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Laurie Penny on the "Lord Grope" case and a system that discriminates against women

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive.

Lord Rennard (r), who denies the allegations against him, with Menzies Campbell
Lord Rennard (r), who denies the allegations against him, with Sir Menzies Campbell at Lib Dem Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images

Sexual abuse is like every other abuse of power. It assumes that those who have power are entitled to do what they like to those who don’t, and it runs through the British establishment like veins of rot through stinking cheese. This week, when my editor asked me if I might write about “Lord Grope” – aka Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem peer at the centre of the latest high-profile (denied) allegations of sexual harassment – I hesitated. I’ve spent a solid month writing about sexual abuse and women’s rights – and young female writers who talk too much about “lady problems” often find ourselves edged away from talking about “serious politics”. Unfortunately, the fact that the sexual abuse and violence at the heart of the political establishment are not considered “serious politics” is precisely the problem.

Unless you’ve spent the past decade living in the bottom drawer of an elderly lecher’s bedside table, nesting down among the used tissues and copies of Razzle from 1983, you will probably have noticed that the way we understand sex and power is undergoing a vertiginous shift. Across the rainy vistas of the establishment, whether it’s the church, the media, politics or entertainment, sexual abuse by powerful people has suddenly become unacceptable, where for years it was tacitly condoned.

Now panic is setting in. Those with their own dirty bottom drawers are hoping like hell that throwing a few handsy pseudocelebrities to the tabloids to be torn apart will be enough. In the case of “Lord Grope”, it has become clear that Nick Clegg was made aware of complaints about his party’s chief executive years ago but did nothing. Why would he? Until extremely recently, it has been politically expedient to ignore such complaints. Nobody wants to be the next Anita Hill.

The scale and importance of sexual abuse, the difference between a naughty scandal and a rape allegation – these are things that the British public is more than intelligent enough to understand. We just don’t seem to want to. Just this past week I was invited on to ITV’s This Morning to explain to Phillip Schofield whether it is ever appropriate to grab a woman’s bottom. This taught me two things: first, that mainstream sexual discourse still struggles like a dying fish with the notions of context and consent, and second, that you’re not allowed to say “arse” on live television before lunchtime. You’re allowed to talk scurrilously about scandals, but not seriously about rape, abuse, or trauma. That might frighten the kiddies or, worse, the electorate.

Right now, we’re undergoing a small revolution in our understanding of what sexual and social abuse looks like. I do not use the word “revolution” lightly. In a courageous blog post, the Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow described how the Savile case brought back memories of his own experience of childhood abuse and explained that British society is undergoing a “sexual watershed”, where routine exploitation of women and children by those in authority is finally spoken about in public.

“This is a dramatic moment in the affairs of men and women; we shall all be tested,” Snow writes. “And while we in broadcasting, in the law, in parliament, in education, and in wider society must tread with diligence and great care to both accuser and accused, we owe it to those who suffered in a hopefully departing age to have the full protection of us all in ensuring that their claims [are] thoroughly investigated and responded to.”

The question is: are we ready to deal with the warped attitude to power and gender that underpins exploitation, or is bringing down a few gropers going to satisfy us?

In 2013, almost everywhere you look – from the Socialist Workers Party’s wincingly suspicious “rape tribunal”, to the Pollard report on the Savile inquiry, to Father Fiddly being kicked out of the Catholic Church – men who never expected to be held to account for exploiting younger, less powerful women and children are having to deal with the consequences of their actions. What links these cases, apart from a gobsmacking institutional acceptance of sexism, is that the accusations quickly become questions of discretion, discipline and protocol, not of routine exploitation of the vulnerable. The establishment is dealing with the new backlash against sexual and sexist abuse the only way it knows how – by talking to itself.

The voices of women are quickly muted in the press; what might begin as a case of “he said, she said” quickly becomes “he said, he said”. Issues of abuse and exploitation, after all, are “lady problems”, not “serious politics”. Serious politics, politics that makes and keeps headlines, is what happens when women shut up and let the men fight it out like dogs over an inappropriate boner.

When people keep asking themselves a question to which the answer is obvious, it usually means the answer is uncomfortable. Every time the newspapers ask themselves – on the pages opposite images of topless models soundlessly mouthing the editor’s opinions – how decades of sexual abuse of women and children have gone unchecked, they ignore the plain fact that sexual exploitation and sexist discrimination were and remain the background noise of power.

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive. It happens when those in power are allowed to exploit and dehumanise those less powerful than themselves without facing any consequences. And it won’t change until it is challenged.

UPDATE 28 February 2013 14:40:

Following a productive debate on Twitter, I'd like to remind readers that, although systematic sexism plays an enormous role in the normalisation of sexual harassment, it is not only women and children who are victims of institutional abuse. Some people felt that this piece didn't reflect this adequately, and I'm happy to make the point clear.