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29 April 2022

Men watch porn at work to shame female colleagues. I know because it happened to me

The Tory MP who viewed pornography in the House of Commons reminded me of the abusive and sexist workplace incidents that led me to quit my career.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

When the news broke on Wednesday, 27 April, that a Tory MP had been reported by two female colleagues for watching porn on his phone in the House of Commons, some people on social media (mostly men) responded that this could only happen in Westminster – or Pestminster, as it’s increasingly known.

A place awash with egos, alcohol and sexism. A place where 56 MPs are currently under investigation for sexual misconduct. A place where a woman, in a skirt – with legs – must surely be scheming to distract the helpless men from their jobs.

But the “only in Westminster” claim wasn’t true. Other social media users (mostly women) described witnessing colleagues, customers and fellow commuters openly viewing porn. On WhatsApp, female friends related stories of men they had worked with watching graphic sex in the office. And I found long-suppressed memories rising to the surface too.

It happened more than once when I was in my mid-twenties and had a staff job on a daily newspaper – but the episode that sticks in my mind unfolded in the office at night. I was alone – or thought I was alone – before I spotted limbs, backsides, open mouths reflected in a window on the opposite side of the room. A computer screen in the glass. A familiar face in a pool of light. The sounds, muffled but unmistakable.

Did he know I was there? I suspect he did. This wasn’t the only time it had happened and I wasn’t the only person who had noticed his habit. The man was vastly above my pay grade and close to the most senior figure in the organisation. He was frequently drunk and had already made lewd remarks to me. He knew he was free to act with impunity.

Why, I now ask myself, did I suppress this memory? Beyond the obvious reason that it was horrible and awkward? The answer was because, at the time, it felt like one of the more harmless offences that occurred in that office. We all know that these incidents rarely take place in a vacuum. They happen in dysfunctional, male-dominated workplaces with arcane employment practices and drinking cultures. And they are often committed by people who feel invincible.

In her new book, Fix the System, Not the Women, the feminist writer Laura Bates encourages her readers to make a list of all the incidents of discrimination and harassment they have experienced in their lives, from the cradle to the workplace, in order to show that misogyny operates as a system. “The greatest threat to our future isn’t the abuse and oppression we have suffered; it is the insistence it never really happened at all.”

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When I read it recently, I found myself recoiling at the idea of attempting such a task. But when the Westminster porn story broke, I started making notes. Here are a few “highlights” from my mid-twenties, when I was starting out in journalism.

Working for an alcoholic boss who could only bring himself to speak to me when he was drunk and would then mock, taunt and scrutinise me. Having to travel with him to a conference, where his behaviour was so predatory and then abusive that the receptionists at the hotel refused to tell him my room number. I shut myself in my room and called a colleague for help. Later, being sexually assaulted by the man who had been sent to rescue me from this situation (a man who went on to be appointed to a senior role at the heart of the British establishment). Reporting the abusive behaviour of my boss – and being offered a month’s salary to go quietly, which meant signing a non-disclosure agreement. Which I did.

This wasn’t the newspaper in which the porn incident happened, by the way. That came later, in my next job. There, I had another male alcoholic boss who scrutinised my appearance and phoned me up drunk. Another office in which I sat alone doing the work while my male colleagues spent the day drinking. Another workplace in which the man who presented himself as an ally amid the dysfunction made a pass at me. Eventually, I resigned from the job – which I loved – and left full-time journalism. I told myself that I was too thin-skinned to deal with workplace harassment. It’s only now that I realise these incidents cost me almost ten years of my career.

None of my experiences are unusual or even particularly extreme. Countless women have similar and worse stories. Countless women have chosen to leave their job, and even their profession, exhausted by men who genuinely do not believe that the normal rules of decency – let alone the law – apply to them. Which leads me back to the Porn MP.

In the last few days, I’ve had several conversations with people who have been gobsmacked by the story (why would anyone watch porn on the front benches?) and also laughed it off as an amusing gotcha. Imagine if it was this that finally brought the government to its knees! But it’s a symptom of two much deeper cultural problems.

The first is the ubiquity and availability of online porn, and how it has normalised male violence against women in a way that society hasn’t even begun to acknowledge. One day we might actually begin to discuss (let alone address) the industrial levels of misogyny that we have allowed to operate just below the surface of our apparently chaste and civil lives.

The second is the workplace culture of male entitlement that indulges, and even encourages, male failure. Anyone who watches porn at work is likely to be half-arsing their job. In the case of my office sex pest, “half” is generous. He was fully arsing his way through each and every working day. On more than one occasion, I covered for him in meetings, giving a sheen of respectability to his ludicrous ideas, and afterwards felt dirty and depressed.

In both of these jobs, I documented everything and took risks to tell editors, board governors, even senior clergy (I worked in religious affairs for a while) and none of them did anything. They muttered euphemistically about these men having a “Charlie Kennedy problem”. They cast these men as tragic figures with alcohol issues and failing marriages. I didn’t even complain about the porn. If no one took the lecherous approaches and predatory remarks seriously, what were the chances they would do anything about porn? Porn is funny, isn’t it?

Women suppress abuse and harassment because we have absorbed the message that we must focus on what we can control and forget the rest. But in reality, we can control very little. It’s an illusion to think we can network, charm, hard work and lean our way out of sexism. The system is rigged against us. Porn is part of it.

Witnessing someone watching porn might seem impersonal – weird and unpleasant, yes, but essentially harmless. When it happened to me, it seemed to ask nothing of me and take nothing from me, unlike other more frightening encounters. But I realise now that it was personal. I was drawn into someone else’s fantasy. My shame, my mute presence was an essential and no doubt thrilling part of the power game. But we shouldn’t shut up about it, should we? Not now, not ever.

[See also: The sexist culture in Westminster reveals itself once more]

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future