Why Are The Sexual Politics Of Westminster So Problematic?
The Debrief: Labour MP Simon Danczuk has been suspended for sexting a teenager - but what is it about the sexual politics at Westminster that makes sleaze so commonplace?
This weekend Labour MP Simon Danczuk’s private life was once again hitting the headlines. The embattled MP faced a wave of criticism over a series of sexts he had sent to a teenage girl. Protestors subsequently gathered outside his constituency office in Rochdale, calling for him to resign.
The sexts in question, for which he has now been suspended, were sent to 17-year-old Sophena Houlihan, now 18, included one which she says asked her if she wanted a ‘spanking’. Houlihan, who initially made contact with Danczuk about a job opportunity, is also a dominatrix (according to the Mirror), who went by the name Goddess Rosalie Von Morell and has sold her toe nail clippings online (presumably this is a niche fetish).
On top of all of this, it was today confirmed by Lancashire Police that it had received a historic rape allegation against Danczuk dating back to 2005. He responded by calling the allegation ‘malicious, untrue and upsetting.’
Danczuk became an MP in 2010. He divorced his first wife the same year, married ‘selfie queen’ Karen Danczuk in 2012, published an expose of child abuse committed by his parliamentary predecessor in 2015, then split from Karen in 2015. Since then his relationships and wife’s selfies have been the subject of public interest, overshadowing his important work on historic child abuse, and he has also admitted to receiving £1,100 from a photographic agency which sells pictures of him to tabloid newspapers and magazines. And now… this.
The age of consent in this country is 16 and sexting is not, in itself, a crime, but there’s no denying that the entire situation is very far from ideal.
Mr Danczuk has claimed that a ‘drink problem’ led him to send sexually explicit messages to Sophena Houlihan following the collapse of his marriage to the Karen. While acknowledging that texting the teenager was ‘inappropriate’, last night he also told the BBC’s Newsnight that he just has a thing for younger women.
He also told the BBC, ‘This young woman got in touch with me some months ago, during the course of several months we had exchanges across social media, and just at a low point in my life in September she sent me some sexual texts and I responded accordingly and I shouldn’t have responded. Wholly inappropriate, no doubt about that.’
Danczuk also said, ‘What I have done, some sexting with a young woman above the legal age – nothing illegal – the police have said there is no case to answer.’
Karen herself has told LBC that she ‘will absolutely be behind him 100 per cent.’
The thing about the entire story is that it’s not actually that remarkable. Toenail clippings aside, ‘man splits from wife and sexts younger woman’ is gross, sure. It’s also a bit creepy. But it’s probably not as uncommon as you might wish.
It’s only headline worthy because this man is an MP. He’s a public figure, a democratically elected member of the public who has been chosen to represent people, at parliament, on the issues that matter.
We expect better from our MPs. We expect them to know that texting a 17 year old, when they hold a position of power, is not really on. This is why Danczuk’s turbulent private life has become a subject of public interest. It’s yet another story about yet another MP ruining their career and reputation over an ill-advised liaison – sadly, this time, one who has previously done pretty good work.
Sex scandals hardly stopped or started with Profumo. There have been many in recent years: Lord Sewel, Brooks Newmark, the trial of Nigel Evans who, although he was cleared of charges of rape and sexual assault, did speak of involvement with a man 33 years his junior who had previously done work experience with him.
What is it about politics? Think about the compelling plot lines of The West Wing, Scandal or In The Thick of It. It’s a case of art imitating life, not vice versa and we love a political drama.
What is it about Westminster? Is parliament simply a particularly licentious den of inequity? Is there something about being an MP, or a politician in general (Bill Clinton, remember him?), that makes you more susceptible to making bad decisions? Does being in power make you forget that sexting a young woman who has contacted you about a job in your office is probably (definitely) a bad idea?
Surely, the correct response to that is always ‘If you’re serious about applying to work for me then sexy selfies aren’t really the way to go about it – send a CV to my office manager and we’ll be in touch.’
If you were in public office wouldn’t you avoid a slip up like this at all costs? Why are the sexual politics of parliament so problematic?
The thing about the Westminster village is this: MPs work long, anti-social hours. They’re often away from home. The staff at Westminster, those who run offices, the interns and the researchers, are often very young. The place has a campus-like atmosphere. There’s quite a lot of booze, and while that’s true of a lot of work places, most people don’t work in the corridors of power.
In 2014, parliament launched a 24-hour hotline for sexual harassment. The initiative came off the back of a Channel 4 News documentary which revealed that one in three people working in Westminster has experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.
The Debrief spoke to a former researcher, now in her 30s, who worked for a Conservative MP throughout her 20s. She points out that there is a cultural problem in Westminster.
‘Once, just after I started aged 23, I was standing in my office and a male MP walked in and pinged my bra strap – I didn’t know what to do, nor did any of the other researchers in the room, so we just carried on as normal. It wasn’t what I expected when I went to work there, I thought it was going to be this incredibly austere, professional environment and it wasn’t at all. You’d never get away with that sort of thing in another place of work.’
She also remembers that booze was a problem, confirming the Chanel 4 report.
‘Once before Christmas, I was talking to another researcher in her office when her MP walked in. He had a fridge of champagne in there (a lot of them did) and he got some out and asked if we wanted a glass. A few other male MPs came to join in and after a while he announced that he had to leave to go to a meeting and needed to get changed.
‘Then he stood up and took his trousers off there and then – told me – in his pants, in the middle of the office – that I was being a letch for watching.’
It’s not a party specific problem either, according to our source. ‘It was about 50/50. Half the MPs (and this was across parties) spent a lot of time in the bar, surrounded by an entourage of young researchers. Female MPs did it as well as male ones,’ she says.
‘My boss was one of the nice ones who never got involved, and there were certain male MPs he always told me to “keep at arm’s length”. We both knew what sort of thing he was referring to…’
The problem is there is no central HR system at parliament. MPs are responsible for hiring their own staff and running their own offices.
Many MPs are committed, extremely hard working and not creepy and they do a stressful job, there’s no doubt. Making decisions about whether or not to drop bombs on other countries is something that none of us would relish in our day jobs, or the fallout they face after making such decisions.
We, rightly, expect a lot from them because we select them to represent our interests when it comes to stuff like bombing Syria. So, when allegations like this emerge, we’re disappointed.
Danzcuk shouldn’t expect to receive sympathy for this. Is it flattering to be paid this sort of attention? Perhaps, that’s no excuse, though. Wouldn’t it be icky to find out that any grown man with children (or woman for that matter) had been sexting someone who wasn’t much over the legal age of consent? Regardless of whether or not they were an MP? What Danzcuk has done, as far as texting a 17 year old goes, might not be illegal but it was inappropriate, and when it comes public figures and people who hold positions of power people do have a vested interest in their conduct.
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