Are women meant to be scared of disabled old men?
The Guardian has reported that famous theatre director Max Stafford-Clark was let go by the Out of Joint theatre company in September after a complaint of sexual harassment.
Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, media personalities have been falling over themselves to get a few column inches detailing the time someone said something rude to them.Out of Joint staff member Gina Abolins told the Guardian that she had complained after Stafford-Clark said to her: ‘Back in the day, I’d have been up you like a rat up a drainpipe but now I’m a reformed character. My disability means I’m practically a virgin again.’ ‘I felt really victimised actually’, Abolins said. ‘That was him exerting his power over me in a crude manner. I felt really bullied and objectified.’
But there’s a twist to this tale of sexual harassment. Stafford-Clark suffered from pseudobulbar palsy following a stroke and brain injury in 2006. At 76, and using a walking stick and a wheelchair, he also presented signs of ‘occasional disinhibition’. In a statement following the complaint, a spokesperson for Stafford-Clark explained: ‘Occasional loss of the ability to inhibit urges results in him displaying disinhibited and compulsive behaviour and his usual (at times provocative) behaviour being magnified, often causing inappropriate social behaviour.’
Put simply, Stafford-Clark was an old man in a wheelchair who couldn’t really talk properly, and occasionally said things which were outrageous because he had suffered brain damage following a stroke. Abolins told the Guardian that she was aware of his condition: ‘Because of Stafford-Clark’s ill health, she did not initially think he could make her feel uncomfortable.’
Other women from Out of Joint have claimed Stafford-Clark presented inappropriate behaviour to them. Rachel De-Lahay, a playwright, said that he had asked her when she had lost her virginity – in reference to a play they were working on in which two 15-year-old girls have an affair with a married man. It seems hardly scandalous for a director to question staff about topics relevant to the nature of a play. Steffi Holtz, Stafford-Clark’s short-term assistant, told the Guardian that the worst thing he’d said to her was: ‘If you were sat on the desk there in front of me I would eat you out.’ ‘I didn’t feel brave or confident enough at that time of my life to challenge that authority’, Holtz said.
It seems hard to believe that three successful women in their twenties and thirties couldn’t handle a lewd disabled old man – especially one who quite possibly wasn’t in his right mind at the time. Even if Stafford-Clark was a dirty old lech, is, as De-Lahay described it, ‘asking an inappropriate question’ now a firing offence?
‘My incredible girlfriend did this and I’m so proud’, tweeted the boyfriend of (presumably) Gina Abolins. ‘There are no safe spaces’, he said. But what is there to be proud of? Ruining a man’s career over rude comments? Adding to the hysterical panic about sexual harassment? Admitting that you weren’t ‘brave or confident enough’ to challenge an old guy in a wheelchair?
We don’t know whether these allegations are true – and we don’t know if it was Stafford-Clark speaking or his brain tumour. But what we do know is that this sexual-harassment panic has gone too far. Are we going to start firing people with Tourette’s syndrome? Will we start locking up dementia patients, autistic individuals or those who can’t manage to adhere to socially acceptable behaviour? In their search for sexual predators, feminists seem to be willing to throw anyone under the bus – including themselves. In championing the idea that women are too weak to stand up to lewd comments from incapacitated individuals, the only thing that Abolins, De-Lahay and Holtz have done is denigrate the idea that women are just as strong and capable as men. That’s not brave at all.
Ella is speaking at the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 October.