Can’t you take a bit of a joke /sexual assault ?

Nothing But Feeling « LRB blog

This was first posted on the LRB blog on 30 October as Can’t you take a bit of sexual assault 

To mark the 60th anniversary of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Gove and Neil Kinnock were interviewed by John Humphrys about the experience of being interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme. In the live broadcast from the Wigmore Hall on Saturday, they were happy to go along with the myth of the 8.10 interview and show their willingness to play the game of politics hard and with good humour. ‘Coming into the studio with you, John,’ Gove said, ‘is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.’ There was laughter from much of the studio audience and applause from some. Not to be outdone, Kinnock said: ‘John goes way past groping – way past groping.’ Cue more laughter. Beyond the Wigmore Hall, there was outrage at Gove’s treatment of sexual violence as an opportunity for a chummy witticism; he soon apologised‘unreservedly’ for his ‘clumsy attempt at humour’. In the furore, the BBC continued to report that Michael Gove had made a joke about Harvey Weinstein.

It’s worth looking more closely at Gove’s queasy analogy (the remark clearly wasn’t off the cuff). Going a few rounds with Humphrys on the Today programme is something that high-status politicians choose to do. They hope not to get caught out, not to come out of it looking like a fool. But above all, they know what they’re letting themselves in for. It should go without saying that their experience is nothing at all like that of young actors being subjected to sexual harassment and assault by a rich and powerful film producer. But Gove’s comparison also brings us back to the familiar territory of blaming the victim for harassment and assault: she should know what to expect, she shouldn’t take risks and, failing that, she shouldn’t take things too seriously. Kinnock’s quip about the interview being ‘more than groping’ suggests he understands harassment in the same way as Gove, and a good part of the audience did too – the complicity was stifling.

Patting, squeezing, pinching, what’s the harm, can’t you take a bit of sexual assault? Kinnock’s joke suggests that there is a hierarchy of actions – part of a familiar discourse rehearsed endlessly over recent weeks. There are actions that are just a bit of fun, just ‘groping’, but there are other actions that a majority thinks unacceptable, sanctionable and, on occasion, serious enough to require legal redress – it’s a matter of degree. Within this discourse moreover there’s always going to be a familiar, tricky grey area: my version of events is always going to be different from yours.

But there isn’t a hierarchy of this kind. Rather, there are two languages fighting for interpretative authority over the same set of actions, the same set of events. The first language (‘a bit of a grope’, ‘just a bit of fun’, ‘I thought she’d be flattered’, ‘she can’t take a joke’) is colloquial, light-hearted, familiar; it’s what you say down the pub, or in the ‘locker room’, or in the editorial offices of the Sun and Mail, or in too many parts of the House of Commons. Its apparent everydayness fuses seamlessly with ‘men will be men’ and a thousand riffs of the same kind. It’s a gendered discourse, sure, but one that both men and women can and do use, and it has authority – Gove and Kinnock competed to use it. But it isn’t ‘common sense’, and it’s no more natural than any other language.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not different in kind from groping, squeezing and grabbing. Groping, squeezing and grabbing are harassment and assault. It should be simple but somehow it can’t be, and one of the reasons is that the two languages don’t have equal authority. The ‘trouble’ with words like assault or harassment is that they don’t seem to belong in everyday discourse, they sound technical, perhaps a little alien. And from here it’s a short step to seeing this type of language as unnatural: the unwelcome entry of officialdom into the private world – too much red tape and political correctness gone mad – because we all know what we mean, don’t we? Except, clearly, ‘we’ don’t. There is no ‘we’, and no end of ways not to believe women.

This facile ‘common sense’ needs to be countered with other ways of talking. One among others is to describe harassment and assault in chilling narrative detail, to defamiliarise it, sever it from the label of a ‘bit of fun’ or ‘things getting out of control’. Some of the most powerful witness from women has told in painful specificity exactly what happened. It makes for uncomfortable listening and reading, and rightly so. But patriarchy doesn’t suffer challenge, criticism or even discomfort lightly. All too soon, it’s time to move on. Gove’s ‘clumsy’ joke marks a moment at which Weinstein becomes a byword, starts to pass into folklore, and is neutralised. Jokes like this at moments like this are attempts at punctuation: full stop, end para, we’ve talked about this enough. Gove and Kinnock and all the others think it’s time to get back to ‘normal’. It isn’t. We won’t.

Let me know what you think