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Political pundit Isabel Oakeshott drew much ire on Twitter this week when she described Stanley Johnson, who stands twice accused of groping women at Conservative party conferences, as “handsy”. It is a word women are all too familiar with.
Tory MP Caroline Nokes, who is chairperson of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, claims Mr Johnson “smacked” her forcefully on the behind at the event in 2003 before making a vulgar comment. He was then a party candidate. Ailbhe Rea, the political journalist, then alleged Mr Johnson, father of Boris Johnson, had “groped” her at the conference in 2019. In response to the allegations, the 81-year-old said he has “no recollection” of Ms Nokes and has “no idea what she was talking about”. He said his answer was “exactly the same” in response to claims made by Ms Rea.
No doubt seizing her opportunity to capitalise on a trending topic, Ms Oakeshott tweeted a picture of her and Mr Johnson, alongside the caption: “The charming Stanley Johnson can be a little over-friendly – indeed handsy – but I don’t believe this is one for the police. Officers should focus their limited resources on investigating real crimes.”
Her statement may appear in favour of Mr Johnson. It seemingly dismisses the claims made by Ms Nokes and Ms Rea as paltry. In my opinion, what it actually does, however, is provide anti-rape campaigners like me with the perfect example as to why the “handsy” behaviour of men has been tolerated by so many for so long.
Let’s leave aside the allegations against Stanley Johnson, and break down exactly what “handsy” means in a wider context. Women are all too used to putting up with “handsy” men. The “handsy” uncle who pats you on the bottom at family functions, there’s a good girl. The “handsy” colleague with a special propensity for brushing your thigh with his fingers under the conference table, no matter how you sit. The “handsy” friend-of-a-friend who grabs your boob after three drinks, widens his eyes and cups his mouth in feigned surprise, like a dated frame from a Carry On movie.
The thing about the word “handsy”, though, is that it fools no one. To me, in general, it is a euphemism for one thing, and one thing only. Men use it to sanitise the act of violation and make excuses for it, and women at the receiving end may employ it to neutralise the situation and protect themselves from further harm and humiliation. Some women use the understatement as men do, having been brought up in the same misogynistic society we all have – one that regularly gives permission for perpetrators to disregard the consent of women in order to exert power and control in any given situation, and frames those who speak out against it “bad sports” who can’t “take a joke”.
Again, examining the language separately from allegations made againt Mr Johnson, let’s unpack the word “charming”. When we think of perpetrators of sexual offences, when our mind searches through schemas of memories filed away after years of absorbing media tropes and social norms, we tend to skim passed trusted family members and friends, and land instead on the idea of these individuals as being different from us – monstrous, even. But this isn’t true. Statistically, we know that one in five women between the ages of 16 and 65 in the UK have been sexually assaulted. We also know that a high proportion of these offences are not committed by strangers, but by men their victims know and trust. Likeable men. Successful men. Part of the family.
One of the reasons women find it so difficult to come forward after being assaulted is through fear of not being believed. Many find it so unpalatable to have the reality of who they perceive to be safe and unsafe challenged, they would rather accept that a woman is lying than that a man they know and trust is capable of criminal behaviour. In fact, men are 230 times more likely to be raped themselves by another man than they are to be falsely accused of rape. And if there is no doubt? Minimising the severity of impact of the offence on the victim works just as well.
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Back to the word “handsy” then, and the term “over-friendly”, both of which could imply that sexual harassment has become a determining feature of an individual’s character – a man does it all the time, silly thing, and no one ever pulls him up on it. So he goes on and on and on, grabbing a breast here, slapping a buttock there, while they laugh and laugh and laugh and invariably do nothing. The assumption here is that things will never go any further – a “handsy” man could never commit a “real crime” like rape. Again, though, this is categorically false. Sweating the “small stuff” can serve to embolden perpetrators, giving them permission to take their offending to increasing levels of violence.
As for whether incidences of groping or sexual harassment are a matter for police investigation – as Sir Keir Starmer suggested it should be – that is down to the victim to decide. Sexual harassment is not defined as an offence in its own right under UK law, but sexual assault is. However, the criminal justice system is not fit for purpose, often serving to re-traumatise survivors of assault with little-to-no outcome. Prosecution rates in England and Wales are so low, “real crimes” like rape have been effectively decriminalised.
From report to court, from officer to jury, women face the same misogyny that allows “handsy” men to get away with it: the disbelief, the invalidation, the myths, the shame and the reversal of blame. If only men would find the backbone to start stepping in and refusing to tolerate the “handsy” among their peers and save us all the trouble.
Jenn Selby is a journalist, editor and women’s rights campaigner who successfully campaigned to change the Recall Act to allow constituents to sack MPs found guilty of sexual harassment or assault. In 2019, she ran in the general election as a candidate for the Women’s Equality Party, ousting MP Mark Field and standing down for the Lib Dems in exchange for them backing gender equal policies