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!!!”)