Sexual advances and the advancement of power

The weekend papers were full of it. Nick Clegg came back early from his holiday to issue a statement. The next morning the top Catholic in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, brought forward his retirement and recused himself from the Papal conclave soon to begin which will choose the next Pope.

But it’s not just about those whose names are known and paraded in the press. Nor is it just more about the women, or men, affected. It’s about something that let this happen, and not just in its magnitude but also in the little things, the hand on the knee, the closed door, the subtle pressure to go along.

It is about the relationship between men and women, and about the relationship between sex and power. Lord Rennard, the former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats has been accused of inappropriate sexual advances to various women over several years, and that has been accompanied by accusations the party did not do enough about it. And Cardinal O’Brien faces allegations of inappropriate behaviour toward three priests and one former priest in the 1980s.

It could be presented as a straightforward case of right and wrong, or of particular people acting badly towards other. And in a way it is and they did. But it is not straightforward, men were the alleged victims as well as women, and as several commentators have blundered into saying, what’s so wrong with a hand on the knee?

That’s where power comes in. It’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman, or girl or boy. It’s what differentiates a hand on the knee that’s a fairly normal act of flirting, from abusive behaviour.

Power changes things.

It makes something wrong that might otherwise be okay. And why does it do that? It is because power places pressure; power exists in hierarchy; power operates with authority. And that matters because power takes away autonomy. Power makes it hard to say no. Power makes us dependent on other people.

Whether it is with a boss who could fire you, demote you, make your life a living hell. Or a respected community figure, a church leader, part of who’s role it is to tell you what is right or wrong. And now what they are doing – they are telling you, with their actions if not words – is right and to object is wrong.

It is what made it hard for Liberal Democrat staffers to come forward and talk about their experiences. It is was has enshrined a culture of secrecy in the church that has covered over a multitude of sins.

When power is used to silence, it is a sign that something is wrong. This is what we are talking about when we find that we are not able to talk about something. In Shane Hipps’ book ‘Selling water by the river’ he talks about light and darkness. Light is not the opposite of darkness, darkness is the absence of light. It is impossible for the two to exist together, one removes, without hindrance, the other. Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

It doesn’t mean the darkness never exists. But it means that there is another road. A road where light illuminates the way, and where things that might thrive in the dark, may be enforced by an abuse of power, have no place.

Sex and power also point to other things. These two forces rarely operate in isolation, they expose other agendas, other problems that might lie a little deeper down. Whether it is questions about whether celibacy in the Catholic church has had its day, or if women in politics have to fight a culture we may have hoped had seen its last.

And maybe this is where we circle back around to the conversation about sex and shame and silence. And why we need to talk about things that might be awkward, if only so that others are helped to talk about what might be the hardest words for them to say.

Speaking truth to power helps others speak truth too. If there are things that we will not say, we should question our silence if only to question whether we might be complicit in others feeling they have no option but silence.  

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2 thoughts on “Sexual advances and the advancement of power

  1. Danny, you do seem to be assuming that the allegations are genuine. I have serious doubts about that in the case of Cardinal O’Brien. At the very least, the timing of them becoming public was very convenient, days after O’Brien had questioned clerical celibacy. As for how he departed, statements from various senior churchmen are in flat contradiction to one another to the extent that some must be deliberate lies, but it seems quite clear that the Cardinal did not voluntarily resign and recuse himself.

    • I agree with your points, and am similarly suspicious of the timing, and also find myself not wanting Cardinal O’Brien to be guilty. However, the specifics of either case were more of a prompt for my thoughts, and and I’m sorry if in the course of those I implied I thought they were guilty.

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