Rennard and the culture of sexism

Estelle Cooch writes on the Rennard scandal and its lessons

The Liberal Democrat party inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Christopher Rennard – and how it ended – have been headline news for a week. The inquiry found there was credible evidence of “behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants”. But nevertheless, it could not be established beyond reasonable doubt that Rennard had “intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way”.

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Of course, Nick Clegg faces leadership crises every other week. But many commentators are billing this as his gravest crisis so far. Let’s recap how the scandal unfolded and then ask what it means for socialists.

Two women first raised complaints of inappropriate behaviour in 2007 – long before the scandal broke in public. They spoke to Paul Burstow MP, then the party’s chief whip. Clegg was challenged about this in February 2013. He said Rennard had “denied any wrongdoing” and that consequently he could take no further action. An independent report has since concluded that Clegg should have ordered an inquiry at that point.

Every institution involved in what unfolded proved totally incapable of dealing with the claims adequately. A police investigation started in April 2013 only to conclude there was “insufficient evidence”. This “insufficient evidence” included testimony from five women who agreed to waive their anonymity entirely, along that from another six coming forwards under other conditions. A very public spat ensued. Rennard was finally suspended from the Lib Dems for 14 weeks, a penalty for refusing to apologise for “inadvertent distress” to the women involved.

No surprises

Socialists can draw several conclusions from all this. The first is that nothing here should surprise us. This is the latest in a long list of establishment scandals that have broken in recent years: Dominique Strauss-Kahn (charges dropped), Jimmy Savile (died before allegations surfaced). Consider also recent allegations against Dave Lee Travis, the former BBC Radio One DJ whose trial is ongoing. In all these cases those at the top attempt to harass or coerce women. They largely get away with it. What is new is the fact it surfaces in public: the stories that would once have remained private have hit the headlines – and thus provoked widespread serious debate about sexual harassment at work and at home.

The second conclusion concerns the police. They continue to be entirely incapable of dealing with allegations of sexual offences. The number of rape allegations handed to prosecutors in England and Wales hit a five-year low last October, despite a 30% rise in the number of rapes reported to police. Another report that October concluded that rape prosecutions were being seriously undermined by a “misplaced belief” that false accusations were commonplace. Statistics suggest the rate of accusations even suspected of being false runs at less than 5 percent.

The police response is much worse than inept, of course. On many US campuses the experience of women reporting sexual harassment to the police is traumatic enough to be described as “a second assault”. They face disbelief, lack of empathy and difficult bureaucratic procedures to navigate with little or no help.

This is the case for allegations against “non-famous” men. The difficulties multiply for women making claims against more powerful figures.

The Lolita effect

The third conclusion we can draw is this. The pervasive infantilisation of women in our culture – named “the Lolita effect” by Meenakshi Gigi Durham in her excellent book – helps consolidate the idea that men are manipulated by women with sexual or political motives. Any attempt to present Rennard as the victim here relies on that idea. It is what we are told to accept as reality.

The reporting of the case reflects this. The Independent ran with a full page picture of Rennard headlined “I’m the victim”. Elsewhere it writes of Rennard making “a clumsy teenage pass”. The women, many of whom are now well into their 30s, are all described as “young female activists”.

This is the climate where Rennard’s allies have been able to peddle the idea he is a victim of “political conspiracy”. One peer claimed: “Half of all male members of the House of Lords have pinched a woman’s bottom at some time in their lives.” The peer later apologised. But many have defended Rennard with talk about keeping things in proportion.

Guardian assistant editor Michael White opined: “Is anyone suggesting that Rennard was ever much more than a bit creepy? I don’t think so.” He suggested women remember “slavery, female genital mutilation and other horrors” and note that “a clammy hand on the knee is not quite the same”.

Meanwhile Rennard takes no responsibility for what he has done, refusing even to grant Clegg’s request that he apologise for any inadvertent distress caused.

Intentions and deeds

The conclusion of the Lib Dem inquiry revolved around the notion that Rennard hadn’t intended to act in an indecent way. Rennard’s intentions apparently matter far more than anything he might have actually done. The problem is laid at the feet of women for getting “offended”. Rennard’s inappropriate actions are neither here nor there.

There is a final, again obvious, conclusion to draw: one about authority. Rennard was a well-known and feared figure in Lib Dem circles. He held a direct influence over the future careers of the women that he harassed. He held material power over them. Their reactions to whatever Rennard chose to do to them could thus directly affect their future incomes and job prospects.

The problem the Lib Dems now face is that Rennard is in one sense right: one cannot maintain that he ought to apologise to the 11 women while also maintaining him innocent of any wrongdoing. Either it is wrong to touch women inappropriately and make unwanted sexually suggestive comments – or it is not.

The claims of Rennard’s supporters that it has all been taken out of proportion are being steadily drowned out by the rise of women and men who recognise that this kind of behaviour has to be challenged. We are seeing the growth of a new women’s politics. The spotlight shone on scandals like this one will fuel that growth. As the Glosswatch feminist blog concludes: “The point is surely not what you shouldn’t care about, but all the things you should.”

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