Sex scandals and false accusations of abuse

Felipe Fernández-Armesto calls for clearer protocols in cases of suspected abuse

March 21, 2013

Statuesque. Stunning. Spectacular. One could trail conventional epithets forever, and raid secret hoards for others - more sensual, more salacious - without capturing the young woman’s cool and lofty loveliness. She belonged to the University of Oxford’s Latin American dance team and, because her tutorials with me were on the evenings of her dress rehearsals, she came to my room gleaming with perfect maquillage and wearing the embarrassingly scanty uniform of her art. It was long ago, when the world was less suspicious and maybe less prurient than now. My student was sensible, level-headed and admirable even more for her intelligence than her looks: she got a First. But I worried about the impression that might linger, should a colleague call to find me apparently entertaining a houri on my sofa.

Irritating ribbing was the worst that would have befallen me in those days; and no one would suspect impropriety from someone so timid, inhibited, unsusceptible and repressed. But the alarming scale of recent and current sex scandals makes me feel astonished at my own naïveté and aware that the rapid pace of change in mores has left us with no reliable protocols for dealing with abuses. In view of the scandals that rend the Church, the media and political life, we should, I suppose, be grateful that the academic world has been relatively quiescent recently. Of stories I have noticed in the past few months, one, in China, was a classic kiss- and-tell by a woman who admitted to trying to bribe or entrap her professor; the other, in Japan, was more concerned with pecuniary than sexual corruption. In US universities, athletics seems to have monopolised the field, leaving academics relatively unscathed amid after-hours paedophilia in the stadium at Pennsylvania State University. At the University of Iowa last November, lubricious locker-room atmosphere got to a professor whose job was to give student-athletes academic advice. Peter Gray resigned after a series of allegations of behaviour ranging from the injudicious to the downright lewd, culminating in claims that he had run a sex-for-tickets racket.

How is it that Silvio Berlusconi got away with behaviour even more shameful, by objective standards, than that which felled Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

In some ways, the US academic cases resemble Britain’s recent scandals: those of Jimmy Savile et hoc genus omne; and of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned following allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards four men dating back decades, despite being an outspoken opponent of homosexuality; or Lord Rennard, accused of pestering women - allegations he has denied but which contributed to his resignation as chief executive of the Liberal Democrat Party in 2009.

In numerous instances, as in the careers of Peter Gray and Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State coach convicted of child abuse, suspicions accumulated for years without anyone doing anything about it.

Most comment has blamed misplaced corporate loyalty: concern to protect the Church, the corporation, the university or the party rather than the victims of abuse. Some pundits cite inequality: the droit de seigneur that cowardice accords to celebrities over nonentities, power-mongers over subordinates, the strong over the weak, and men over women. We will never confront sex abuses successfully, however, unless we recognise the influence of three other, highly problematic, deeply intractable circumstances.

First, sexual behaviour changes along with everything else in culture. In my youth, there was no shame and no attested harm in a priest pinching a choirboy’s bottom, or in a boss squeezing a secretary’s knee - a gesture that seems to have come naturally to Lord Rennard’s generation. Nowadays, such offences could provoke instant downfall, whereas former taboos now seem sanctified as long as they’re plausibly consensual. Yet we have no agreed scale of gravity against which to judge one case against another: at present, Lord Rennard’s and Cardinal O’Brien’s punishments - resignation and public humiliation - seem comparable. But are their alleged sins equivalent?

Second, our judgements are unacceptably capricious. To take just political cases, how is it that Silvio Berlusconi in Italy got away with behaviour even more shameful, by objective standards, than that which felled Dominique Strauss-Kahn in France? In the US, Bill Clinton could desecrate the Oval Office with impunity, whereas Senators Gary Hart and John Edwards, whose peccadilloes - extramarital affairs - were less lurid and less abusive of power, were disqualified even from competing to be in that hallowed space. In the last presidential campaign, Herman Cain, who denied allegations of sexual harassment, fell to accusers whose complaints were about the kind of bottom-pinching and knee-squeezing that seem, by comparison, unheroically sexless. Public opinion responds to sex scandals not on their demerits, it seems, so much as in proportion to the dictates of the media and the moment.

Finally, an irresoluble paradox impairs our power to deal with offenders. We all know cases in which alleged abuses have proceeded from accusers’ imaginations, or from malign conspiracies, or from unrelated motives of hatred or revenge. Like denunciations before the Inquisition in times gone by, such accusations, privileged by secrecy, are hard to refute. If their fire burns out, the accused remain blackened by smoke and scorch marks. Yet when authorities sideline complaints, abusers take courage. Victims of misconduct are shamed or deterred into silence. When we respond - as we must - by encouraging righteous anger, we comfort and multiply the false accusers. How are we to establish just equilibrium? And until we do, will any potential victim be safe from sexual exploitation? Will any potential victim be secure against false accusations?

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Reader's comments (1)

>>>In my youth, there was no shame and no attested harm in a priest pinching a choirboy’s bottom, or in a boss squeezing a secretary’s knee - a gesture that seems to have come naturally to Lord Rennard’s generation. This isn't true. My PhD study was on romantic novels and films which featured secretaries in 1920s and 30s Germany. Pretty much every single book or film which was aimed at young women working in that world made some reference to the hazard of sexual harassment. It wasn't called that, of course, but it was exactly what we call sexual harassment 90 years later. It was sexual comments, leering, touching, hands on knees, doors being locked and women told not to make a fuss. A couple of examples off the top of my head: - Schicksale hinter Schreibmaschine, by Christa Anita Brueck (1930) - the main character is made utterly and completely miserable by a boss who (if I recall correctly) barely ever touches her, but constantly makes lewd comments and stares at her body. She feels disgusting and hates every minute of her job. - Ein Mann mit Herz, film (1932). The heroine is a wealthy girl who gets a job in her father's bank. There is a boss who is known for perving on the young women, and one of the secretaries in the same office as the heroine gives in (it's not clear exactly what she has to do, but it's clear that it's sexual.) He makes the same advances to the heroine, who refuses, and loses her job. This isn't a problem in the film because obviously she's actually wealthy heiress, but it's made pretty clear in this film and most others that it's a real harm that women working in offices had to deal with on a daily basis. At the same time as they were fetishising the boss/secretary romance, most of the books and films I looked at tried to give young women suggestions and advice on how to deal with unwanted sexual attention. But the simple answer was that before feminism women just had to put up with it or lose their jobs. When you say, "there was no shame and no attested harm", what you mean is that before feminism, the powerful people in these scenarios were not required to think about how their actions affected their victims. That's a long way from the victims were unaffected by their actions.