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Making Sense of the Lewd Sexual Harassment Scandal Roiling U.K. Parliament

October 30, 2017, 4:43 PM UTC

Waves from the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal crested across the Atlantic and crashed through the hallowed halls of British democracy this past weekend, with multiple members of Parliament facing accusations of sexual misconduct by legislative staffers.

Following the allegations, Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday sent a letter to Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow asking for a better process by which alleged victims can file complaints of inappropriate behavior against MPs. “I believe it is important that those who work in the House of Commons are treated properly and fairly, as would be expected in any modern workplace,” May said in the letter.

‘Not safe in taxis’

The scandal started in earnest last week, when The Sun newspaper reported that female researchers, secretaries, and aides employed by MPs had formed a Whatsapp texting group to share horror stories about sexual misconduct by legislators. One MP was deemed “not safe in taxis,” while another was characterized as “very handsy.”

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In response to the story, a spokesperson for May, who leads the Conservative party, said the reports “were deeply concerning.” Any allegations, the spokesperson said, “will be taken seriously.”

Likewise, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the issue was “very serious.”

“Where there is an unequal power relationship in the workplace and women become vulnerable as a result of it, they have to be supported, they have to be protected,” he said.

The Sun omitted the names of the MPs being accused of sexual misconduct but suggested that—in the wake of the #MeToo campaign urging women to share their stories—the lawmakers’ identities would emerge in coming days.

And indeed, some did.

Shopping for sex toys

Media reports over the weekend outed several alleged perpetrators, the most high-profile of whom is Conservative MP Mark Garnier, who serves in the Department for International Trade. Garnier’s former assistant Caroline Edmondson told The Mail on Sunday that in 2010 her ex-boss had requested that she buy two vibrators for him to give as Christmas gifts and that he’d stood outside a sex shop in London while she made the purchase.

Garnier confirmed Edmondson’s account, calling the incident “good-humored high jinks” and admitted to once calling her “sugar tits,” but said it was a reference to a television show. He denied that either episode constituted sexual harassment.

“I’m not going to deny it, because I’m not going to be dishonest,” he told The Mail. “I’m going to have to take it on the chin.”

The Cabinet Office says it’s investigating whether Garnier violated the ministerial code by asking Edmondson to buy the sex toys.

‘Sexual chatter’

Meanwhile, another Conservative MP, Stephen Crabb, admitted to The Telegraph that he’d sent sexually explicit messages to a woman who’d been rejected for a job in office. (He gave the statement after the newspaper uncovered their exchange.) The married lawmaker said he’d told the woman “some pretty outrageous things” that “basically amount to unfaithfulness.”

“I accept any kind of sexual chatter like this is totally wrong and I am sorry for my actions,” he told the paper. The revelations come more than a year after Crabb resigned as May’s work and pensions secretary following a similar episode in which he was accused of sending suggestive text messages to another woman.

‘High libido MPs’

The scandal escalated even further on Monday when The Times of London reported that a group of current and former parliamentary researchers—men and women alike—had compiled a spreadsheet titled ‘High libido MPs’ that listed unverified offenses by 37 Conservative male and female MPs, including 15 Cabinet members. (The Times also reported that four Labour MP have been accused of harassing young women.) The dossier includes claims that two Conservative lawmakers used the services of prostitutes, accusations that a female MP had extramarital sex with a young male researcher, and allegations that two MPs got their mistresses pregnant. Twenty-five MPs are accused of treating female researchers inappropriately.

The revelations have fueled scrutiny of what May knew of the behavior—she reportedly receives weekly briefings on the sexual indiscretions of Conservative MPs—and whether she’d overlooked lawmakers’ alleged transgressions for fear that taking action against perpetrators would destabilize her government.

Parallels to the U.S.

The U.K. scandal underscores the shortcomings of Westminster’s system for reporting sexual misconduct. In her letter to Bercow, May criticized as toothless the current procedure for reporting abuse, which lawmakers—who employ their staff directly—are not required to adopt. She wants a new mediation service for disputes and a contractually-binding complaints procedure for MPs’ staff, the BBC reports.

At the same time, in a letter seen by the Telegraph, Kathryn Hudson, who serves as commissioner for standards at the House of Commons, complained that she’s tried to expand an anti-harassment policy to MPs themselves but that not all members would agree to it. Instead, it only covers staff who work directly for the legislature.

Female lawmakers in the United States have similarly called for remaking sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill in the wake of the Weinstein scandal in which dozens of women have accuse the Hollywood producer of sexual misconduct. There, as in Westminster, the offices of members of Congress operate independently with their own rules and procedures and under a hierarchy dominated by the elected official. That arrangement makes it harder for victims to come forward, especially if their abuser is—in fact—the congressman or congresswoman.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) vowed last week to introduce legislation to revamp Congress’s compliance office, which she said is “constructed to protect the institution—and to impede the victim from getting justice.”

Congress has been “a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long,” she said. “It’s time to throw back the curtain on the repulsive behavior that has thrived in the dark without consequences.”