On John Key’s “fetish”

In the case of the Prime Minister and his habit of sexually harassing a young woman at her workplace, far too many people have instantly jumped on the “he has a ponytail fetish! LOL!” bandwagon (and even a few on the “I bet he’s a child abuser!” bandwagon).

This is simply inappropriate – and harmful. For a start, none of us know John Key well enough to say what floats his boat; for another, it’s a totally inaccurate definition of what a fetish is. Someone with a fetish is quite as capable as anyone else of understanding consent and the word “no”.

But the kicker for me is how this response casually erases the commonplace, everyday nature of sexual harassment.

When we see an unmistakable case of a man harassing a woman in her place of work, manipulating the power difference between them, it is far too easy to say “oh, he’s a deviant. He’s not normal. Normal people don’t do that.”

It’s a very common reaction. It leads to a huge number of rape myths – all rapists are scary scruffy thugs, not that nice young man, that doctor, that priest. It leads to the downplaying of violence when we refer to certain abusers and murderers as “pillars of the community”. It leads to the immediate cries of “Aspergers!” or “Insane!” when nice young white men from Good Families murder dozens of people.

We want to separate the world into group A: Those Terrible Freaks Who Abuse People and group B: Normal People Who Don’t Do Bad Things. We categorise some crimes as “not that big a deal” when the person doing it can be slotted into group B; we categorise people as group A when their offending is unquestionably over the line.

And so we end up making armchair diagnoses of John Key’s sexual predilections and even accusing him of horrific acts of sexual violence rather than owning the truth. Men sexually harass women all the time. Customers objectify wait staff all the time. Sexism is all around us. It is not the province of “freaks” and “deviants” and “those kinds of people”.

Perfectly ordinary men can be abusers. Perfectly chummy politicians can be harassers. Perfectly nice young men from good white families can commit terrible acts of violence. And plenty of women who have worked in hospitality can share identical stories of customers who thought it was hilarious to harass them.

I don’t know what turns John Key on. I don’t want to know. But the fact is that he has sexually harassed at least one woman in her workplace and showed absolutely zero genuine remorse for it. He’s still making excuses even as he “apologises”. And he’s not the first sexual harasser to do it. Not even the first senior New Zealand public servant to do it.

This is a story – at the moment – about one woman’s repeated experiences of harassment. A story which highlights our terrible attitudes around consent and power and gender and privilege.

Of course it’s much easier to make this about undermining John Key’s masculinity by implying he’s sexually dysfunctional. It’s far easier to slot him into group A and hurl accusations of even darker deeds than address the widespread, ever-present misogyny of our society.

But we should resist the impulse, and we can. Just like John Key should, and could, have kept his hands to himself instead of being a perfectly ordinary, abusive creep.

(It should go without saying but I will not publish any comments along the lines of “but he totally DOES have a fetish though!!!”)

10 Replies to “On John Key’s “fetish””

  1. Wise words, I know I have not always treated others with the respect they deserve.

    Is this a case of “sexual” harassment though? There are no obvious sexual overtones apart from the gender differences. I think it’s a case of general harassment, disrespect, and boorish abuse of power.

    1. It’s absolutely sexual harassment. There’s the inherent gendered nature of the touching – men simply do not get touched in the same way as women, and a huge amount of that has to do with assumptions about women as sexual objects, especially women in service jobs. There’s the intimacy implied in touching someone’s hair. It’s not a pat on the shoulder. It’s invasive, and when it’s a powerful dude doing it to a vulnerable woman it reinforces control and dominance in a way which is fundamentally about gender.

      One of the many facets of this case which irritate me is the opposite of calling it a fetish: claiming that if he didn’t pop a boner it can’t be sexual, or attempting to remove the gender aspect entirely.

  2. That’s the big problem. He is NOT an ordinary abusive creep. This would be all over bar the amount to be paid in compo by now if he was ordinary. And that’s the bite in all this, he is the most powerful man in NZ, and there’s unfortunately nothing ordinary about that, no matter how hard you or anyone else spins it

    1. You’ve misread the post, David. I haven’t downplayed the fact that John Key is the Prime Minister, nor that his power and position plays a huge role in this harassment. But his creepiness, his actions, they ARE ordinary. Look at any one of the stories written recently about the experiences of people, especially women, who work in hospitality. Everyone has these stories. Everyone has the customer who won’t stop being a creep. In that regard, Key’s harassment IS ordinary, and my point was to distinguish its everyday nature from the “he’s a child abuser!!!” conclusion many people have chosen to jump to.

  3. Yes – I’d agree its sexual harassment, Stephanie, and I applaud Amanda Bailey for making this clear, and publicly known behaviour by our PM. But among all the comments, people seem to be forgetting the photos that have been popping up on media and Facebook since then of the PM fondling little girls’ ponytails. I find this behaviour on his part just as disturbing – it appears to be something he does all the time, and at the very least it is demeaning to little girls. He is using his position to get too close to them, and adults who allow this are complicit in that.

    1. From my understanding, about SIX photos of John Key which people claim show him touching young girls’ hair. There are many explanations, including 1 where he is signing something on her back – not unnatural behaviour for a famous person, whatever we think of him; a couple from a shave-your-head-for-a-cure fundraisers where it’s hardly out of the ordinary to be pointing at people’s hair.

      The Campbell Live dinner-with-the-PM clip of Key grabbing a girl’s ponytail makes me cringe and I agree it’s inappropriate. But again, this isn’t proof of some kind of Jimmy Savile child abuse conspiracy and spinning serious allegations on the basis of a few random photos covering the seven years he’s been Prime Minister is a real stretch.

      It makes me really sad that apparently one woman’s story of repeated unwanted harassment by the PM isn’t “enough” for some – and it plays right into what I’ve discussed in the post above, which is the pretence that people are EITHER completely “normal” OR total monsters.

  4. But that is also what the photos of the PM playing with young girls’ hair show up as well, Stephanie . That’s allowing the youngsters to assume that its okay for older men to harass (in whatever way – whether a joke or not) young women. That it is normal behaviour for guys to do this to girls – whatever age they are. So the young girls grow up thinking it was okay for the PM to play with their hair, and then when they are being sexually harassed at work – will they be able to withstand that sort of thing when it happened to them when they were kids ?

    1. You’re confusing a lot of issues here, jenny. Of course we need to send strong messages about what is and isn’t appropriate touching. Of course we need to give young women the confidence to stand up for themselves.

      NONE of that requires using a handful of context-free photos to insinuate child sexual abuse is happening. Especially when, despite your argument that “that allows youngsters to assume it’s okay” – those photos have universally been sought out by *critics* of Key for the purposes of *painting him as a creep*. Not to defend his actions.

  5. No – I’m not confusing the issues, Stephanie. The play with children’s hair can be viewed as a follow-up or a follow-on to the sexual harassment of Amanda Bailey – and it IS creepy behaviour. Unfortunately as you point out it is also the sort of behaviour a large number of men indulge in. At the same time sexism and misogyny IS rife throughout New Zealand and whether you like to call it normal, or creepy, or whatever – its unacceptable, but it happens. And in a Prime Minister it is particularly unacceptable.

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