Belfast Telegraph

Sex harassment is belittling and cruel, so why do powerful men believe it's all one big laugh?

Making jokes about the Harvey Weinsteins of this world rubs salt in victims' wounds, writes Fionola Meredith

As the daily roll call of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct continues, we're inevitably hearing a lot more from those who want to trivialise or dismiss the gravity and scale of these worldwide accusations.

This isn't a surprise. Denying that there's a problem, or treating harassment claims as a negligible matter or laughing them off as some sort of female hysteria - these are classic ways of silencing and shaming women. Up until now, these apologist tactics have worked.

Some of it isn't even deliberate, I suspect, more a case of ignorance than invective. Take Michael Gove's lame and effortful quip, where he claimed that getting interviewed by Radio 4's John Humphrys was like going into Harvey Weinstein's bedroom. The former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who was being interviewed by Humphrys alongside Gove, chimed in with: "John goes way past groping - way past groping."

Chortle, chortle. Three influential, privileged men ho-ho-hoing about sexual assault. It made for uncomfortable listening. Gove apologised afterwards, but it was a telling little incident all the same, because it trivialised claims of monstrous behaviour by Weinstein.

This is how it goes. We are supposed to laugh along, even when we're unamused, and pretend everything is fine. Can't you take a joke, luv?

Others have been more forthright in their criticism of the harassment claims. The columnist Peter Hitchens struck out against what he called "all you squawking flapping denouncers of groping men". Ah yes, there's that familiar hysteria slur again. What are women expected to do, Peter, stand and take it quietly?

Now we have Morrissey, the former Smiths singer, sharing his opinion that actresses invited to Weinstein's room were "play[ing] along". More than 50 women, including some of Hollywood's most prominent names, have accused the disgraced film producer of assault, harassment, abuse and rape. Yet Morrissey follows the classic old troika: trivialise, excuse, dismiss.

Meanwhile Richard Buckley, the editor of Business Eye, one of Northern Ireland's leading business magazine, has been weighing in with his thoughts on the accusations at Westminster. Or to put it in his own words: "Ms Julia Bunny Boiler and the assorted female hackettes from all over London who've been queueing up to accuse MPs of touching them up."

Under the headline 'The Touchy Feely World of Politics', Mr Buckley writes: "Like many brave journalists recently, we're coming out in the open this week to confess that we were victims of sexual harrassment [sic]. We were once touched on the arm by a prominent female politician who shall remain nameless (unless a London tabloid wishes to make a lucrative offer, that is …)."

Mr Buckley continues in the same remorseless vein: "The experience, now that we think back on it many years later, left us feeling dirty and worthless, with those emotions of inadequacy quickly escalating into all manner of self esteem and other complex issues. To this day, we suffer from flashbacks, we can barely go out at night and we can't sleep for much longer than nine straight hours without waking in a cold sweat."

Oh, he's a wag, that Mr Buckley, isn't he? A real fun guy. And we're all laughing merrily along, apart from those who have encountered the gross reality of sexual harassment and don't find it very funny at all.

There will be women within the business community who are currently enduring abuse by small-town Harvey Weinsteins. Unlike female journalists, politicians and Hollywood stars, they have no public platform to make claims or seek redress. I wonder what they think when they read the view of one of Northern Ireland's leading business publication?

To be fair, Buckley acknowledges that some of the Westminster allegations are very serious indeed and justice should be brought to bear, before adding: "That said, it has all turned into a rather shabby and salacious witch hunt, hasn't it?"

Of course, it is vital to distinguish between lower level incidents and more serious assaults and abuses of power, and these should be dealt with in courts or employment tribunals, not through trial by social media.

But clumsy, arrogant and ill-judged mockery like this is profoundly offensive to victims of sexual abuse, some of whom may well have felt inadequate or worthless as a result of their experiences.

When you open the Business Eye website, a friendly woman called Brenda tells you that they are busy updating their digital presence.

How about updating their social attitudes while they're at it?

And perhaps Mr Buckley could learn how to spell 'harassment' too. It might help him towards a better understanding of what the reality means.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph