women but in effect colluded in a cover-up; and how long these kinds of briefings have been going on is anybody’s guess. It could have been decades.
As with the jokes episode, there is a now a flurry of voices, including that of the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, arguing along the lines that women should ‘lighten up,’ rather than that the men should change their behaviour. On the same Andrew Marr show we heard Diane Abbott state that it is not as bad as it used to be.
This may be the case in Westminster, but talking to young women about street sexual harassment my judgement is that this has got much worse. Older women just don’t see it as much.
The clear implication from some, then, is that it is too much to expect our elected representatives and those governing the country – mostly men – to refrain from having extramarital affairs, from going to prostitutes, from asking their female members of staff to purchase them sex toys, and from harassing often much younger female members of staff.
What does that say about our aspirations for a decent and fair society for all, and not just for men?
Unfortunately, daily, unwanted sexual comments and unwanted sexual contact used against people chip away at a person and damage their human spirit. Even more extreme attacks on people can be ruinous for them. They are also likely to result in mental health problems; announced this week as a priority of the Government. These issues can’t be seen in isolation from one another.
What people also forget when they minimise all of this is that in the case of sexual harassment there is a victim, in the case of prostitution there is a victim, and in the case of cheating on your wife and possibly using another person for sexual gratification with no commitment, there are victims. An additional consequence is the potential break-up of families and all the damage that entails, with more victims.
The public’s level of trust in politics is very low at the moment and this issue only makes it worse. Why, for example, should we believe politicians’ public pronouncements, if they are in fact lying and cheating in their private life? If, in addition, they display offensive attitudes towards women in their own behaviour , how can we expect them to create a society free of discrimination against half of the population?
The way forward must surely be to establish a consensus that men need to treat women as they would wish to be treated themselves, with zero tolerance of all abuses of power against women, including so-called ‘harmless’ jokes. Unless this occurs, the whole range of sexist behaviours will just continue and yet another opportunity will be missed.