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One awkward conversation is worth a thousand unwanted sexual advances

“It’s going to drip, drip, drip out.” The words of Labour MP Jess Philips on BBC Radio 4 Today last Friday may have been specifically referring to the allegations surrounding former defence secretary Michael Fallon, but they could equally apply to the way in which a wave of sexual misconduct revelations has slowly enveloped Westminster over the last week. Every day we wake up to another prominent name splashed across the front page. A cabinet minister has resigned, two Labour MPs have been suspended, and many more on both sides of the House are the subject of internal party inquiries. “He brushed her knee.” “She had to buy his wife sex toys.” “They didn’t believe her when she said she’d been raped.” We’ve heard the snippets of news bulletins, glanced at the front page headlines, read the angry tweets. Our minds are awash with allegations: some ridiculous, some uncomfortable, some criminal.

And so the drips begin to lose their individual outlines. As they fall, they blend together, to form one great, rushing torrent. That torrent has proved vital − horrible, ice-cold, and profoundly disturbing, it has shaken our comfortable feminist complacencies, and made us question what conception of normal governs our workplaces. That torrent has been entirely necessary. But now it’s time to start separating out the drips again – and hold those responsible to account.

The worst cases have at least the advantage of clarity. Sexual assault is a crime, and demands a legal response. We can hope that one effect of the public revelations will be to give more victims the courage to report crimes, reducing the number of cases like Bex Bailey, who spoke out about not going to the police after being raped at a Labour Party event in 2011, because she feared she would not be believed.

But it’s not the worst cases that are the most difficult to know how to respond to. It’s the greyer areas − the knee brushes, the text messages, the unwanted gazes − that are more difficult to categorise. The media has swept every sordid story into a helpfully vague pile labeled ‘sexual misconduct’.

To some, these incidents are disturbing. To others, they are nothing. To a few, they are flattering. But the time has come to reach some kind of consensus. Difficult and context-dependent as it may be, the parameters of acceptable behaviour need to be established, to put an end to the public punishment of people who do not know what crimes they have committed.

People are always going to get it wrong when it comes to sex. So much of sexual communication is conducted in innuendo and implication that moments of awkwardness and misunderstanding are just inevitable. Everyone will have experienced that cringing, bone-aching embarrassment that means someone has misread your signals.

The occasional unwanted advance or humiliating rejection is simply the inevitable consequences of the fact that we’re not very good at communicating who we fancy. And that’s okay, most of the time. An advance is made and rebuffed– the moment is uncomfortable, but swiftly dealt with and swifter forgotten.

Problems start to arise when those initial, tentative advances cross a line from a little embarrassing to deeply uncomfortable or upsetting. So what constitutes a reasonable first statement of sexual attraction? For me, a touch on the arm is perfectly fine, a brush of the knee might well be acceptable, and a hand on the bum is an absolute no-no. But that’s just me. You might be different, and this is where it becomes so difficult to establish rules that everyone should adhere to.

The best solution might be a set of loose guidelines rather than cast-iron instructions. For instance: use verbal indicators to, as far as possible, establish that your advances are welcome before making a physical move. Or maybe that kills sex appeal, I don’t know. But it’s these kinds of slightly awkward and fairly boring conversations that we need to start having over the next few weeks, so that eventually the number of women in pubs and bars, in nightclubs and at bus stops, in Hollywood and Westminster and everywhere in between, who find themselves heading home after a day at work or a night out with that slightly stomach-sick feeling that means something that happened to them today should not have happened, begins to reduce.

“You’re equating a silly text message or a grope with rape, and that belittles rape.” Petronella Wyatt this time, former deputy editor of The Spectator, also speaking on Today this week. Initially, her words sent me into an incoherent rant at my radio, but the more I think about it, the more I think she may have a point.

The torrent of revelations that hit the press last week was long overdue, and served a vital purpose as a shock-impact, forcing society out of its complacent stupor on sexual harassment in the workplace. But if we don’t start to acknowledge that the definition of what constitutes acceptable behaviour has never really been properly and publicly updated, we risk doing a disservice to the sufferings of the victims of crime.

Women need to start defining what they are comfortable with when it comes to sexual advances, and everyone needs to accept that awkward encounters are an inevitable part of sex.

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