HOW does sex pest sound to you? I worry this term is a bit Carry On and 1970s. Sex pest sounds like an annoying neighbour in a terrible old sitcom, rather than someone who causes genuine pain or anguish.
Sex pests are in the headlines as the swill from the Harvey Weinstein affair reaches Westminster. A sex pest can ruin a life, but does fit neatly into a headline. And that risks making light of something serious, turning assault into a nuisance: oh, what a pest you are.
The Metro, not often a source of inspiration to this ledge-bound skimmer of headlines, sinks lower in my estimation this morning with: “Pestminster crackdown.” Too much even for those of us who like a pun.
What does a sex pest look like? According to today’s Sun, a sex pest looks like Michael Fallon. The defence secretary is an old-school Tory hitman, brought out when waters are choppy, and the man who did for Ed Miliband with a ‘hit’ on the BBC Today programme before the 2015 election.
Judged purely on such appearances, and the oiliness of his manner, and a casual arrogance to make the skin crawl, Michael Fallon is any sort of pest you might wish to name.
Rumours are washing through Westminster of past and present ministers said to have behaved inappropriately. The international trade minister Michael Garnier sent his secretary out to buy sex toys and called her “sugar tits”. He owned up to the offence but dismissed it all as “good humoured high jinks” and “amusing conversation”.
As the balance of power between an MP/Minister and their secretary is far from even, such behaviour cannot be dismissed so lightly.
But what about the oleaginous Fallon? According to the Sun, he was guilty of knee-touching 15 years ago.
Now I am now about to argue that inappropriate touching of knees is unimportant. But it does fall within a broad spectrum of possible offence, depending on the situation and the reaction of the woman being touched.
The Fallon case doesn’t exactly live up to its billing in the Sun – “Shock confession as sex pest dossier implicates SIX Cabinet ministers.” The main headline, wrapped around the odious offender, says: “FALLON: I FELT RADIO HOST’S KNEE.”
The woman receiving this unwanted attention was the journalist and broadcaster Julie Hartley-Brewer. If you’ve caught her on shows such as Have I Got News For You, Hartley-Brewer is tough, rather arrogant, not all that funny, but she does know Westminster.
When this story emerged, Hartley-Brewer refused to name the man involved, but Fallon later outed himself. The journalist then said: “No one was remotely distressed or upset by the incident in 2002”, tweeting: “My knees remain intact.”
She also said: “I have not been a victim and I do not wish to take part in what I believe has now become a Westminster witch hunt.”
To an extent, it’s all about context. If Harvey Weinstein invites a young actress into his hotel bedroom and puts his hand on her knee while asking her to go topless for him, that constitutes a vile situation, deeply alarming behaviour and sexual assault.
If an MP gets too flirty with a journalist who knows him well and isn’t upset by his unwanted attentions, the knee touching is of a different order
None of this is to belittle anything. Yesterday’s debate in Parliament, led by the reliably unimpressive Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, showed that much works needs to be done to make Westminster a safer place of work, especially for young women in junior roles.
But Hartley-Brewer has a point when she says that it is “wrong to treat workplace banter and flirting – and even misjudged sexual overtures – between consenting adults as being morally equivalent to serious sexual harassment or assault. It demeans genuine victims of real offences.”
A thorny thicket, for sure. Everything must be done to flush sexually inappropriate behaviour out of Westminster and everywhere else. But there is a danger that Sun-style exaggeration does muddy the waters in ways that aren’t helpful, and can even inadvertently downgrade women with genuine complaints.
And if the woman whose knee was touched is not bothered, then that should be the end of it. Even if the frightful Fallon should keep his hands to himself.