By Ellie Cumbo
There's no mistaking the glee on social media today following claims that the Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk, initiated a chain of sexually explicit messages to Sophena Houlihan, a seventeen-year-old girl who had enquired about a job in his office. Accusations of public hypocrisy have been levelled, given the 49-year-old MP's previous role in the campaign to expose Cyril Smith for sexually exploiting young boys. Danczuk has now been suspended from the Labour Party, and has apologised for what he called his "inappropriate" behaviour.
The joy at these turn of events has been most obvious among those further on the left of the political spectrum to Danczuk - he brought it on himself, he's a right-winger being attacked by the right-wing media so what's not to like, etc. Danczuk has, after all, gone out of his way to inflame the current tensions in and around Labour politics, insisting there would be a coup against Jeremy Corbyn before the leadership votes had even been counted, and writing columns for the hated Sun in which words like "crazy" and "shambles" popped up regularly in reference to the new regime.
As a researcher on the links between sexist attitudes and gendered violence, I'm not exactly a fan myself; this is after all the man who tweeted his ex-wife's bra size to the world as if bragging about something he owned.
But it also makes the parade of online schadenfreude pretty grim viewing. After all, this is a much bigger story than one politician: Danczuk follows closely behind Chris Rennard and Brooks Newmark as the latest in a long line of male politicians prepared to use their position to gain sexual gratification from women who are younger and less powerful, both in general social and political terms. The women who complained about Rennard were all candidates when he was the Liberal Democrats' chief executive and head electoral strategist- "the man whom our opponents fear most". Equally, it’s no coincidence that the (male) reporter targeting Newmark posed as an ambitious young (female) activist.
At this point, the inevitable cry goes up that sending a few messages hardly makes someone a danger to women, and in any case the other parties in both the Danczuk and Newmark cases sent messages consensually (and, in the latter case duplicitously). This is true but it's nothing like the whole story.
Sexting may be a relatively new phenomenon, but research by the NSPCC shows that it entrenches a depressingly familiar pattern. Far from being gender-neutral, it shows up an age-old double standard in which girls are coerced to participate, and often shamed afterwards. Meanwhile, where boys send pictures, they are more likely to be unsolicited in expectation of a quid pro quo. There's also a stark imbalance in whose pictures are then used to blackmail or humiliate, and by whom: in August, the government reported that 75% of cases reported to its new revenge porn helpline had women victims.
It is a painfully established phenomenon that some men feel entitled to use women's bodies as titillating props- one that must not be allowed to get lost in the libertarian idea that as long as the women have "agency", no harm is done. Houlihan's own words point up the shallowness of this analysis. "At the time I played along with it, but now I feel like he duped me," she told the paper.
How men treat women, and the power dynamic that exists between the two, remain vitally important considerations for those who truly value women's dignity, equality and right to expect a life free of harassment and coercion. But today's Twitterstorm seems to underline the fact that for too many, this is not quite important enough to be allowed to get in the way of a good laugh at a politician they don't like. For the left of the left in particular, it raises yet more questions over whether misogyny and gender discrimination will ever get more than a tokenistic look-in next to class injustice- which perhaps more of the men who dominate politics can empathise with.
Or, as I've no doubt I'll soon be told, perhaps it's just a case of a humourless feminist refusing to admit how all-fired hilarious the ancient, continuing, predictable harassment and objectification of women really is. Either way, if- or when- it happens again in 2016 or after, I would urge all those who consider themselves feminists, allies, or just people with some empathy to think harder about the people on the unfunny end of this treatment- most of whom will never hit the headlines- before they start typing.
Ellie Cumbo is a researcher and campaigner who has worked for many well-known charities dealing with criminal justice and violence against women, as well as previously at London’s City Hall and for the Liberal Democrats. She is also an avid tweeter and a Labourite who didn’t throw her critical faculties out when her membership card arrived..
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