Alex Salmond inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon being asked to apologise for previous support for former First Minister validated harmful ideas about sexual harassment – Brenna Jessie

In all of our public conversations about the handling of complaints of workplace sexual harassment, we must ask if our approach is making it easier or harder for anyone who may experience sexual violence of any kind to come forward.

Nicola Sturgeon takes the oath before giving evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

It is ironic that some will still ask why women do not report sexual crimes when we have all recently borne witness to the very worst-case scenario of what happens when they do. It is incredibly difficult to see how the events of recent years can have inspired any confidence or hope for what should happen if someone reports their experience. What we’ve seen instead is a manifestation of many survivors’ worse fears.

We’ve seen evidence of institutional failures to respond appropriately to sexual harassment in the workplace, resulting in women being badly let down. We’ve seen complaints of sexual harassment weaponised and used to further personal and political agendas, with the well-being of those who made these complaints – and indeed survivors everywhere – viewed as unfortunate collateral damage.

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Then we’ve witnessed the hypocrisy of those responsible for this shameful behaviour in barefaced claims that actually they’ve done it all for the women. Meanwhile – as is far too often the case – women have been silenced, stripped of their agency as those who seek to capitalise on their experiences whip up a tornado with no thought for the havoc and damage they will cause along the way.

In a truly typical and yet deeply depressing move last Thursday, we also saw Nicola Sturgeon being asked quite insidiously to apologise for having asked the public to trust Salmond at all.

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It is right that the Scottish government is held to account for where they have let women reporting sexual harassment down, crucially so that this does not ever happen again. However, the memo that women are not responsible for the actions of men appears to have passed many by. Asking this of the First Minister – yet again – validated some of the most harmful ideas about sexual harassment that we and many others have worked for decades to undo.

Throughout the MeToo movement and in the years that have followed, the strength of women standing in solidarity has been heralded as progress, a tipping point where in coming together and harnessing our collective power we might just be able to hold those who abuse their power to account.

Alex Salmond takes the oath before giving evidence to the Holyrood committee just days before Nicola Sturgeon's appearance

The sometimes popular rhetoric that survivors should simply “speak out” has been undermined by a dangerous idea – one that has been given far too much legitimacy by those who should know better – where the motives of women confiding in one another to seek support have been warped into allegations of collusion.

We have all felt alone in this world, and when any of us experience any sort of hardship or trauma, it is natural to want or to seek support from someone we feel will understand, whether through compassion or shared experience.

This most basic of human connections is not a luxury that is afforded to those who have experienced sexual violence of any kind; if you speak then it is collusion, if you don’t speak then why on Earth not, what do you have to hide?

Women are so often held to an impossibly high standard in how we respond to men’s sexual misconduct, while the men who do behave inappropriately or criminally often face no consequence.

The complexities and challenges of living in families and communities where abusers walk amongst us – and, despite common media portrayals, are not monsters visible from afar and shunned, but rather charming and often loved family members, friends, and respected individuals – are lost.

Despite knowing that when women do speak out they are frequently disbelieved and scorned, we use the benefit of hindsight to castigate those other women who somehow should have seen, known, warned or done something, even when the same is almost never expected of their male peers.

Prescriptive and rigid ideas of how women should/should not behave either before, during or after an assault are used to undermine whether it happened at all.

The personal cost to survivors in terms of mental health and well-being, of seeking redress through the criminal justice system is often impossibly high – and the realistic chances of justice extraordinarily slim. Yet if they do not then they are asked: what if he does it to someone else? As though that is somehow their responsibility or burden to bear.

Just as abusers walk amongst us so too do survivors, and they are witness and party to conversations every day that have the power to be deeply hurtful and harmful. The glee with which people have poured fuel on, lit a match to and then grabbed popcorn to watch Scottish politics go up in flames has made them lose sight of all those being burned.

Members of Parliament from all parties should reflect on the fact that these issues are present across parties, sectors and institutions. Integrity is not found in how someone responds to allegations of sexual violence that have the potential to be personally or professionally convenient, but in those that could be catastrophic.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, an opportunity not just to celebrate the strength, resilience and work of women worldwide, but also a chance for us here in Scotland to begin reparations after the events of the last two years and commit to a better conversation about sexual violence. Survivors deserve no less.

Brenna Jessie, Rape Crisis Scotland

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