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All the women of Westminster are asking for is to go freely about their work

The male reaction to the Westminster sexual harassment scandal has been dispiriting. Men from all corners, whether the press, the public or the male MPs themselves, have managed to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding about what it is women are actually asking for, through a combination of overblown reaction and laughing the whole thing off.

Tory MP Sir Roger Gale declared the House of Commons was being subjected to a 'witch hunt'. He said the way the allegations were being reported was despicable. Men were being treated as guilty before being proven innocent – they were not being treated fairly.

He continued that he could see no proof of wrongdoing. “There may be things that have been done, a hand on a knee. Fine, you know, 15 years ago that may have been acceptable where it's not today”.

Then we have journalist Peter Hitchens trying to compare sexual harassment to militant Islam. The headline of his piece in the Mail on Sunday read: “What will women gain from all this squawking about sex pests? A niqab”.

He tried to argue that in eradicating the harassment of women and bringing back what he termed 'restrain and manners' we would be moving away from a liberated society and so closer to the ideals of militant Islamists.

Similarly Charles Moore's column in the Sunday Telegraph chose to mock the women who have spoken out rather than support them. The headline to his column read “This scandal shows that women are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us.” He equates the sex scandal – which in his words “strangely contains very little sex” – as a plot by women to seize power from men.

Whilst on this week's edition of BBC panel show 'Have I got News for You', guest host Jo Brand felt compelled to stand up, as the only woman on the panel, to the men who persisted in downplaying the claims of sexual harassment.

Responding to a headline about an MP taking his personal trainer to the cinema, journalist Ian Hislop said “some of this is not high-level crime, is it, compared to Putin or Trump”. To which Jo Brand responded that it doesn't have to be high level crime for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons. She continued: “Actually, women, if you're constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.”

What has certainly been demonstrated by all these male reactions to the allegations of sexual harassment, and worse, at Westminster is the lack of understanding of what women are actually fighting for.

This is not about a power struggle to completely gazump men and take over Parliament. This is about women being able to go into work each day without having to put up with endless sexist comments and wandering hands. This is a culture which has existed for far too long in workplaces where the number of men exceeds women and it is time for it to stop.

Men's reactions of outrage at being 'victimised', coupled with mocking laughter, are contradictory and seem to display the level of confusion they share over why women are calling for this change in the first place.

For men like Sir Roger Gale this has obviously always been a part of working life, it's how male bosses have interacted with their female staff for decades. Men seem to be trying to work out how they are going to interact with women when they can't resort to bawdy comments and a grab of a knee - and their minds are blank.

What these men also don't seem to realise, still, is that this culture of small but persistent harassments is inextricably linked to what they like to see as the incidents of 'high crime', the actual 'sex' in the term sexual harassment.

If a culture of men demeaning women on a regular basis through words and unwanted touches continues then there will also continue to exist a culture which too often turns a blind eye and tries to hush up the more serious allegations of sexual abuse and rape.

Make it possible for a woman to be given exactly the same level of respect, the same ability to go about her workplace unbothered by the opposite sex as men, then you start dealing with the very core of the problem which leads to men on a power trip taking young party activists back to their hotel rooms and raping them.

That's why a hand on the knee is never a laughing matter. That is why this cannot be dismissed as a 'witch hunt'. This is about redressing a severe disbalance between the sexes, which in the words of Labour MP Harriet Harman is 'long overdue'.


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