Joyce McMillan: Why democracy can't tolerate sexual lies and hypocrisy

WE must change a culture that allows the powerful to mistreat people like Christine Keeler, writes Joyce McMillan.
Christine Keeler (right) and Mandy Rice-Davies, pictured in 1963, were just teenagers when they were being used for sex by powerful men old enough to be their grandfathers (Picture: PA)Christine Keeler (right) and Mandy Rice-Davies, pictured in 1963, were just teenagers when they were being used for sex by powerful men old enough to be their grandfathers (Picture: PA)
Christine Keeler (right) and Mandy Rice-Davies, pictured in 1963, were just teenagers when they were being used for sex by powerful men old enough to be their grandfathers (Picture: PA)

Sunday afternoon at Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the audience are enjoying a gorgeous matinee performance of this year’s Christmas show, Singin’ In The Rain. The songs are lovely, the romance is light-hearted; but suddenly, there’s a hush in the auditorium as the show’s film-star hero Don makes a slightly presumptuous pass at a young woman he has just met in the street, and she fights back.

“You think that just because you’re a big, famous movie star, every girl’s gonna fall at your feet,” says the plucky Kathy, destined to be our heroine. And although, after a pause, some of the audience laugh as they might always have done, others remain silent, thinking it through; somehow, the spectacle of powerful men in the film industry trying to take advantage of their position is not quite the stuff of comedy, any more.

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So when Time Magazine decided, this week, to make “The Silence Breakers” their people of the year, and to illustrate their decision with a stunning group portrait of five of the women who have recently come forward to expose the abusive behaviour of powerful men in the film industry, the arts and politics, they were clearly capturing a significant shift in public attitudes; a form of bullying that was once considered trivial is at last – at least for now – being taken seriously.

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Yet in many ways, we have been here before. Time and again, throughout history, women’s voices have briefly been heard on the subject of sexual abuse, exploitation and hypocrisy, before falling back into relative silence; and this week’s death of the former model and showgirl Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of the 1963 Profumo Scandal that almost destroyed Harold Macmillan’s Tory government, came as a sharp reminder of one of those moments. Today, women joining the campaign to expose sexual harassment often use the hashtag #metoo; but back in 1963, the catchphrase was “he would say that, wouldn’t he?”, the immortal response of Christine Keeler’s flat-mate and colleague Mandy Rice-Davies when she was told that another powerful man, Lord Astor, had denied having sexual relations with her.

When the scandal broke in 1963 – after the Minister for War, John Profumo, was discovered to have lied to the Commons about his affair with Keeler – Keeler and Rice-Davies were aged 21 and 19, and their “friend” Stephen Ward had already been introducing them to powerful men in Lord Astor’s Cliveden set for two years; in other words, they were teenage girls who were first used for sex by men almost old enough to be their grandfathers, and then publicly dismissed as “sluts” when the truth began to come out.

And although we have undergone a massive social and sexual revolution in the last half-century – including the vastly greater economic empowerment of women – it is striking how many of the forces that were at play in 1963 are still present today, even if the balance of power has shifted a little. The voices of women and young male victims are raised, but still often hesitantly, after long periods of silence enforced by fear of professional exclusion, and by misplaced feelings of shame.

And then there is the fact that these accusations are no sooner made, than the same old counter-accusations begin; that these accusers are just publicity-seekers, or vengeful individuals trying to break the careers of powerful men, or hopeless “snowflakes” making much of very minor incidents. Of course, it is impossible to guarantee that no accusers are guilty of such things; and it goes without saying that their claims should always be properly investigated.

Yet in so many recent cases – from the resignation of former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, to the cases of Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore and even Donald Trump himself – their denials of misconduct have been at best half-hearted or self-contradictory, and at worst completely absent; as if most of these privileged men are still being shaped by a patriarchal culture in which the abuse of power for sexual gratification is considered normal, and those who would try to change the rules of the game are just killjoys or puritanical bullies who don’t understand human nature.

The Silence Breakers may have their moment on the front of Time Magazine, in other words. Yet there is still substantial popular support for “backlash” candidates like Trump and Moore, who rage against “political correctness”, and offer a return to the supposed good old days when the complaints of women, homosexuals, ethnic minorities and poor people just didn’t matter a damn. The fight to make sure that changes in this culture become permanent therefore involves the kind of long-term, dogged campaigning effort that the feminists of the early 20th century sustained in the long struggle to win votes for women, and that the feminists of the 1970s also achieved, as they fought for the legislation that enshrines the ideal of equal rights and equal pay for women.

And in the end, it is also worth remembering that to call out this culture of sexual lies, hypocrisy and abuse is not only to do something for the women, children, and young gay men that are its typical targets; it is also to challenge the way power works in our society, and to begin to hold those in power to a higher standard of transparency and respect towards the people they represent and serve. A culture riddled with old-fashioned assumptions about the prerogatives of those in power – particularly about their entitlement to mistreat other human beings, and to lie about it – is a culture that, at the deepest level, understands very little about democracy, or about the three great republican virtues of liberty, equality and fraternity. And although challenging that immature and dangerous view of power is a relentless task, and one almost as full of reversals as it is of real progress, it’s one that is both essential to any worthwhile democratic future, and sometimes full of joy; as we link arms with women throughout history, from today’s Silence Breakers back to Mandy Rice-Davies and far beyond, and continue to move forward, against whatever headwinds history can throw at us.