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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Po-faced Polly: handsome harrasers aren't so bad

The Guardian’s right-on columnist Polly Toynbee has bizarrely suggested sexual harassment is less serious – if the abuser is good looking.

In a surreal contribution to the broadsheet’s Politics Weekly podcast, Toynbee mired herself in controversial comments of the sort that would usually provoke outrage from left-wing commentators such as, um, herself!

The subject was, you guessed it, the Rennard affair, an accursed topic so poisonous the EU should consider putting it on a list of banned toxins. Unperturbed, Toynbee took a deep draft of this noxious brew.

She was trying to explain something we all know already: that when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse, power is often the driver. As Oscar Wilde told us more than a century ago: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex - sex is about power.”

Polly Toynbee: what have I said?
Perhaps aware of this, Toynbee decided to give her appraisal of the Rennard furore a twist. She said that Rennard’s appearance was somehow relevant.

Referring to her Guardian column on the row, she told the podcast panel: “I got into trouble for saying, er, pointing out that he’s a rather elderly gentleman and these were, you know, younger, more attractive women and the only possible way he could have thought to try his hand would have been to do with power.

“I had huge blow-back from readers saying ‘how dare you comment on his physical appearance’ but actually it is a part of the story.”

One of the other podcasters immediately asked the obvious question: how? And this is where Toynbee really began to tie her logic in knots.

She said: “Well I can’t imagine me putting my hand on George Clooney’s knee; you kind of know your level.”

George Clooney: he's no Lord Rennard
Let's pause for a minute and try to unravel this. Toynbee seemed to be saying that if she was at Clooney's 'level' it would be perfectly acceptable for her to put her hand on his knee uninvited. Or, put in the context of the Rennard affair, Toynbee appeared to be suggesting that if the Lib Dem peer looked like a Hollywood star he would somehow have greater leeway to let his hands wander and his victims wouldn't mind so much. 

Her conclusion that power must be the driver for Rennard's behaviour because he is 'rather elderly' and less attractive than his alleged victims is muddled. Power motivates ugly and handsome alike, for good or ill. What would she ascribe Rennard's motivation to if he looked like a Greek god? Or is she saying he wouldn’t have done what he - yes, yes, allegedly - did had he been better looking?

Back to the podcast. There was laughter in response to Toynbee's Clooney comment which encouraged her to keep digging.

She said: “If somebody is in a position of power, breathing heavily on younger, more attractive, junior women within their organisation that is a part of the story too.”

The podcast host, Hugh Muir, interjected: “But if he’d been a top-looking bloke also abusing his position that would have been pretty serious as well wouldn’t it?”

Good question. Of bloody course it would have been 'pretty serious'. Toynbee's response?

“Yeah, but on the other hand, it’s slightly more. You think, well, there’s slightly more equality there. Equality comes in all sorts of different…it’s not just about power, it’s about physical attractiveness too.”

The letters WTF spring to mind, accompanied by a string of exclamation marks. There is only one way to interpret this statement. Polly Toynbee thinks there is a scale of seriousness when it comes to sexual harassment which is based on the relative appearances of the harasser and his victims. It runs as follows:

Harasser: Fat, ugly old letch
Victims: Younger, more attractive women
Verdict: Definitely bad

Harasser: George Clooney lookalike
Victims: Similarly attractive women
Verdict: Not so bad because 'there's slightly more equality there'

Extending this rule to its logical conclusion, it would run as follows:

Harasser: George Clooney lookalike
Victims: Fat, wobbly, old bingo-winged harridans
Verdict: They should be f**king grateful!

Okay, so I might be stretching it a little but you catch my drift.

Toynbee is right when she says sexual harassment is about a power imbalance but the appearance of the abuser is a complete red-herring. If Lord Rennard grabbed a fistful of her arse without permission it would be just as abusive as if George Clooney did the same thing, however much Toynbee may fantasise about the latter.

She should reflect that her contribution to this important issue has been very far from helpful. If anything, it has only served to undermine women who have fallen prey to abusive men who happen to be handsome -- an ugly consequence of the ill-thought out ramblings of a journalist who should know better.

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