So, when is sex ‘appropriate’?

ESSAY: The current moral crusade against ‘inappropriate behaviour’ speaks to today's stultifying and prurient political culture.

Frank Furedi

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Accusations of sexual harassment, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and a variety of related misdeeds have become the new normal. Whatever the rights and wrongs of each individual case, it is clear that such allegations have become instruments for discrediting the standing of a variety of public and private-sector institutions.

The Lord Rennard ‘groping’ scandal currently haunting the UK Liberal Democrats is only the latest in a series of disgraceful episodes to afflict British institutions. How soon before similar allegations envelop the other political parties, too? According to former Lib Dem member Alison Smith, who plans to talk to the police about her complaints against party members, both Labour and the Tories ‘should expect harassment claims’ in the not too distant future. No doubt such accusations will be made; the unspecific, diffuse and expansive definitions of ‘harassment’ and ‘inappropriate behaviour’ make it unthinkable that any organisation could be free from such accusations. Any form of sexual approach or signalling of desire can be redefined as harassment these days, which means pretty much anyone or any organisation can be accused of harbouring harassers.

Accusations of harassment are now widely used as a means of attacking or discrediting a political opponent or an institution. Those who are expressing outrage about a ‘culture of harassment’, which is apparently endemic in institutions such as the Lib Dems, the Catholic Church and the BBC, are less interested in the predicaments of those affected directly by the alleged harassment than they are in delivering a blow against an institution they oppose.

One of the most fascinating things about the epidemic of harassment allegations is the casual manner in which clumsy behaviour, embarrassing gestures and unwanted or pushy advances have been included in the definition of sexual harassment. Everything is now a form of harassment. Consider the term ‘inappropriate behaviour’, which almost always goes alongside ‘harassment’ – it is a self-consciously diffuse and open-ended term.

In the eyes of the beholder

The ambiguity of the language of harassment can be seen in the numerous workplace codes of conducts drawn up to regulate interpersonal behaviour. Many stress that it is the person who makes an allegation who gets to decide if what they experienced was harassment. These codes insist that the act of harassment is defined by its impact on the recipient rather than by the intention of the alleged harasser. Definitions of sexual harassment are not remotely objective. They say that whether or not an act constitutes harassment depends on how it is perceived. Look at this definition of harassment, offered by the East London NHS Trust:

‘Harassment is defined as what is offensive to the recipient and so is based on their perceptions and feelings rather than on the intent of the person who has displayed the behaviour. It will, therefore, be for the recipient to determine what is inappropriate behaviour – if it offends them, it is harassment.’

This grotesquely arbitrary and subjective definition makes no attempt to distinguish between a simple act of miscommunication and an explicit attempt to coerce and humiliate another person. Some policy documents go so far as to state that harassment can be either ‘deliberate or unintentional’. In doing so, they merely highlight the fact that, these days, the distinction between deliberate acts and unintentional hurtful gestures is of little significance.

An extensive research project, carried out by the Manchester Business School and titled Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, observed that: ‘A key characteristic of sexual harassment is that it is unwanted by the recipient. It is for each person to decide what behaviour is acceptable to them and what they regard as offensive. Thus, although there is general agreement about what can constitute sexual harassment, the experience of sexual harassment is subjective in nature and precise quantification of workplace sexual harassment is problematic, partly due to the problems of identification.’

Since what is unacceptable to one person might be acceptable to someone else, the same act could potentially be defined as both abusive and as a desired move. Marks and Spencer’s harassment-policy document recognises this, and states that ‘individuals have different levels of sensitivity and it is up to the recipient to decide whether they are experiencing behaviours unacceptable to them’. As the notion of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is typically left rather vague, the range of acts that it encompasses becomes infinite.

Some definitions of sexual harassment use the highly ambiguous and subjective phrase ‘unwanted’. The 2005 Amendment to the UK Sex Discrimination Act introduced two definitions of sexual harassment: unwanted conduct on the grounds of someone’s sex; and unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

Yet sometimes, acts motivated by the best of intentions are unwanted. Sometimes, in the domain of sexual relations, it is not possible to be sure whether a gesture is wanted until that gesture has been made. This is also true of gestures of sympathy, friendship and solidarity; an offer of a tissue to a tearful colleague could be interpreted as either sympathetic or patronising.

Throughout human history, taking some initiative with a potential sexual partner has always involved the risk of rejection. Now, if such initiative turns out to be unwanted, it also risks being branded ‘harassment’. From this viewpoint, the behaviour of an inept and anxious would-be suitor and the actions of a sexual predator are morally equivalent.

The corrosion of responsibility

The subjective definition of harassment speaks to today’s broader undermining of the idea of personal responsibility. When an individual’s conscious intent is considered insignificant when it comes to defining whether an act is moral or immoral, then the very ideal of human autonomy and agency is lost. In belittling the role of conscious intent, we not only demonise innocent, aspiring suitors; we also annihilate the moral responsibility of harassers.

The researchers Wendy Hollway and Tony Jefferson have argued that highly subjective definitions of sexual harassment threaten natural justice. They questioned a definition of harassment used by the University of Sheffield, which was based on the ‘impact and not the intention of the action’. Such a definition ‘subverts two central tenets of natural justice simultaneously’, they argued. First, by ‘privileging absolutely the perception of the harassed, it removes any mens rea requirement and hence any defence hinging on innocent intention’; and second, ‘by making the test of what constitutes harassment wholly subjective… the nature of the offence is neither clear nor knowable in advance’.

The pathologisation of ‘unwanted’ behaviour is about evading moral responsibility for saying what society considers to be right and wrong. It is also about confining and restraining behaviour without providing an explicit justification for doing so. The rhetoric used to condemn harassment explicitly seeks to bypass moral language and condemnation, in favour of finding more seemingly neutral ways to police interpersonal relationships within institutions. American author Daphne Patai’s critique of the language of sexual harassment, of words such as ‘unwelcome’, ‘unwanted’ and ‘inappropriate’, argues that such inexact and subjective definitions of an alleged offence eat away at our notions of universal standards of justice.

Those who defend subjective interpretations of harassment claim they just want to help those who lack the power and the voice to say ‘No’, particularly to figures of authority. It is true that powerful people enjoy a disproportionate influence over others. The abuse of power is a bad thing and should be condemned. But such a wrong is not made right by failing to apply the basic tenets of natural justice.

Most of us have been in situations where we should have said no or should have spoken out, and regret not doing so afterwards. Yet how we interpret such an experience after it has happened – where we might conceive of ourselves as innocent victims who were unnecessarily intimidated – should not be the final word in determining the meaning of the other person’s behaviour.

The celebration of prurience

Numerous commentators have described the current spate of sex scandals in Britain as an important sea change. It could help to undermine the existing culture of sexual exploitation and abuse within public institutions, they say. Consequently, there is a demand for more revelations; every scandal is presented as an opportunity for ‘raising awareness’ and creating a more enlightened society.

In truth, far from enlightening society, the moral crusade against ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unacceptable’ behaviour seems to be driven by a very unhealthy prurient outlook. Consider an article headlined ‘Sorry, but parliament is full of sex pests’, published in last week’s Spectator. It informs readers that in Westminster, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is ‘a way of life’. Julie Bindel, the author of this so-called exposé, recounts the story of a Lib Dem MP who apparently tried to establish a sexual relationship with one of his constituents. We are treated to graphic details about how he took this constituent to dinner at the House of Commons, bought her gifts, including a ‘teddy bear named “Mike”’, and sent her text messages that said, ‘Please give me a chance you never know my Princess xxx’, and ‘you are special and sexy to me’.

Most normal people will find it hard to believe that a grown-up man sending a grown-up woman a teddy bear is evidence of some kind of sexually predatory behaviour. So what purpose does this exposé of a sad and clumsy MP’s foolish behaviour serve? To raise awareness of the peril posed by parliamentary sex pests? In truth, such sanctimonious displays of holier-than-thou rhetoric are driven by an unhealthy impulse to police intimate and informal relationships.

The adoption of a prurient political style is one of the most disquieting developments of our time. Cheap moralising about alleged acts of abuse or harassment has become a substitute for political or moral argument. So instead of offering an intellectually informed critique of Catholic theology, opponents of that religion condemn it on the basis that it practises institutionalised abuse. In American politics, the branding of a political opponent with the label of harasser is now commonplace. Initially, it was Democrats who branded Republicans and conservatives as sex pests; then, in the late 1990s, Republican women started to use the sexual harassment issue against the Democrats, particularly against President Bill Clinton. During the Clinton scandals of the late 1990s, the president’s conservative critics were quick to adopt what the American journalist Cathy Young characterised as ‘victim feminism’. Clinton’s sexual affairs were depicted as sexual harassment, and some even suggested that Hillary Clinton, who stood by her husband, was a classic victim of ‘battered woman syndrome’; she was ’emotionally battered’, apparently.

The instinct to police interpersonal relations is fuelled by an absence of moral clarity about the ‘rules of engagement’. The obsession with ‘inappropriate behaviour’ speaks to the uncertainties and confusions that surround human relationships today. In personal relationships, it seems little can be taken for granted anymore. Consequently, a look or a gesture may now be interpreted either as a sign of affection or as a mild form of harassment. The various codes of conduct adopted by institutions try to deal with this existential uncertainty by subjecting it to more and more process. But in effect, this attempt to abolish uncertainty, to open up all human interaction to interrogation and potential reprimand, has the perverse consequence of intensifying the confusion that surrounds human relationships. Instead of putting right a wrong, the institutionalisation of harassment codes undermines everyone’s sense of moral autonomy and personal responsibility.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan later this month. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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