What is sexual harassment anyway?
An imprecise term is being used to destroy reputations.
It has been a long week in the world of the Westminster sexual-harassment panic. The suicide of Welsh Labour MP Carl Sargeant, following allegations of inappropriate conduct, has exposed how far this panic is spinning out of control. Of course it is too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about Sargeant’s death. But it seems clear that his suspension in light of allegations against him played some part. It’s possible the Westminster sex scandal has claimed its first life.
Has it been worth it? Supporters of the exposure of so-called sex pests claim the ‘culture’ is being changed. Men are no longer able to treat women with impunity in the workplace, they say. That all sounds worthwhile, but it is worth taking a step back and considering what the term ‘sexual harassment’ really means. Because there is no clear or strict definition.
There is no single offence of sexual harassment. Harassment, which is a broader idea than sexual harassment of course, covers any ‘course of conduct’ which causes ‘alarm or distresses to another person’. This means the reach of the accusation of harassment is extremely broad. People can be arrested for harassment in relation to what would once have been considered fairly normal behaviour.
Recent ‘sex pest’ scandals have shown just how amorphous the term harassment can be. A wide range of behaviour is being lumped under the title of harassment. Definitions are now so loose that we are even happy to say that single incidents constitute ‘harassment’, even though this makes little sense. Harassment is surely cumulative. Someone might be perturbed or upset by a single incident, but it strains the bounds of the English language to say they were ‘harassed’ by that single incident. This is why the law refers to a ‘course’ of conduct: this acknowledges, at some level, that harassment goes beyond a single moment of indiscretion.
The Westminster scandal, in reducing harassment to single incidents, has contributed to a radical reduction in the criminal threshold. The striking thing about many of the allegations at the outset of ‘Pestminster’ is that they did not even get close to criminal behaviour. Even to call them ‘allegations’ seemed over the top. They were anecdotes about bad behaviour, not suggestions that illegal things had happened. They weren’t really allegations at all.
This is not legalism. This is simply to point out that the word ‘harassment’ has been deeply politicised. It has taken on a new meaning, courtesy of those who are intimately involved in the Westminster scandal. ‘Harassment’ has become a kind of code, a symbol, for a supposed culture that keeps women down. This means that any single incident can now be rebranded ‘harassment’ and described as a contributor to this problematic culture, even if the incident itself is not what we would really think of as harassment. Words are being twisted to make them useful to a political cause — and that is deeply worrying.
Many argue that ‘harassing’ behaviour is particularly harmful when it is done by those in a position of power. There is some truth to this. I am a man; I have never experienced what it is like to be hit on by someone who has more power than me in the workplace. I do not know what it is like to turn down someone who could be good for your career — I can imagine it is awkward and unpleasant. Men in positions of seniority should recognise that hitting on your employees is inappropriate.
But the question we now have to ask — urgently — is whether such behaviour, unappetising as it might be, warrants expulsion from public life, or sackings, or the destruction of reputations. Because that is what is happening: the use of the term ‘harassment’ to describe incidents that might once have been dealt with informally means that some men are now being branded ‘predators’ and are having their reputations demolished. This is extreme — surely?
To most people, at least, it seems rash. The idea that someone could lose their job, their family and their reputation because they did something stupid at a party 15 years ago seems to most of us to be entirely disproportionate. Individuals are ending up divorced, homeless, and now, it seems, even dead as a result of their behaviour being rebranded ‘harassment’ or ‘predation’ by the casual and political misuse of language and accusation.
This is why due process and accuracy of language matter. Let’s be honest. Someone cannot be ‘harassed’ by a single incident. And people shouldn’t be destroyed on the basis of accusation alone. Without due process, without precise language, an allegation can needlessly demolish someone’s life within days, even hours. We are throwing people to the lions instead of cooly analysing the accusations against them and respecting the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Following this week’s tragic death, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if, in this unforgiving, increasingly unjust climate, individuals see no way of clearing their names other than by responding to accusations in unpredictable and sometimes devastating ways.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked and author of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by Getty Images.