KATE MALTBY. What to Expect When a Woman Accuses a Man in Power.Oct 12, 2018
Last week, the world gazed on as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against a man backed by the strongest political forces in America. I couldn’t watch.
Instead, I took a train from my home in London and headed to Oxford. I logged out of Twitter, switched off my phone and had lunch with an old friend. Then I walked through the old city to the fourteenth-century chapel of New College, Oxford. It is a place of ancient calm. The gray Gothic stones give off a marmoreal cool, like stepping out onto a glacier after a hot day. Oxford can be a forbidding and defensive institution; I was unhappy there as an undergraduate. But there is something about the solid, stolid age of its buildings, centuries of stone, that reassures one that life is not measured in twenty-four-hour news cycles. I sat in a chapel pew, and I prayed for Ford.
In November of last year, I’d sat in the same pew, seeking the same refuge. That week, I had been the woman giving evidence against one of the most powerful men in my nation’s political life. It had been my face splashed across the papers, my family door-stepped by reporters, my credibility debated by newspaper columnists and Twitter bots alike, while strangers sent me messages promising to slice apart my genitals and telling my parents to order a coffin.
Women across the world have watched, shaking with recognition, as men find ways to disbelieve Ford’s testimony. For me, watching her life picked apart by the allies of a man who allegedly assaulted her has felt like being trapped in some awful snow-globe that a thoughtless child keeps rattling, just when I’d thought the last flakes had finally settled.
They told me I was malicious, that I was seeking feminist celebrity, that I was deceived by my own false memory. I knew I was not. In the end, a government inquiry agreed with me.
The UK government’s Director General of Propriety and Ethics found my account“plausible” and proved categorically that the man in question had lied to her investigation, as Politico and others reported. A confidential long-form version of the report, which looked at other allegations, remains unpublished in order to protect other women and whistleblowers from his proven tactics of retribution-by-media, but it was delivered to the prime minister, Theresa May, before she reluctantly demanded his resignation from her cabinet.
Throughout, his sympathizers and mine debated: was this “due process”? What about transparency? Where did my “plausibility” intersect with the impossibility of “proof beyond reasonable doubt”?
I spent the weekend after Ford’s testimony hospitalized with a migraine.
Damian Green was one of Theresa May’s oldest friends in politics. His wife had been May’s study partner at Oxford in their own days there. Though never as high a flyer as May, Green had been loyal to her as a junior minister when she headed the Home Office, and he joined her campaign team as soon as she entered the battle to succeed David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party. May rewarded him by making him the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when she took office as prime minister in 2016. In June 2017, after a disastrous election reduced her majority, Green was one of few people in the cabinet May could rely on as political challengers circled in her own party. She promoted him to Cabinet Secretary and First Secretary of State, a British title usually taken to mean the holder is de facto deputy prime minister.
Green was also my own mother’s contemporary at university. And he knew my father through student politics, though, contrary to later reports that painted my accusations against him as a schism in a tight family friendship, Green and my parents were never close. But I look at reports that Ford’s parents are still involved with the same country club as Kavanaugh’s, and I wince with empathy. Abuses of trust do split the loyalties of social communities; good parents, like mine, back their daughters to the hilt.
I properly met Green when I was in my late twenties, after I started working with a think tank for which he served on the advisory board. Eventually, I asked him for help in resolving an internal dispute, writing to him clearly as “an Ad Board member” in the message I sent. I had no political reason to undermine Green. We both belong to the moderate wing of the British Conservative party, a mix of pragmatic Burkeanism and civic libertarianism sometimes known in the US as “reform Conservatism.” Like Green, I voted Remain in the Brexit referendum two years ago. I have my criticisms of Theresa May, but I infinitely prefer her as a leader to either of the two most likely alternatives, the Labour Party’s left-populist Jeremy Corbyn and the Tories’ right-populist Boris Johnson.
After my initial meeting with Green to discuss the professional issue, he asked me for an evening drink, offered me career advice, suggested I get a job with him or one of his friends, and then seemed to proposition me. After I’d ignored him for months, he followed up with an inappropriate text message. When I asked around—including a friend working in a senior position in Downing Street—I learned that Green was notorious, as I later told the BBC, for “mixing mentorship and sexual advance.” I was not the first, by a long shot, to be offered the wrong kind of help in becoming a member of Parliament.
As I would later write in The Times, making this story public and publishing his text message, “Let me be clear. This is not the most terrible thing that has ever happened to a woman.” My experience with Green belonged to the gray zone of #MeToo tales: behavior that isn’t criminal, that isn’t even always frowned upon. This is not, in any way, a case as serious as Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of attempted rape against Brett Kavanaugh. Green merely comes from a long line of lurching men for whom access to women has always been an assumed perk of power.
Yet, if the #MeToo movement is to have a lasting impact, it must address not merely the gross offenders, the Harvey Weinsteins and the Bill Cosbys, but the hard cases, the men who’ve never been told before that their conduct was damaging. The men who behaved just like their fraternity brothers. The men whose crimes, even when exposed and corroborated, still elicit that old response “boys will be boys.” Or as Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said of Kavanaugh: “I’d hate to have someone ask me what I did thirty-five years ago.”
Boys will be boys. That insult to the male sex, spouted by those who think they speak in masculinity’s defense. Teenagers will be rapists. Politicians will be gropers. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The last few weeks of October 2017 were feverish in Westminster, Britain’s political center. The fall of Harvey Weinstein had sent the #MeToo hashtag soaring around UK Twitter, although its prominent male casualties had so far been limited to the world of theater and the arts. But the dissolute culture of British politics, in which young women (and men) are routinely propositioned by older, more powerful men, felt on the cusp of exposure.
Across the political parties, MPs started panicking. Rumors abounded about who would be outed as a creep. A so-called “dossier” of sex pests was published by The Sun—a mixture of criminal allegations and irrelevant gossip about sexual peccadilloes. The allegations, supposedly put together as a warning list by young female staffers, were highly doubtful, in many cases demonstrably untrue, and, in one case, a notorious example of misidentification. If a group of reactionaries had deliberately set out to discredit the #MeToo whisper networks, they couldn’t have done a better job.
Yet two names kept recurring. Two senior cabinet members were known to be, as Westminster insiders euphemistically put it, “vulnerable.” One was Michael Fallon, the Secretary of Defense. The other was Damian Green.
Even before accusations surfaced about either, a decision appears to have been made in No. 10 Downing Street to sacrifice Fallon and spend political capital instead on saving Green, the prime minister’s old friend. In the first week of November, my fellow journalist Jane Merrick went to Downing Street to complain that Fallon had forced a hard kiss on her after a professional lunch meeting when she was a twenty-nine-year-old journalist. Jane remains the only woman who has put her name to a public complaint about Fallon, but as The Guardian reported, she was by no means the only one known to Downing Street.
Within twenty-four hours, Fallon had resigned, acknowledging that “in the past I may have fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces that I have the honour to represent.” That same day, I blew the whistle on Green—not because of my own experience, but because I knew the extent of other, more vulnerable women’s accounts of their experiences with him. The official energy conserved by jettisoning Fallon was swung fully behind him, and against me. The government’s director of communications was still briefing on behalf of Green nine weeks later, even after he resigned.
On the same day I published my story about Damian Green in The Times, Alison Goldsworthy, a former deputy chair of Britain’s center party the Liberal Democrats, published a piece in the New Statesman. Goldsworthy, who in 2012–2013 had been one of multiple women to accuse the Liberal Democrats’ former Chief Executive Lord Chris Rennard of harassment, described the four stages of behavior by a man credibly accused of sexual misconduct:
- Get challenged. Deny it.
- Get shown proof it happened. Say it was a harmless bit of fun. A one-off.
- Get shown proof it was a pattern. Say it is a hit job.
- The accusers hold their ground. Seek to smear them.
When Goldsworthy and I later spoke, she recalled, above all, the fury of Rennard’s indignation. To him and his friends, Goldsworthy and her fellow complainants (there were at least eleven of them) were, by stages, fantasists, political stooges, and man-hating conspirators. When an official party inquiry ruled instead that the women were “broadly credible,” but suggested Rennard could remain in his party provided he apologize, he refused even then to admit any intentional offense. Political exile was preferable to confession.
What I can’t shake from my mind, either, was the gale of Damian Green’s anger. There was fury in his first threat to sue me. (Understandable, one might say, if he were a man who had been falsely accused.) Then in his public repudiation, two months after his sacking, of the apology the prime minister had demanded he give me. (Hurtful, but some might still sympathize with him.) And then the Mail on Sunday obtained text messages—presumably, as even a fellow Conservative MP said, from “Green’s allies”—that were alteredto create the false impression that I had been pursuing him. (Inexcusable.) Much ink has been spilt about the path to rehabilitation for the men tarred by #MeToo. This much I know: that forgiveness comes only after repentance.
With Green, as with so many of these men, it was the campaign of intimidation, not the initial encounter, that requires the apology. It was that forgery of text messages, not the foolish pass of an old man, which leaves me scared to this day of his possible retribution in the future. Fools make mistakes; but abusers lash out. More than one senior journalist has since remarked to me that Green was so well known for more egregious sexual pestering than I had encountered that his conduct toward me had likely been too trivial by his own standards to make much mark in his memory. I suspect that’s true. Predators play numbers games, cornering a teenage girl here, propositioning an insecure employee there, knowing that eventually they’ll hit upon vulnerable prey. When one woman’s memories come back to challenge them, demanding they account for an incident they’d barely registered at the time, they explode with fear and internalized denial.
The spiral of lies always gets deeper. “At any of these points,” Goldsworthy writes of her four-point analysis, “perpetrators could admit it, say sorry and take the lesser consequences. They don’t, because they make bad decisions.” An adolescent liability to excessive drinking is denied on oath with as much vehemence as an attempted rape. Consensual adultery is denied as fiercely as sexual predation. As I write this, Brett Kavanaugh has not been proven to have perjured himself during last week’s Senate hearings, although the number of witnesses who insist that he drank to excess during his college years is striking, including many who claim to have been ignored by the FBI’s report. But he would do well to note that the official reason Damian Green was sacked as deputy prime minister was that he had lied.
If there are four stages in an accused man’s response to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct, here are six things that happen when you accuse a senior political figure of misconduct.
First, you become paranoid. You are right to become paranoid.
Within a day of making my accusations against Green, my email started to show suspicious log-in locations. I’ll never know if my email was actually hacked; I do know that people tried. By the end, I was changing my email, Twitter, and Facebook passwords three times a day. I bought new electronics, which added to my financial costs. I abstained from conducting calls on my cell phone. Only a trusted few were given the landline numbers where I was staying.
When I hear Christine Blasey Ford talk about leaving her house, I remember living out of a suitcase for nine weeks, hiding out in Oxford and then at various friends’ houses to escape journalists, many of whom had once been my colleagues. Back at my apartment, I kept the shutters closed for nine weeks to prevent anyone snatching a long-lens photo of the interior. Whenever I did leave any house where I was staying, I assumed I might be photographed and I feared what my image would be taken to say about me: a skirt one inch too long and Twitter would decide I could only have imagined myself the object of a man’s desire; one inch too short and I’d had it coming. It’s particularly hard to dress like a plausible sexual harassment victim when you’ve only got the one suitcase.
The people who inconvenienced themselves to help me, beyond all obligation, got me through. The hairdresser who opened her salon secretly in the early morning so that she could make me look presentable. The cab driver who took me, clutching my best friend, to give evidence at the Cabinet Office, and promised never to tell anyone how much I’d cried in the back, and then told me about the daughter who’d given up her dream job after being sexually harassed by her boss. The close friend who platonically shared my bed overnight on one of those first nights, just to keep an eye on me. The friend who came over after the Daily Mail ran a libelous “profile” of me and discreetly checked that all the dangerous medications had been removed from my bathroom cabinet.
The Mail eventually withdrew that piece from its website and paid me costs after my lawyers presented the newspaper with arguments for a major libel suit; it is my understanding that Green’s involvement in briefing the Mail played a part in his sacking.
Ford is living all this not only under the scrutiny of a nation, but with the eyes of the world upon her. Normal activity, even in private, becomes fraught. I have never been claustrophobic, but I became so then. You might not always be afraid of flying, but when you have not slept for days, you will be afraid of flying to the Senate. In any decent investigation into sexual harassment or assault, there will be a discussion about how to make the interview humane. (My only condition was that it should be in a building where I wouldn’t run into Damian Green or his aides.) In all this, I received consideration and respect from the government ethics investigator and it was this treatment that gave me faith that I would be heard fairly. The US commentators who have begrudged Ford a reasonable travel itinerary, a few nights’ rest, and time to prepare, astonish me.
And whatever criticisms I have had of the prime minister, it would never occur to me that my party leader might mock and mimic my account in public, as Donald Trump has done to Christine Blasey Ford.
Second, to survive, it helps to be white and wealthy.
Anita Hill was black and brave. The #MeToo movement was founded by women of color—notably, the activist Tarana Burke. Women of color and working-class women have faced battles I can only imagine. Yet the most prominent faces of #MeToo, those who have been most broadly believed, have been women like Ford and myself. White, privately educated, comfortable.
This is no coincidence. Credibility has always been a matter of class. Even Anita Hill, as dignified and professionally qualified as she was, was treated as a liar by the senators she faced. Ford, however much her memory is questioned, has been granted a grudging acknowledgment of good faith. Giving evidence to a senior civil servant, I was terrified. But I did not feel out of place. I knew the codes.
The decision to make a claim of sexual harassment against a high-profile man is a judgment call about risk and resources. I would never have done it had I not been able to afford a lawyer; without the friends in the media I’d established as a working journalist; without the financial security to cover the consequent year’s break from work. Women of color and working-class women, relying on precarious, unprotected jobs, often endure far worse sexual harassment than women like me. I know that the freedom to take a stand, however painful it has been, was a privilege.
If the #MeToo movement is to mean anything, it must center those other stories. It must fund the lawyers of women who don’t look like me, or like Ford. To even have a chance of that, we must lower the cost of stepping forward.
Third, other people will use your allegation to fuel their own partisan purposes. That does not preclude you from being credible and independent.
I do not believe that Ford’s accusation is politically motivated. She has told a consistent story for many years, and sought to tell it in time for the White House to name another Republican candidate for a less contentious nomination process. That it may be convenient for Democratic senators to stage a fight over Kavanaugh is another point entirely.
A few days after my allegation against Damian Green, I was warned that two other women had been intimidated from coming forward. And yet, from an unexpected angle, a separate allegation came out of the blue. Green, it was reported by The Sunday Times, had previously been found to have used pornography on his parliamentary computers; the police had discovered this ten years earlier during a controversial raid on his office, for which there was dubious authority; according to numerous reports, police officers were behind this new leak.
Green’s allies were righteously outraged. Privately, although I doubted their motivations, I agreed with them on the point of principle. True, the information appeared to confirm that Green maintained an overly sexualized work environment, which perhaps supported my allegations. That Green was later proven to have lied about his knowledge of the pornography provided evidence that he had approached the inquiry dishonestly. (The viciousness with which he attacked the character of Bob Quick, a senior police officer whom he blamed without offering proof for the leak, also demonstrated that personal smear was his standard response to any accuser.) This direct lie was an easier and more palatable reason than my “plausible” experience for the prime minister to sack an old friend than that secret long version of the Director General’s findings.
But like most of us, I have no wish to live in a state where the police may leak the contents of an enemy’s online search history. The police’s bad blood with Green was long-established and rooted in long-term policy disagreements with the Conservative Party. Their cause was not my cause.
I know no more than anyone else about the allegations made about Brett Kavanaugh by Deborah Ramirez and by Julie Swetnick. I find it unlikely that Ramirez, having seen the treatment of Ford, sees any advantage to involving herself in this mess without good cause, though I share the skepticism of many toward Swetnick’s showboating lawyer, Michael Avenatti. There are clearly further allegations about Brett Kavanaugh that will likely be proved false. None of that should affect Ford’s clearly established credibility. Her story is her own, and it stands alone.
Fourth, the entire country is suddenly very interested in your body.
When I met Green for that one evening drink, his words were quite enough to make clear that an inappropriate proposition was on the cards. As I wrote in my original Times article, “He steered the conversation to the habitual nature of sexual affairs in Parliament… He mentioned that his own wife was very understanding.” I almost didn’t include in my account in The Times the details of what happened next. He had propositioned me—that was clear—so the mention of his groping hand seemed almost redundant in confirming his intent. “I felt a fleeting hand against my knee—so brief, it was almost deniable.”
In the end, I decided that truth required every detail. I wrote that subtle touch into my report, acknowledging its deniability. This is how anxious pests signal their intentions—with coded phrases (“my wife is very understanding,” an expression so clichéd I feared no one would believe me that a grown man had actually used it). I thought that emphasizing the deniability of that moment—even its broader irrelevance to the start of the encounter—would demonstrate how careful I was not to exaggerate, how careful to be reasonable. Last week, Ford’s anxious pause and pained emphasis were so familiar to me: “I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.” We are painstakingly scrupulous to tell the least accusatory version of our story; the men we accuse react as if we’ve published the most inflammatory.
The morning after my piece appeared, the question of Kate Maltby’s knee filled whole tabloid paragraphs. No one seemed to mention that the core of my allegation was about the misuse of power and patronage; I had become “kneegate.” Elsewhere in the article, I had written, “he offered me career advice and in the same breath made it clear he was sexually interested.” Honestly, I wish I’d never mentioned my wretched knee.
Ford has mentioned, for a complete account, that she was wearing a one-piece swimsuit under her clothes the night Brett Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her. I cannot imagine that as a young woman she hoped and dreamed of millions of Americans speculating on the difficulty of removing her swimsuit against her will.
The fourth Google search term against my name is still “Kate Maltby corset.” During the Green inquiry, tabloid columnists focused on the fact that I’d been photographed as a journalist in a modern “waist-trainer” corset for a feature in my newspaper, a photograph that had “provoked” Green’s text message. It didn’t matter that I’d worn it under a T-shirt. (The Daily Mail lifted a much more revealing out-take from that photoshoot, which showed me still in my leggings. In the photograph to which I’d consented for publication, I was visible only from the waist up.) It didn’t matter that The Times so often sends its columnists to model foolish healthwear or try out personal grooming fads for feature articles in the Weekend section that it has become an in-joke mentioned in print. No one has ever accused my senior male colleagues like Hugo Rifkind and David Aaronovitch, who have undergone the same ritual, of thereby provoking sexual harassment at work.
A few weeks ago, a man grabbed my knee at an Underground stop. He shouted “Damian Green” and scurried off laughing. I imagine it will be a long time before Ford feels comfortable wearing a one-piece swimsuit on a public beach.
Fifth, they will call you a liar and a fantasist. And when it becomes clear that you are credible, they gaslight you.
Ford, it now appears, told several people that Kavanaugh had assaulted her long before the #MeToo movement and long before he was nominated as a Supreme Court justice. She is highly respected in her community. And so, last week the conservative legal activist Ed Whelan, backed by a conservative PR firm supporting Kavanaugh, constructed a theory that she had mistaken the teenage Kavanaugh for a doppelgänger classmate. I was not surprised. We women are easily confused. It turns out that I myself was groped, not by a politician old enough to be my father, but by a tablecloth.
Let me explain. On the first day after my accusations against Damian Green, he insisted I was acting in bad faith. But within a day, several women had come forward to testify that I had earlier complained to them about Green’s behavior and asked for advice on how to handle the situation. The most prominent was Baroness Helena Kennedy, a highly respected legal pioneer and principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, but they also included two fellow journalists whom I’d asked to advise me on how to balance my desire permanently to avoid Green with my professional obligation to stay in touch as a political journalist. One suggested a period of a cold shoulder, followed by a polite professional reinstatement of contact. “[I] find if you cut contact with them for several months they tend to get the idea by the time you get back in touch,” she wrote. I had taken her advice.
So, I had hardly jumped aboard a #MeToo bandwagon. Instead, I had expressed sincere concerns in private on multiple occasions. The response? “Friends” of Damian Green told The Daily Telegraph that I must have mistaken the touch of a restaurant tablecloth for Green’s wandering hand. It remains the only aspect of this saga that can sometimes make me smile.
But that repeated insistence on the frailty of women’s memory does take its toll. It is not enough to be disbelieved, hated, libeled, but even when we are grudgingly deemed honest, we will still be seen as unreliable narrators of our own experience. We can’t tell the difference between a hand and a tablecloth. We confuse one teenage rapist for another.
Finally, all that matters is due process.
I am wary of hashtags like #IBelieveWomen. I don’t want to be believed because I’m a woman. I want to be believed because I have told the truth.
Since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, feminists have been told we are undermining centuries of legal safeguards. A man is innocent until proven guilty, we are reminded—although it’s curious how many self-appointed legal experts seem to forget that this is a standard that applies to criminal trials. For good reason, we demand a higher standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) when we risk sending a person to jail than we do to impose penalties in the workplace (which, in the UK, rests on the balance of probabilities). The #MeToo movement has exposed overwhelming opposition to this long-settled principle of justice: it has become clear over the last year that many men consider the loss of a job, or even a demotion, every bit as traumatic as a jail sentence. That tells us we need to overturn our expectations of the masculine provider, not overturn our understanding of distinctions between civil and criminal law.
That is why Senator Jeff Flake’s call for an FBI investigation into the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh was a landmark for the #MeToo movement; one for which Flake deserves credit, not bile. It is one of the first times in the modern era when a feminist victory has been defined by a demand for deeper inquiry and further due process, not a perceived bid to circumvent it. Kavanaugh’s defenders have attempted to obfuscate due process; the advocates of his alleged victim have pursued it.
At its best, the #MeToo movement is a call for fairer criminal trials, more equitable employment tribunals, impartial government inquiries. It will only succeed if feminists develop a model of due process framed within the strongest legal traditions. It will fail if the forces of reaction can make a credible claim to be the last bastion of civil liberties.
Twitter mobs are as cruel to women as they are to accused men. They are inevitably selective and partisan. And while the urge to issue justice by social fiat may temporarily suit the progressive left, the censorship of dissent and the removal of basic legal protections has only ever hurt women and minorities.
When I told my story about Damian Green, what saved me from the wrath of his online outriders was the prime minister’s realization that she needed to establish a full ethics inquiry into the allegations against Green. Ford has consistently asked for a full FBI investigation of her claims. She was right to do so. No civilian can compete with the media fire power of the White House or Downing Street when the court of public opinion has been staged as the only arbitrator. Throughout the investigation into Green’s conduct, claims dripped from his friends into the papers that the inquiry was going nowhere; that no other witnesses had come forward; that he was going to survive. They all proved false, desperate attempts to rouse his media defenders. But each story frightened me to death. No one yells as loud about due process as the politician who is attempting to rig the process.
The scope of a serious investigation will always widen in these cases, as new allegations are made. Witnesses come forward at the last minute, struggling with real risks to themselves until the moral imperative becomes overwhelming. In my case, I know that a crucial witness came forward only in the last week of the inquiry after a broadcaster ran a rumor, later proved false, that the inquiry was set to rule in Green’s favor. That witness had waited eight weeks hoping Green might be held to account without this evidence being needed. There appears to be serious risk that efforts to curtail the White House inquiry into Ford’s allegation have obstructed such witnesses. If that is the case, it is Ford, not Kavanaugh, who has been denied due process.
I have spent the last year of my life, and I will probably spend many years of my life, trying not to be defined by my experience with Damian Green. I know that claim seems at odds with revisiting it here and at such length. But there will have been no point in making that stand if I never share the lessons I have learned. My initial accusation was of a far less traumatic experience than Ford’s, and I am lucky enough to live in a smaller country, farther from the center of global attention, and without the cruel theater of a televised judicial appointments process. But I have lived something like Ford’s experience.
All she has asked for is due process. I stand with her. We do not put ourselves through this for fun.
This article was published by The New York Review of Books on the 5th of October 2018.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic, based in London. She is also a doctoral candidate in Renaissance literature at University College London. (October 2018)