Rennard, sexual harassment and male dominance

by Laura // 26 February 2013, 15:28

Tags: Liberal Democrats, Lord Rennard, male dominance, parliament, politics, sexual harassment

 One of the women behind the allegations against former Lib Dem chief executive Lord Rennard spoke very clearly and articulately on Radio 4's World at One today about what happened to her. She gave her name as Susan and described how, following a talk aimed at supporting potential female parliamentary candidates, Rennard spoke to her individually to give her further tips on becoming more successful. As he did so, she says he started brushing her leg.

I kind of thought well, it's your imagination, so I moved away a little, then he moved a little closer. And I moved away again and the brushing of my leg kept continuing, so when someone moved off the sofa that was next to me that meant I was a chair distance away I moved again. And when he had the opportunity he moved into that chair. So I kept moving further away and eventually I said "Look I'm going to go off to bed" and he said "Oh I'll walk up with you" and I thought "No, I'm not having this", so I said "I'm going to go to the toilet, it's OK I'll go up to bed alone". I went to the toilet, came back out, and he was stood there at the bottom of the stairs waiting to walk me up. We got to the top of the stairs and he suggested joining him in his room for another drink and I said no, very politely and very firmly, and walked away and got back to my room as quickly as I could.

She says she felt timid the next day and was worried and upset. This was a man who held huge power within the party, a man who could have a very direct impact on her career via his influence on candidate selection for parliamentary seats. By refusing his advances, she felt she may have jeopardised her chances of future success within the party.

She says at least nine other women have had a similar experience with Lord Rennard.

Her story is a perfect illustration of how men use sexual harassment to maintain their dominance over women. Sexual harassment serves to remind women that our role as a sex object will always trump any other qualities we possess and therefore we can never be on equal terms with men who also possess those qualities - be they political skills, sporting prowess or the ability to stand on a stage and make others laugh. We can always be put back in our rightful place with an unwanted, insistent brush of the thigh or an invitation to have sex with a man who holds the keys to the hatch in the glass ceiling.

We are denied access to the privileged and powerful social positions that men hold unless we agree to put up and shut up. Susan's responses to Rennard's alleged advances are telling: at no point did she tell him to leave her alone, that she wasn't interested in him or that he was behaving inappropriately. She felt she had to let him down "politely" when he invited her to his room.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who can empathise with politely putting up with unwanted attention and finding it hard to say no. We are socialised to view male attention as desirable, and if we deviate from this by rejecting male advances, we may be subject to humiliation, aggression or even violence, as anyone who has spoken back to street harassers will probably know. Combine this with the fact that some men will - like Rennard - hold positions of power over us and it's no wonder that many women choose not to challenge sexual harassment head on.

If we want to stay safe and try and get on with our lives, we keep quiet and battle on through in silence. Either that, or we give up on the battle altogether, opting for life choices that involve less conflict with the patriarchal status quo. I think the lack of women in parliament and other traditionally male-dominated spheres is in part a reflection of the fact that many women - entirely understandably - opt for the latter. Sometimes the personal toll of constantly battling against sexism is just too great for it to feel worth carrying on. And so the male sexual harassers get to keep their privileged positions in their elitist boys' club.

This - in addition to the various direct impacts on the individual woman - is why sexual harassment matters. Every supposedly "minor" incident of unwanted sexual attention from men is part of this bigger picture of male dominance, this bigger battle for women's full participation in society.

Telling women that we just need to stand up for ourselves, as various commentators have done in the past few days, is unhelpful. Standing up to sexual harassment has consequences that many women cannot or do not want to risk facing. Instead of once again blaming the victims we need to focus on the perpetrators - men need to stop sexually harassing women. Those men who don't engage in this behaviour need to hold their peers to account and take women seriously when we speak out instead of jumping to the defence of other men. And while it can be hard to challenge sexual harassment as an individual, women must continue to support each other and stand in solidarity with those who - like Susan - stick their head above the parapet.

Photo of Lord Rennard by David Spender, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Jackie // Posted 26 February 2013 at 17:43

Just read a tweet from a woman saying she fears for her son not her daughters. "What's a man to do? Asking a girl for a drink is a crime?" There are too many people - including women - who think any woman complaining about an abuse of power short of violence is making a fuss. Good blog, thanks.

Elisa // Posted 26 February 2013 at 18:55

"Sexual harassment serves to remind women that our role as a sex object will always trump any other qualities we possess and therefore we can never be on equal terms with men who also possess those qualities - be they political skills, sporting prowess or the ability to stand on a stage and make others laugh. We can always be put back in our rightful place with an unwanted, insistent brush of the thigh or an invitation to have sex with a man who holds the keys to the hatch in the glass ceiling". YESYESYES. This is exactly what it is and what it feels like! Thank you for articulating it!

Lucy // Posted 27 February 2013 at 17:37

Thanks for this great piece. It illustrates very clearly the most problematic points about sexual harassment; namely that we are being brought up, as the author so poignantly stated, to 'put up' and 'shut up' - I have often felt very frustrated with myself because unwanted attention from men has prompted me to act insecurely and defensively, rather than taking a clear stand and telling them outright I wasn't interested and to leave me alone.
Of course, especially where the workplace is concerned, it is rarely that simple. I recently watched a discussion on German TV, which left me speechless with anger - women were blamed for attracting this kind of behaviour by dressing the wrong way, and were accused of 'having double standards', because they 'welcome advances by some men, while they reject them from others' - I literally couldn't believe my ears. Does this mean being female, we are obliged to become any man's sex toy who expresses an interest?
I think the main point that people consistently miss in this discussion is the element of social context - clearly, in situations where a co-worker or supervisor behaves in such a way, there are elements of dependency and the threat of adverse consequences. Let's face it, who of us would tell our boss to get lost and walk away?

SexierThanThou // Posted 27 February 2013 at 17:42

"...men use sexual harassment to maintain their dominance over women."

This sounds reversed to me. I'm thinking these men use their dominance (physical, social, political... whatever) as a means to sexually harass. They have greater *bargaining power* and use it to achieve sexual gratification. The dominance isn't the end-game, the harassment (or the *sex* in their minds, I'm sure) is.

Anyway, in this situation, assuming these allegations are proven to be true, I think a "fuck off" would've been my personal gambit.

Laura // Posted 27 February 2013 at 20:27

SexierThanThou - I think it's a bit of both!

Jackie // Posted 28 February 2013 at 08:57

...and in the Mail today, Bond in the age of Rennard: A mirthful look at how James Bond's behaviour would be frowned upon now. Someone I follow (or did until about 10 mins ago) actually thinks it's funny - and that's the problem. Ho ho ho...feminism's no fun is it? The fact that James Bond was never real, the fact that the fictional character of Bond is meant to be attractive to women and therefore his attentions might not be unwelcome, the fact that it's NOT reasonable to assume that any woman who is attracted to some men some of the time must welcome the attentions of all men all the time.....it's all so depressing.

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