Who will put a brake on this Sexual Inquisition?

The prudish purging of political life is a sinister menace to democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Feminism

Has anyone been purged from public life today? It’s still early, I guess. There’s still time. There are hours left in which we might discover that an MP or political hack once hugged someone for a fraction of a second longer than is normal, or sent a saucy text message to someone younger than him, or made a joke that involved some infinitesimally small hint of flirtation or bawdiness. Then we can hound them from respectable society. Cast them out. Place them beyond the pale with all the other sexual deviants who have been suspended from politics or made into objects of malicious, prudish gossip over the past few days. Ready your torches, or at least your tweets: there are sinners to be destroyed.

This ‘Sexminster’ scandal has got to stop. It is unhinged. I don’t have a great deal of faith in the 21st-century British media but even I am amazed that they are taking this flimsy, fact-lite dross seriously instead of telling those complaining that someone tried to kiss them or fleetingly touched their knee to grow up. I am also not particularly enamoured with the current stable of politicians, yet I’m disturbed by the rapidity with which this prudish purge, this suspicious, sexphobic pointing of fingers at mere joke-tellers or philanderers, has eaten them up. Are there no grown-ups left who might put a brake on this Sexual Inquisition? It seems not. And this – the speed and ease with which the culture of sexual denunciation has spread – reveals far more about the decadence and even depravity of our political elite than any of the rumoured ‘harassment’ does.

The first alarming thing about the prudish purge is the hollowness of the accusations. Michael Fallon, defence secretary until the purge destroyed him, stands accused of touching journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee 15 years ago. ‘He’s done other, more serious things’, the time-rich rumour-mongerers said, like sexual witchfinder generals igniting more malicious whispers. And other things were indeed later revealed. He once allegedly made a very mild sexually themed joke to Andrea Leadsom and he tried to kiss a journalist called Jane Merrick. Fourteen years ago. Are these people for real? If you are traumatised by people making jokes or advances towards you, then the problem is you, not the person cracking gags or trying it on. Humour and advances are part of everyday life as an adult. You deal with them by laughing or not laughing at the joke, and welcoming or rejecting the advance. It is embarrassingly self-infantilising to present yourself as a ‘victim’ simply because you heard an off-colour joke or someone tried to snog you.

Self-infantilisation is a key theme of the prudish purge. Journalist Kate Maltby has been called ‘brave’ for alleging that Theresa May’s deputy PM, Damian Green, once briefly touched her knee. You’d think she had survived a tour of Afghanistan rather than an utterly routine drink with a member of the opposite sex. The response to Maltby’s pathetic allegations should have been ‘Get a life’. Another accuser says Labour MP Clive Lewis touched her bum as they hugged, though he insists this didn’t happen, or that something utterly accidental happened. (And now he says he is unlikely to hug people again. The end result of the purge: no more physical contact.) SNP minister Mark McDonald has quit over ‘previous actions’ in which he believed he was being ‘merely humorous’. That is, he made jokes. He had larks. Destroy him.

And on it goes. Unexceptional behaviour is being recast as ‘harassment’, even ‘abuse’. Linguistic deceit abounds. The dictionary is being assaulted far more than any woman in Westminster. The brush of a hand against a knee is talked about in the same breath as Bex Bailey’s accusation of rape against a senior of hers in the Labour Party. This demeans the seriousness of rape. So determined are the Sexminster accusers to be part of the post-Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo cult of the victim, of that celebrated circle of influential women who now derive their authority from their alleged victim status, that they are willing to reduce the crime of rape to just another thing on the spectrum of their suffering. They must do this, they must conflate awkward drinks with extreme violence, in order to make their completely routine experiences seem like PTSD-inducing horror stories.

Some of the accusers seem to crave validation and celebrity. And they’re getting it. The script is so predictable now. Someone makes an accusation, the Twitterati garners them with praise and the badge of ‘bravery’, the scandal-hungry press (by which I mean broadsheets like The Times, the Guardian and the Observer) spies an opportunity to put Sexminster on the front pages again, they interview the ‘brave’ accuser, and hey presto, we have a new celebrity victim. What is really being pursued in many of these cases is the currency of victimhood. Nothing will win you more media, moral and social sympathy today than claiming to be a victim. And if you haven’t actually been victimised and in fact have a really nice life? Just blow something out of proportion.

The other alarming thing is the inability of the political class to put a brake on this jumped-up scandal, on this transparently self-serving round after round of accusation. Instead Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon are all promising to ‘do more’, to pursue the purge, to rid politics of those who make bad jokes or naff advances or who otherwise deviate from the new sexual puritanism. Damian Green is now getting it in the neck for allegedly having porn on his work computer. What presents itself as a campaign against harassment is in truth a campaign against what is quite normal sexual behaviour, from flirting to wanking. One good thing about this prudish purge is that it has utterly exploded middle-class media feminists’ insistence that they are not anti-sex. Virtually everything they are railing against in their columns right now is sex – sometimes bad sex or stupid sex, but sex nonetheless – not assault.

The Damian Green porn allegations show how sinister this purge has become. Elements in the police leaked this allegation. Here we have the armed wing of the state using rumour to try to undermine an elected politician. This is more outrageous, more disturbing, more threatening to the health of our democracy than anything allegedly done by an MP. People say the ‘epidemic of sexual harassment’ in Westminster shows how corrosive politics has become; but in truth it is the invention of this epidemic, and the uncritical embrace of it by the party leaders, and the use of it by well-connected media feminists to advance their careers and their authority, and the exploitation of it by sections of the police keen to dent the reputation of an elected official, which really shows how depraved politics has become. On every front, the panic about sex pests is more destructive than the alleged sex pests themselves.

Someone in politics with a still-working moral compass needs to try to halt this prudish purge before it further damages the ideals of due process, autonomous adulthood, and democracy. Swallowed up by their own cult of rumour, ensconced in their echo chamber of accusation and counter-accusation, the political and media classes currently have no clue how ridiculous they look to ordinary people. So let me tell you: you appear mad, and reckless, and self-obsessed, and whining, and disconnected from any sense of what it really means to struggle or suffer, and we look forward to punishing you at the next election. That’s how us still rational people prefer to take down politicians: thoughtfully and democratically rather than with whispering campaigns and public denunciations better suited to the Middle Ages than a modern nation.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Feminism


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