Can’t you take a bit of sexual assault?

Rachel Malik

To mark the 60th anniversary of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Gove and Neil Kinnock were interviewed by John Humphrys about the experience of being interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme. In the live broadcast from the Wigmore Hall on Saturday, they were happy to go along with the myth of the 8.10 interview and show their willingness to play the game of politics hard and with good humour. ‘Coming into the studio with you, John,’ Gove said, ‘is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.’ There was laughter from much of the studio audience and applause from some. Not to be outdone, Kinnock said: ‘John goes way past groping – way past groping.’ Cue more laughter. Beyond the Wigmore Hall, there was outrage at Gove’s treatment of sexual violence as an opportunity for a chummy witticism; he soon apologised ‘unreservedly’ for his ‘clumsy attempt at humour’. In the furore, the BBC continued to report that Michael Gove had made a joke about Harvey Weinstein.

It’s worth looking more closely at Gove’s queasy analogy (the remark clearly wasn’t off the cuff). Going a few rounds with Humphrys on the Today programme is something that high-status politicians choose to do. They hope not to get caught out, not to come out of it looking like a fool. But above all, they know what they’re letting themselves in for. It should go without saying that their experience is nothing at all like that of young actors being subjected to sexual harassment and assault by a rich and powerful film producer. But Gove’s comparison also brings us back to the familiar territory of blaming the victim for harassment and assault: she should know what to expect, she shouldn’t take risks and, failing that, she shouldn’t take things too seriously. Kinnock’s quip about the interview being ‘more than groping’ suggests he understands harassment in the same way as Gove, and a good part of the audience did too – the complicity was stifling.

Patting, squeezing, pinching, what’s the harm, can’t you take a bit of sexual assault? Kinnock’s joke suggests that there is a hierarchy of actions – part of a familiar discourse rehearsed endlessly over recent weeks. There are actions that are just a bit of fun, just ‘groping’, but there are other actions that a majority thinks unacceptable, sanctionable and, on occasion, serious enough to require legal redress – it’s a matter of degree. Within this discourse, moreover, there’s always going to be a familiar, tricky grey area: my version of events is always going to be different from yours.

But there isn’t a hierarchy of this kind. Rather, there are two languages fighting for interpretative authority over the same set of actions, the same set of events. The first language (‘a bit of a grope’, ‘just a bit of fun’, ‘I thought she’d be flattered’, ‘she can’t take a joke’) is colloquial, light-hearted, familiar; it’s what you say down the pub, or in the ‘locker room’, or in the editorial offices of the Sun and Mail, or in too many parts of the House of Commons. Its apparent everydayness fuses seamlessly with ‘men will be men’ and a thousand riffs of the same kind. It’s a gendered discourse, sure, but one that both men and women can and do use, and it has authority – Gove and Kinnock competed to use it. But it isn’t ‘common sense’, and it’s no more natural than any other language.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not different in kind from groping, squeezing and grabbing. Groping, squeezing and grabbing are harassment and assault. It should be simple but somehow it can’t be, and one of the reasons is that the two languages don’t have equal authority. The ‘trouble’ with words like assault or harassment is that they don’t seem to belong in everyday discourse, they sound technical, perhaps a little alien. And from here it’s a short step to seeing this type of language as unnatural: the unwelcome entry of officialdom into the private world – too much red tape and political correctness gone mad – because we all know what we mean, don’t we? Except, clearly, ‘we’ don’t. There is no ‘we’, and no end of ways not to believe women.

This facile ‘common sense’ needs to be countered with other ways of talking. One among others is to describe harassment and assault in chilling narrative detail, to defamiliarise it, sever it from the label of a ‘bit of fun’ or ‘things getting out of control’. Some of the most powerful witness from women has told in painful specificity exactly what happened. It makes for uncomfortable listening and reading, and rightly so. But patriarchy doesn’t suffer challenge, criticism or even discomfort lightly. All too soon, it’s time to move on. Gove’s ‘clumsy’ joke marks a moment at which Weinstein becomes a byword, starts to pass into folklore, and is neutralised. Jokes like this at moments like this are attempts at punctuation: full stop, end para, we’ve talked about this enough. Gove and Kinnock and all the others think it’s time to get back to ‘normal’. It isn’t. We won’t.


  • 31 October 2017 at 5:43pm
    twlldynpobsais says:
    "We won't", you say [go back to what you allege is "normal."]

    So, what do you propose to do if you won't take this "byword" lying down?

    • 31 October 2017 at 6:52pm
      John Cowan says: @ twlldynpobsais
      I can't speak for Malik, but for me the desired end state is one in which nobody touches anyone without verbalized consent in advance (not necessarily immediately before: I routinely touch people in my family because I know I have consent to do so). What's so hard about that?

    • 31 October 2017 at 7:01pm
      Forkintheroad says: @ John Cowan
      Isn't this likely to be a bit culture-specific? The French and Spanish habitually touch on greeting. And what about a handshake?

    • 31 October 2017 at 7:27pm
      twlldynpobsais says: @ John Cowan
      What if (as I have been) you coach boys and girls of (say) 8-12 in football and you put your arm around some child either to congratulate or console him or her on something magnificent or utterly useless.

      What's so hard about that, you ask? (Well, luckily for the coach, he has had to obtain police certification of his non-criminal background, so maybe such a person becomes immune to frivolous claims about "touching".) But in the present atmosphere some vicious parent is likely to report the coach to the police for "unwanted touching."

      I suspect this kind of consolatory or congratulatory touching goes on all the time, but it is equally possible that children in need of some hugging will be denied it because of the hysteria of the times.

    • 1 November 2017 at 9:26am
      SamGamgee says: @ John Cowan
      "Nobody touches anybody"?

      How would I have been taught to write in grade one without my teacher, the fearsome (but entirely proper) Miss Arnot, touching me?

      How can a game such as cricket be taught without some touching, as when a coach corrects a boy's grip on a bat?

      Verbalised consent in advance? Not feasible.

    • 15 November 2017 at 4:55am
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ SamGamgee
      I suggest that nobody touches anyone without a layer present to represent each party, and preferably with a signed and witnessed contract laying out the exact parameters of interaction that will be tolerated. Something, I imagine, a bit like this:

  • 31 October 2017 at 8:11pm
    eeffock says:
    The upswell of outrage in response to the harassment and debasement of women is well-overdue.

    Combined with the mounting protests against violence against non-euro-americans (e.g. by athletes) gives hope for a reinvigorated wave of resistance to the brutality of status quo.

  • 31 October 2017 at 8:35pm
    Unanimus says:
    In this debate, I have a feeling, that it is only half of the story that is being debated because of "political correctness".
    But I am sure there are a lot of questions that should be asked. If the person asking didn't run the risk of being teared to pieces(not literally).
    For one.
    -Why is it that only rich people are accused of this behavior after so many years?
    Just asking.
    NOTE: I am against any kind of harassment sexual and other and also against all types of provocation.

  • 1 November 2017 at 8:52am
    Lady Ella Bee says:
    Thank you Rachel Malik for an excellent blog. The jokes made by these two politicians Gove and Kinnock were deeply unfunny and tone-deaf; the complicity of the
    audience perhaps worse, demonstrating unthinking herd instinct. (Or was it nervous laughter?

    The brief analysis of the duality inherent in the linguistics of sexual assault gave me food for thought and left me wanting more.

    This type of discourse invariably instantly attracts some male commentators who post along the lines of 'I am against any and all sexual harassment of women but...' and then out pop the same tedious arguments - often those inherent in Gove's and Kinnock's 'jokes'. Clearly, some people just don't get it.

    I hope that this moment heralds a sea change in attitudes, regulations and laws. Women and men both, all of us concerned people who feel nauseous each time yet another assault is reported, can make it so. Even on a small scale.

  • 1 November 2017 at 10:53am
    Sashimi says:
    I think Julia Hartley-Brewer has it about right. "I believe it is absurd and wrong to treat workplace flirting and banter - and even misjudged sexual overtures - between consenting adults as being morally equivalent to sexual harassment or assault." A great deal depends on context. I think Gove and Kinnock were fools to behave like clods in a broadcast. If there is some kind of 'guardianship' relationship like employer, the threshold becomes much lower. A written report of the words spoken can also be very misleading because it may not reflect tone of voice or body language. I gather that a number of the 41 Tory MPs on the list are having consensual affairs. How on earth is that the business of anyone other than the participants and the partners they may be cheating on?

  • 1 November 2017 at 12:39pm
    XopherO says:
    "Groping, squeezing and grabbing are harassment and assault" Is there no distinction between the two words? Surely 'assault' is a sufficient term in law, as it does not have to be a physical attack - that used to be called 'assault and battery' - but a simple physical or verbal threat. Groping etc is a sexual assault (and battery), as would be unwelcome verbal (or physically expressed) propositioning, no need to pull in the word harassment which has a very wide use both transitively and intransitively outside this context. How does sexual harassment differ from assault? Is there some supposed dividing line which I cannot grasp? Let's call it all assault, as it is, which has a certain clarity. And why in the UK do many commentators persist in using the American pronunciation with the accent on the second syllable rather than the first, particularly in this context?

  • 3 November 2017 at 8:53am
    Lady Ella Bee says:
    Here is a handy if not complete explanation of the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment:

    Provided by coastguards so specific to their environment but nonetheless a useful starting point to clarify the differences and similarities between the two words - both in law and for the lay person.

  • 3 November 2017 at 10:16am
    whisperit says:
    Rachel Malik's point that "Jokes like this at moments like this are attempts at punctuation: full stop, end para, we’ve talked about this enough. Gove and Kinnock and all the others think it’s time to get back to ‘normal’" is spot on.

    I have just listened to journalist Petronella Wyatt, being interviewed (and talking over her fellow interviewee) on Radio 4's "Today" programme. She advanced the arguments that underpin the "joke": that sexual advances occur in a setting of equality between individuals; that there is something flattering about the attention; and that the essential meanings and values of the exchange are unchallenged. (I presumed that Wyatt was in her dotage to advance the argument she did - but a look at her biography on Wikipedia explained things better.)

    Because it's all about power. Jokes like the Gove and Kinnock double act turn the stomach because they come from inside the locus of power - sharing a moment like that, one has an immediate vision of leather armchairs and the scent of cigars. (Wyatt had a limited kind of access to that club, but there was a price to pay.)

    Gove and Kinnock have apologised, and no doubt will protest that they never meant anything bad, but making an issue of these apparently trivial remarks is important. They are not witty, and "work" only if the underpinning social relations and values are assumed and shared. Deconstructing the joke exposes this.

  • 4 November 2017 at 3:03pm
    XopherO says:
    Lady Ella Bee

    An interesting website which essentially makes a distinction between harassment in the workplace and general assault not directly involving workplace relations. But what it fails to point out is that sexual harassment has been illegal (essentially viewed as a form of personal assault, and rightly so) since 2010 (it might also involve blackmail), so whether connected to work or not it is a crime, and so a matter for the police to decide on criminal action, and the employer to decide on sanctions (hopefully under a system of protocols) whether the police proceed or not.

    There is no dividing line. Harassment of all kinds is assault, and to seek to draw a line somewhere is to ignore the law, and to ignore the effect on the victim, which can be just as traumatic as actual physical assault, particularly as the victim often has little choice but to continue working in the same place as the aggressor, whose punishment may be just a mild reprimand, or nothing.

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