The Daily Mail’s attack on Kate Maltby shows the price women pay for speaking out

When a woman comes forward, she knows her credibility will be undermined.

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How posh does a woman have to be for her account of a man’s behaviour to be dismissed? How ambitious?

Journalist and Tory activist Kate Maltby wrote for the Times this week about her discomfiting relationship with the MP Damian Green. For that, the Daily Mail has profiled her under the headline “One very pushy lady”, calling her “a woman determined to make it in politics – whatever the cost.”

And if accusations of betraying friends, shaming family and publicising herself are too mild for you, don’t worry: Jan Moir is there on the facing page, calling Maltby “poison”, “disingenuous” and “not afraid to use all her charms to get herself noticed”.

So Maltby must have written something pretty astringent about Green, then? Actually, no. Her article doesn’t use the word “harassment” about Green’s alleged actions; she doesn’t accuse him of abuse. “Let me be clear. This is not the most terrible thing that has ever happened to a woman,” she writes. She isn’t angry with him, and she doesn’t call for him to face any sanctions. She asks, instead, for his understanding: “Damian, as you read this, I doubt you had any idea of how awkward, embarrassed and professionally compromised you made me feel.”

It’s that feeling of being compromised that she describes so well, and that makes her article valuable. Her story doesn’t stop in the simple shape of “aspiring young woman intimidated by older, more powerful man”. He’s 30 years older than her and a family acquaintance; at the start of her career in politics, she seeks out his advice. Then, writes Maltby, comes the moment when he makes it clear this is not a professional relationship after all. She drops all contact for a year.

But when she poses in a corset to illustrate an article, Green allegedly sees the picture and texts to ask her out for a drink. She ignores him. Then Brexit happens, Theresa May becomes prime minister, Green becomes her second-in-command, at which point Maltby gets back in touch, and the two go on to have a friendly back-and-forth. (Green has denied the entire account.)

It’s messy, like these things so often are. What’s clearly described, though, is a relationship where a man had power – the power to support advancement, the power to pass on information that journalism lives or dies on. And when a man introduces sex to such a relationship, the corrosive effect for the young woman is subtle but profound. She wonders if she invented that brush of the hand; and when she doesn’t wonder any more, she doubts herself in another way, doubts her intelligence and her abilities, doubts that there was anything interesting about her at all besides her tits.

Well, so what. If you don’t want a man to think you’re fruity, don’t wear the corset – easy, although somehow I suspect that, say, Giles Coren would never be discredited in the same way for flaunting his torso in a travel feature. If you don’t like a man flirting with you, cut him off or call him out – there’s nothing to lose, assuming you don’t consider burning a valuable contact any kind of loss, and assuming you’re willing to risk being ostracised by your professional peers.

Because speaking up is terribly, terribly expensive for women. This can’t have been an easy article to write, mild as it is: Helena Kennedy has told the Evening Standard that Maltby confided the story to her a year ago, and Guido Fawkes reports that it received a similar account of Green’s behaviour from a young researcher who ultimately decided not to go on the record.

When a woman comes forward, she knows her credibility will be undermined, her past picked over and her character demolished. She might, like Labour activist Bex Bailey when she reported a rape, simply be told to hush up.

The Mail even snidely quotes from an earlier piece by Maltby on harassment where she alludes to “the guy a few tiers up from us at work – usually a few decades older – who offers to help talk up our promotion prospects in-house as he puts a hand on our knee.” “Surely this was the perfect opportunity for her to reveal how she had once been victim of a wandering hand on her own knee,” chides the Mail, while it tears a woman down in a perfect illustration of the reason so few of us will only talk about this stuff in hints and allusions.

There are no perfect women. We’re all too slutty to have said no or too ugly to be telling the truth, too privileged to have suffered or too chavvy to care about, too fragile to cope or too hardy to be victims. There’s no sweet spot from which to talk about these low-level infractions that shape our lives – shape them, always, to men’s advantage and our disadvantage.

When a national paper is willing to go to war for the hand on the knee and the presumptuous text, it’s not because they fear for one man’s career (which, again, was never threatened by Maltby): it’s because these are the things that keep women where we are.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.