We are engulfed in a cultural storm. Amid a welter of accusation, rumour and gossip on sexual misconduct, the needle is shifting on the dial of that most intrusive and sensitive of human behaviours: what is, and what is not, sexually permissible.
Parliament is now awash with accusations about “inappropriate” sexual conduct – arguably now the most toxic word in the English language – covering anything between fumbled pass to attempted rape, where its use seems altogether too prissy.
But what a thunderball of a word. Has there ever been one more ill-defined – and one with a greater capacity to wreck careers? Today it is hurtling through the House of Commons, scattering the reputations of MPs.
And it is spreading wider. The stream of allegations and talk of a ‘slease’ list of 36 MPs accused of improper sexual conduct has been likened to the great expenses scandal.
The name of a Cabinet minister, alleged to be “handsy at parties” and “not safe in taxis”, is reported to have been found on the Ashley Madison adultery website. Shocked WhatsApp messages have been pinging across Westminster as people link accusations with prominent political figures.
Meanwhile Labour activist Bex Bailey has told the BBC that the party told her not to pursue a rape allegation after she was attacked by a senior colleague. She was told not to report it because it might “damage” her. Bailey waived her right to anonymity to speak out.
Some of the accusations such as rape merit unqualified condemnation if proven to be true. Others cite offensive remarks. Some reach back more than 30 years. In this deeply intrusive sphere, there is no statute of limitations or a ‘time expiry’ clause. Pain and shame can linger for decades.
Good luck to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Speaker of the Commons in what they propose to do about it. How are the allegations to be investigated and who by, if the victims do not wish to go to the police? There is even talk of a parliamentary “sexual conduct tsar” for heaven’s sake.
Disgrace and exclusion there should certainly be for the worst offenders. But is the ‘sex tsar’ to pronounce on every case of “inappropriateness”? What is a pathetic fumble, and what an outright sexual violation? What is a harmless joke? And what a lewd and deeply offensive remark?
“Inappropriate” is subject to the ever-shifting sands of public taste and notions of acceptability. But it is a stinking swamp of a word. The dictionary definition reads “not suitable or proper in the circumstances”. But what circumstances, exactly?
Someone may have done or said something that need not be technically “bad” or “wrong” but which causes offence.
All such cases have their own context, but many appear to have three elements in common: one is an abuse of power, where the dominant party takes advantage of a position of authority. The most egregious examples are teachers pressing their attentions on pupils, doctors on their patients, Hollywood moguls on aspiring starlets – and MPs on interns and office assistants. It is right such abuse is exposed and the perpetrators called to account.
Another frequent element is alcohol. The loss of inhibition, the lowering of discretion: alcohol is the elixir of intimate encounter. It can turn the most balmy zephyrs of attraction into hurricanes of desire. It is common to blame alcohol for misbehaviour: “It wasn’t me, it was the drink.” But did the drink mysteriously decant itself down our throats? Did we imagine we were just sipping on lemonade?
The third is a gathering reaction to the progressive thinking of recent decades: the belief that boundaries could be safely lowered, that liberalisation and permissiveness in conduct was a ‘good’ with no harmful effects.
When we relaxed the restrictions on alcohol sales and pub closing times, many seriously believed our city centres would be transformed into pleasing street cafes, abuzz with gentle conversation over a glass of wine as the soft strains of a distant accordion added to the illusion of romantic Parisian charm.
How rude was the awakening when we discovered that human nature had not changed overnight, and that those pub pavements became the settings for raucous shouting and brawls. Public vomiting became commonplace, drunken women cavorting in out-of-control hen parties and police and ambulances rounding up the fallen.
The rise of permissiveness has had similar consequences in the realm of sexual behaviour. Many men may have felt at the time, in the bien pensant era of “let it all hang out”, that intrusive sexual behaviour was excusable, that it would all be forgotten in the morning. Some may affect a memory lapse.
But many men do not forget. That is why, among many now in middle age, today’s eruption of complaint over decades-old intrusive behaviour stirs a most uneasy apprehension. Could not our own misdemeanours return to disgrace us? Did we not also behave in a maladroit and offensive fashion? Did we take ‘no’ to mean ‘yes’? Edith Piaf’s Je ne Regrette Rien may enjoy a timeless appeal. But in truth most of us regret very much with the wisdom of the years.
We know better now. Conscience exists for a reason. Boundaries matter. “Good fences make good neighbours,” wrote the poet Robert Frost. Now we are re-discovering the wisdom that good boundaries in behaviour make for better relations.
But how is that to be achieved? Not by the creation of “grievance procedures”, the appointment of “sex tsars” and caravans of whooping lawyers, regulatory compliance officers and human affairs consultants.
Nor was there ever a golden age of modulated, perfect behaviour when men and women acted in the manner of a Jane Austen novel. We may not have strayed into unbridled licentiousness. But then our culture has never been far from the bawdy, either.
The young and ambitious, desperate to make their mark, have become easy prey when so little care and guidance is given, either as to what constitutes professional behaviour or, of more practically, how to exit tricky situations. And by the same token, little guidance appears to be on offer for those appointed to positions of responsibility on situations and behaviours to avoid.
Hope now resides in the fact that recent events will prove a catalyst and a deeper change in culture and behaviour will set in. But it will take time. And meanwhile, it is likely that the current eruption of accusation, confession and sanction will grow in intensity.