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Sexual abuse, harassment and gendered misuse of power – what Westminster might learn from other institutions.


Sexual abuse, harassment and gendered misuse of power – what Westminster might learn from other institutions.

Dr Janet Melville-Wiseman looks at what Westminster should be doing in the wake of recent sexual abuse allegations.

More people have been damaged by sexual abuse than we had ever wanted to think possible.

In the last 50 years our understanding of sexual abuse, harassment and misuse of power in institutions and organisations has changed as we’ve come to realise that children are more frequently sexually abused by someone they know than by strangers lurking in dark shadows; celebrities have taken advantage of their fame to abuse children and vulnerable adults; health and social care professionals, priests, clergy and lay leaders have sexually abused children and vulnerable people through their privileged positions of trust;  and now some politicians have apparently used their honoured positions to allegedly sexually abuse or harass people or commit other sexual offences.

It causes far reaching and long lasting harm to both individuals and to the reputation of those institutions. It comes to light where and when we least expect it and is difficult to speak about and difficult to put right.

So what can our government and political leaders learn from other institutions in order to respond effectively to their current crises:

  • Understand the problem

Sexual abuse can be perpetrated by all genders, however, the majority of perpetrators are men who identify as heterosexual. The perpetrators are likely to be significantly older than their victims including when the victim is an adult and they are likely to serially abuse until stopped. Abuse flourishes in organisations and cultures where there are imbalances of power including those reinforced by gender and social inequalities.

  • Understand the Impact

The damage can be long lasting and far reaching – which is why it takes such courage to speak out and that this sometimes does not happen for many years. It is increased in organisations where there is disbelief or denial that it can happen and also where minimising or euphemistic language is used to describe sexual offending e.g. where it is couched in phrases such as ‘inappropriate relationships’.

There are usually primary victims and associate victims. Imagine how the wives, partners, children and close friends of the politicians currently subject to allegations or under investigation must be feeling right now. And, if the perpetrator has a leadership role with a wider group of people such as a congregation or constituency that wider group will also be badly affected; often divided in their loyalty and support for the victim, alleged perpetrator and alleged perpetrator’s family.

  • Respond to the problem with firmness, fairness and sensitivity

Consider neutral suspension pending investigations. Offer support to victims who will be expected to be witnesses in any formal investigation and make sure that any determination once allegations are found proven includes a risk assessment element as well as a sanction element. This means that future risk of harm to others is considered alongside risk to public confidence in the political party or in parliament.

Those found guilty should be given an opportunity to make an apology only if it contains acceptance of personal responsibility, but do not expect victims to accept an apology. Apologise on behalf of your party and government – and do all you can to repair the damage or the apology will be meaningless.

  • Consider effective prevention

Make your institution somewhere where it is highly unlikely to happen. Do not tolerate sexualised banter or jokes – speak up for women, minority genders and power imbalances on all matters. Members of both the Houses of Commons and Lords are required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown before they take their seats in Parliament after a general election or by-election. They should consider amending the Oath to an Oath of Allegiance and Good Conduct and use the full force of legal powers to enforce codes of conduct to assertively establish what is expected and what will not be tolerated.

Institutions, such as the Houses of Commons and Lords, have opportunities to re-establish and improve public trust by the way that they respond to such crises. The least they can do is not waste or miss this opportunity.

Dr Janet Melville-Wiseman is Principal Lecturer and Academic Group Lead for Social Work in the School of Public Health, Midwifery and Social Work

Dr Meliville-Wiseman recently contributed the article Spirituality, Sexuality and Safeguarding – Exploring tensions in every day social work practice,  which was published in the Routledge Handbook of Religion, Spirituality and Social Work Practice, edited by Beth R. Crisp 2017. 

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