Dear Mr Davies,
I would like to respond to the comments that you made on BBC News and BBC Radio Four this morning regarding the allegations made against Lord Rennard.
You told the BBC that the issue of groping a woman against her wishes had been blown out of proportion, and since it took place so long ago it should no longer be an issue. You said that Chris Rennard is a “good man”, and does not deserve this treatment for such a minor misdemeanour.
“This isn’t Jimmy Savile. This is touching someone’s leg six years ago at a meeting through clothing. This is the equivalent of a few years ago an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom.”How much more must this man be made to suffer through the media condemnation that comes out day after day fed by the party leadership?”
You snorted in derision on BBC News when you commented that the leg was “touched through a trouser – through a trouser!” as if this was laughable. I would like to take issue with several of these comments, and I will leave aside your rather prejudiced dismissal of Italian men. As someone of Italian origin myself, I will just say that Italian politics has indeed had problems with sexual harassment of women and it is an issue that needs to be addressed. To dismiss it so flippantly and to generalise about Italian men as a race is woefully ignorant and betrays your disregard for sexual harassment and misogyny as an issue.
What has caused the deepest offence, however – and I am sure you have seen by now the outcry on Twitter that followed your comments – is your implication that forcing unwanted sexual contact upon another person is a minor issue, and not one for which the perpetrator should be held to account; and furthermore, that once a certain amount of time has elapsed, it no longer matters.I’m sure you recognise that ridiculous lack of logic behind your suggestion that the length of time since the incident is relevant. You drew the comparison with Jimmy Savile, and whilst this is a wholly inappropriate comparison (as I will discuss later), it may be more appropriate on this one point.
The amount of time that has elapsed since a crime does not lessen that crime. It does not lessen the impact on the victim. If anything, it exacerbates the crime as the victim has been living with the fear and distress that the crime has caused for so much longer. They may have been living with this distress without support, and perhaps with ridicule and intimidation. If someone is forcing unwanted sexual contact onto anyone then this should be addressed in order to prevent it from happening again, or from escalating. It is obviously preferable to address the issue as soon as possible, but if this is not possible then whenever the crime comes to light, I’m sure you will agree, it should be investigated.
Your comparison with Jimmy Savile is, quite frankly, absurd. Would you suggest that since there are people in the world who have murdered people, we should ignore any crimes of physical assault because these “aren’t as bad”? Would you advocate turning a blind eye to minor assaults because they are not as severe as major assaults? How would you define “severe”? Where do we draw the line? Certainly the crimes that Savile perpetrated were of a particularly shocking and obscene nature, but you insult victims of any form of sexual violence by insisting that we should compare who has suffered the most. You cheapen and dismiss the suffering that they have all endured. Someone who is mugged in the street with “minimal” violence also suffers, even though someone else may have been mugged and sustained severe injuries. We do not ask them to compare who has been through the most; we accept that they have both undergone difficult ordeals and we help them to heal. We should not approach the victims of sexual violence any differently.
By comparing Rennard’s crimes to those of Savile, you are attempting to single out and diminish victims of this kind of sexual aggression. You are attempting to isolate the victims – which is not an uncommon tactic of bullies – by suggesting that their suffering is not as great as that of victims of more severe sexual abuse. You are attempting to belittle and shame them into silence so that they, and all those who suffer similar attacks, will keep quiet and allow it to continue. You are attempting to divide those who campaign against sexual aggression by suggesting to victims of severe abuse that the suffering of these women is not as great as theirs. As if the suffering is something Savile’s victims are proud of or that they cherish. That is a disgusting implication. As victims of sexual aggression, from street harassment to sexual harassment in the workplace to sexual abuse and rape, we all, as victims and survivors stand together to say that none of it is acceptable and that enough is enough.
Finally, we come to your opinion that simply “touching someone’s leg” is not an issue worth pursuing. Perhaps you are not aware of the law on this subject, so allow me to enlighten you: unwanted physical contact forced on another human being without their consent is assault. There is a reason why the law categorises this behaviour in this way: all human beings have the right to autonomy over their own body and to have security of their person, as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many women (research suggests most women) currently live in a constant state of fear due to sexual harassment and intimidation that they face on a daily basis. We as a society need to address that problem.
I would like you to imagine living your life facing continued insults, lewd comments and/or sleights against your abilities, based purely on your gender. Imagine if you never knew when you would next face unwelcome and intimidating advances coming from people who are able and possibly likely to physically overpower you or make life incredibly difficult for you at work if you resist. Imagine if you were continually under threat of uninvited and unwanted physical violation of your person. This is the the world that most women occupy in today’s society. This is unacceptable. A touch on a leg, coming from someone who you absolutely do not want to have touch you can be highly distressing. Coming from someone in an influential position who has the power to ruin your career, it is frightening. Coming from a large man who could most likely physically overpower you, it is terrifying. It is disgusting and sickening and at the very least will make you extremely uncomfortable. When this takes place in a place of work, it will make the victim incredibly uncomfortable for the entirety of their time at work – and as we all know that is a large portion of our lives.
When the media and criminal justice system suggest that these actions are minor or irrelevant, it makes the suffering of the victim all the worse. The victim feels alone, with nowhere to turn, no support, and is made to feel that they are to blame and that they should be ashamed about what has happened.This is unacceptable. We must challenge this behaviour in our society and not allow this climate of fear to continue. This is why crimes such as those alleged against Lord Rennard must be held to account.
Nick Clegg said earlier today:
“If you’ve shown distress to another colleague, and that has been shown to be the case, as indeed it has been, then the most decent thing you can do is to apologise.”
We must learn to treat the distress caused by unwanted sexual contact as an issue as severe as any other form of assault. We must educate our children that no one has the right to touch anyone else without their full, willing consent. We must start treating sexual aggression or sexual violence – and unwanted contact is a form of violence – as a severe and unacceptable crime. Otherwise we continue to foster a society in which 50% of our citizens live in fear.
Through a trouser or not (I can’t imagine why you think this is relevant), Lord Rennard is alleged to have touched a number of women in inappropriate unwanted ways.
That is a crime.
I hope to hear an apology soon from both yourself and Lord Rennard for the great deal of distress that you have both caused.