There are so many questions one could ask about the Lord Rennard affair. Like, how on earth did a case of bad, clumsy flirting come to dominate the political and media agenda in a country undergoing recession and facing numerous other serious problems? Lord Rennard, a Lib Dem peer accused of sexually harassing some of his party colleagues, appears on the front page of every British broadsheet this morning, his well-fed face staring out at upmarket newspaper buyers. Which is extraordinary not only because I am pretty certain there are bigger political issues we should be worrying our brains with than a lord’s allegedly letching hands, but also because the nature of the accusations against him are hardly Caligulian.
According to the Guardian, Lord Rennard, who was once chief executive of the Lib Dems, faces accusations from four women. They include ‘plonking himself’ between two women and ‘moving his hands down our backs’; rubbing the outside of a woman’s leg and saying to her, ‘Why don’t we get a couple more drinks sent up to my room, where we can continue this conversation?’; and touching a woman’s knee ‘two or three times’.
These are just crap come-ons from a bloke who seems unable to read a woman’s signals. It is one thing for something like the Profumo affair, which involved actual sex and some Soviets, to get the political and media classes’ pulses racing. But for the alleged slightly creepy chat-up techniques of one lord to take political centre stage is just bonkers. It suggests we live in such prudish times that any kind of behaviour can become a sex scandal (regardless of a lack of sex), and in such a politically small era that the alleged goings-on between a handful of political types most people have never heard of can elbow aside all the other issues we are either not debating or are debating in increasingly shallow terms.
Another question to ask about the Rennard affair is how bad flirting came to be redefined as ‘sexual harassment’, with the lord’s alleged activities being held up as evidence of something called ‘low-level sexism’ in the modern political sphere. That something as mundane as ‘plonking’ oneself between two women and touching their backs can be talked about as harassment, even as misogyny, shows how far those terms have been denuded of their meaning and impact. The handwringing over Lord Rennard’s very minor alleged wrongdoings speaks to the way in which everyday forms of human behaviour, from office banter to sexual invitations, are now being redefined as ‘abuse’ that must be stamped out.
Human relations and interaction are now treated as toxic things, driven by the most base motives and potentially having terrible consequences. In some workplaces, speech codes and sexual-harassment codes now govern pretty much all chit chat, even the stuff that was once considered beyond the purview of bosses – flirtations in the workplace canteen or jokeyness among staff members. One expert advises that ‘non-safe topics [for discussion at work] include hair, shoes and cleavages’. But if you are hell-bent on complimenting a colleague on any of those attributes – what kind of crazy person are you?! – then you should apparently do so from a ‘respectable distance’. Those cheering the hauling of Lord Rennard on to the front pages of the papers as a symbol of the new ‘low-level sexual harassment’ should ask who benefits from this redefinition of normal human activity as harassment. It certainly isn’t women, who come to be treated as fragile creatures ill-suited to the rough workplace – an argument I’m sure feminists might once have challenged.