Opinion: Porn, sexual assault, rape – Westminster’s underbelly is finally exposed

Opinion: Porn, sexual assault, rape – Westminster’s underbelly is finally exposed
There isn’t a sudden explosion of sexual violence in Westminster. What’s changed is that the targets of this abuse will tolerate it no more

Another day, another allegation of serious sexual assault committed by a parliamentarian. More than that, another Conservative. It’s becoming a bit of a habit. How odd that a party led by a notorious philanderer should be secretly hosting so many dangerous men – many of them misogynists.

This morning, an unnamed Tory MP, aged in his 50s, was bailed by police following arrest on suspicion of sexual offences dating back the mid 2000s, including rape, sexual assult, abuse of a position of trust and misconduct in public office.

Though the whips have allowed him to retain his membership of the parliamentary party pending a conclusion to criminal proceedings (innocent until proven guilty, of course), he has been requested to stay away from Westminster.

What a way to kick off canvassing in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, both constituencies holding a by-election on 23 June due to the sitting MP departing after allegations of sexual misconduct. In Yorkshire, Imran Ahmad Khan is leaving public office after being convicted of sexually assulting a 15-year-old boy. In Devon, Neil Parish has been embarrassed out of his seat after being caught watching porn on his phone while sitting on the green benches. And it’s only been a couple of years since former Dover MP Charlie Elphicke lost his seat after being found guilty and imprisoned on charges of sexual assault.

There are many reasons why dangerous behaviour can flourish inside Westminster. I am by no means the first person to point out that the particular conditions of work provide a breeding ground for exploitation.

Long, family-unfriendly hours; cut-price bars which soak parliamentarians in booze; scant regulation (at least until recently) allowing MPs to run their own offices with no proper oversight and certainly no HR team; a strange system of patronage into which young, ambitious parliamentary assistants arrive determined to please and progress, and through which power can easily be abused. It’s a potent mix.

It’s worth noting, though, that this is by no means exclusive to politics. The cry that went up when Parish was caught peeping at porn – “in an ordinary workplace, he’d be sacked for gross misconduct immediately” – struck me as hollow. It’s simply untrue. Millions of people are working in equally unprofessional environments.

One anecdote, from a life very mildly lived: in my early 20s I worked at a small publishing house in central London. The editorial and advertising teams shared a single floor and during the working day a number of members of the ads sales staff would openly watch porn on their computers, videos set to silent, while making phone calls to their clients.

The financial director was fully aware, and did nothing about it. Everyone seemed to think this was amusing, and though I did not, I was young, naive, new to the workforce and simply didn’t know what was considered acceptable behaviour. We were all adults, after all; I wasn’t forced to watch it myself, and there was nothing illegal going on here. With the benefit of almost two decades of hindsight and maturation, I very much doubt I was the only person in that office – female or male – who found it deeply uncomfortable, but kept quiet.

There isn’t a sudden explosion of sexual abuse or misogyny in Westminster. It’s been hidden there, and everywhere, forever. What’s changed is that the targets of this abuse – from victims of rape at its most extreme, to those forced to endure lower level harrassment just to keep a job – will tolerate it no more.

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There’s no wave of despicable behaviour uniquely prompted or tolerated by Boris Johnson’s leadership, though it would suit the opposition to paint it this way (at least until an accusation emerges from the other side of the chamber). No, it’s a moment of reckoning as the stories of the past and of the present finally emerge into light. I welcome that.

Reports like these, and the conversations they provoke, set boundaries and define unacceptable behaviour in the previously “grey areas” of sexual misconduct and abuse. A younger me would know it was my right, or even an obligation, to make a formal complaint about colleagues watching porn at their desk. That’s progress.

There is one area, though, where things are not changing for the better. Today’s allegations were first reported to police in January 2020. Until the case progresses we won’t know more about what happened during that time (pandemic aside) to hold up proceedings. Were the victims disbelieved at first? Given the police record on converting rape complaints into a successful conviction, the question hangs in the air.

More than two years have passed from report to arrest, two years during which this individual has held public office and used the responsibility that office invests in him to exert power over others. That’s not good enough. Like sexual abuse, we must not – and will not – tolerate it anymore.