John Key fails to manage sexual harassment

So, people elsewhere have covered the Worth saga pretty well covered. I think the Hand Mirror covered it pretty well from the perspective that I would have.

What I instead want to talk about is what this means for the Prime Minister, and a National Party that’s trying to be Not Quite Labour™ and do things like actually worry about stuff that some women do, such as breast cancer.

The Prime Minister has managed this like crap. I think this is one of the things a lot of kiwis didn’t realise they would be getting when they voted for Not Quite Labour™, as they talked the talk very well on some more mainstream women’s issues (read: issues that appeal to straight Pakeha women1) but couldn’t walk the walk. The contrast here couldn’t be clearer: our boring, sensible leader of the opposition is discrete, respects the privacy of the woman who made allegations, asks for evidence but doesn’t blame or pressure her, and trusts her and supports her without going in swinging as some sort of ill-conceived white knight without her permission. Gentlemen, (and other guys) this is a great example for what to do if a someone2 ever confides in you that they have been sexually harassed.

In contrast, when John Key was tapped discreetly on the shoulder by Phil Goff, he did not ensure he got to see the texts or emails or call logs, his “investigation” didn’t even ask Phil Goff for them. This suggests that it was not an investigation, and in fact he merely asked Worth for his side of the story and then covered for him when he denied it. A clue for potential Prime Ministers, employers, or leaders of any type: Sexual harassment is serious. Don’t leave it to be a matter of who said what- if there’s any documentation to be had, get it. Whether the allegation is real or a fake, SOMEONE is going to need counseling to deal with this at the end, so finding the facts is excellent.

John Key also initially said he would “out” the people alleging Dr. Worth sexually harassed them, until he eventually broke down under repeated questioning and admitted it might be appropriate to hear their evidence privately. This breaks another rule: Don’t go public unless you have to take public action, (such as a dismissal) and if you do have to, don’t share details, don’t name names you don’t have to. Whether or not there is substance to the allegation3, I think the person who made it deserves privacy in our culture where victims of sexual crimes are attacked more than perpetrators. People bringing allegations of sexual abuse deserve to be considered innocent of lying about it until they are proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and right now, the court of public opinion does not work on those rules.

I know it goes against the instincts of many men, but victims need to be able to choose just how much they can handle in bringing their allegations to bear. For some people it is shaming or even traumatising enough that it even happened in the first place, and they would collapse under public scrutiny. Sometimes not even making allegations at all can be the best road for recovery. As friends, bosses, leaders, family, whatever- we don’t have the right to make those choices for other people. It’s great to see that there are still people in parliament that get that.

The National Party seems to get that it needs to give in to things that are popular with women, but it still isn’t listening to women who are victims of sexual harassment on how to deal with that sort of situation, and still seems to be stuck in the era where you play defense for your mates until you can retire them safely to the back bench. This sort of thing can’t be shut up now fortunately, so it’s something they’re going to have to deal with, at least if they want to court the Women’s Day vote any longer.

While this affair hasn’t been a home run for the media, it’s been a dramatic improvement on past coverage of sexual harassment/abuse allegations, and I’d like to acknowledge that. There was actually an assumption that the victims had a right to privacy. I shouldn’t have to be happy about that, but I am, and that’s the way the world is right now. Let’s keep hoping for more: Hopefully our Prime Minister will pick up the steps as we force him to dance this issue4. Hopefully the media will continue to protect the rights of victims this way. Hopefully. 🙂

1Obviously I’m not saying straight Pakeha women aren’t women too, just that they’re not the only women.
2Yes, sexual harassment happens to men, too. In fact, men are even more reluctant to report it than women, partially because of the perception that they should have liked it. Sexual harassment perpetrated against men has a lot of the same psychological baggage associated with it as rape perpetrated against men.
3In cases where there isn’t substance to an allegation of sexual harassment, counseling is a really good idea anyway. A counselor will help them deal with whatever issues caused the allegation- whether it was an unprovable case of sexual harassment, or a cry for attention, or a symptom of a larger psychological problem, mental health needs dealing to, not mocking and attacking in the style that the public usually brings for what they perceive as false allegations.
4Or we decide that we need a new leader who’s better at this sort of thing. (ie. not Bill English) Either’s fine with me, really.