US President Donald Trump’s decision to mock a woman who spoke about being allegedly sexually assaulted has damaged efforts to tackle such behaviour and create a better society for women and men, writes Christine Jardine.
Some American Presidents, like Barack Obama, I found inspirational. George W Bush was frustrating, and Bill Clinton could be inspirational and infuriating in equal measure.
But I have never felt the mixture of anger, despair and downright fear which I experienced listening to Donald Trump last week.
In the midst of a high-profile examination of sexual assault allegations against his Supreme Court nominee, this President chose to mock, belittle and undermine the woman who had come forward to talk about it.
In some ways, the outcome of the Senate hearings and FBI investigation almost don’t matter now. The damage has been done.
Just when we thought society was being more supportive and understanding of victims of sexual abuse, harassment and inappropriate behaviour, along came the Brett Kavanaugh case to prove us wrong.
Like so many women, and I’m sure men too, I know exactly what it’s like to sit and think through what the potential implications of calling-out inappropriate behaviour.
Will people say you encouraged it? Will it damage your career if it’s work-related? Will you be accused of having some motive for damaging this other person? Is it worth it?
And it doesn’t have to be a serious sexual assault to throw you into that sort of dilemma. It could be an innuendo about your clothes or looks that made you uncomfortable. Someone invading your space by constantly touching in a way that suggests an intimacy you just don’t share.
Or maybe it’s someone who won’t take the hint that you really don’t fancy them. I can almost hear the tutting coming from some places. But those are exactly the sort of behaviours which, if we don’t nip them in the bud, become the building blocks of harassment.
Twenty years ago those were exactly the sort of situations that women like me had to put up with on an almost daily basis.
It wasn’t that the men in offices up and down the country were evil, nasty individuals. For the most part, they just didn’t appreciate how it made women feel. Many had spent their entire working lives in an all-male environment.
This was before the 2010 Equality Act, or shared parental leave or two decades of high profile legal-cases, TV dramas and public debate about sexual harassment and respect for women in the workplace. Respect for everyone, in all places.
Now they have no excuse. But still it happens. And worse.
Having only ever had to cope with inappropriate behaviour I cannot imagine how difficult it must be if you have suffered an actual sexual assault, wherever it took place. What must the trauma and the fear of how your allegations will be viewed, dissected and portrayed, be like then?
Until last week, women all over the world had taken heart from #metoo. If some of the biggest names in the world of entertainment, sport and politics could be called out for their behaviour, and face justice, things must have changed.
But then came Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump. Both the case itself, and the circus surrounding it, have been horrible to witness. Could we be seeing the beginning of a backlash?
And let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this is some outrageous US-only phenomenon that is restricted to the rich and the Ivy-League educated political elite. No. Here too we are seeing it. Allegations about possible misconduct at the Scottish Parliament have become an examination of how the female First Minister has handled them, rather than the actual accusations, or the person accused.
At Westminster, we do have a new behavioural code aimed at stamping out the totally inappropriate behaviour which some MPs got away with for far too long. But it often feels that the allegations against past and present parliamentarians which prompted the reforms have simply been swept under the carpet. Big names let off the hook. Too dirty to be a minister, yes, but not to stop them staying as a backbench MP.
And that’s without getting into gender pay gaps or under representation in politics.
Twenty years ago, I genuinely thought that we were making progress. In newsrooms where I worked the more women who were in influential positions the less sexist nonsense and inappropriate behaviour we had to put up with. It was the same in offices across the country.
I was confident that I would be judged on my merits and not expected to fulfil some sexual stereotype. By the time my, then infant, daughter entered the workplace it would, I was sure, all be ancient history. Seems I was wrong.
My daughter is fortunate in her employer, but I know from my own experience, and the younger women around me, that not enough has changed. Worse still the machinations of the Senate committee on Brett Kavanaugh have added to the suspicion that, as I heard one person put it this week: “This women’s stuff has gone too far, we have to think about the men.”
Well. No. I’m sorry. It’s not that simple. It’s never acceptable for any man or woman to use either their power in the workplace or some exaggerated opinion of themselves to make someone else uncomfortable or stressed.
If that behaviour extends to a proven physical or emotional threat, our only thought should be removing them, and quickly.
And if that threat is historic and has left someone emotionally traumatised and unable to speak up for many years? We should support them through the fresh trauma of coming forward.
Yes, the accused should always be innocent until proven guilty. But in pursuing that proof we should not allow the fresh harassment or bullying that we have seen in so many cases. That #metoo inspired spring in my step has been a little flatter this week. But I’m also a little more determined that whenever those questions about calling out behaviour are asked there is one answer everyone should hear. Is it worth it? Always.