Mal Fletcher comments on the recent spate of accusations of sexual misconduct from public figures.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

"Respect for ourselves guides our morals," wrote the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne. "Respect for others guides our manners."

Newspapers in the UK carried the story this week of the apparent suicide of a Labour party staffer. He had been accused of sexual misconduct.

It is just two weeks since the suicide of a cabinet secretary within the Welsh government. He had also been linked to claims of sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister's deputy has been accused of keeping pornography on his computer. He strenuously denies the accusation.

Allegations of sexual assault or misconduct involving politicians, movie producers and celebrities have featured prominently in news stories at home and abroad for weeks.

The discussion of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, is one that is long overdue. It is not a debate that should be restricted to the misdeeds of people in high places.

There are, however, some important questions arising from it which are not, as far as I can see, receiving anything like the coverage they deserve.

The first is this: what exactly are our social mores on harassment?

I am not in the habit of making even mildly sexual or flirtatious suggestions to members of the opposite sex, outside of my wife. Many reading this will be of the same mind. Others may find this too restrictive, feeling that gentle or "playful" flirting is acceptable.

The problem, of course, lies in one's definition of "playful" and for whom, the initiator or the receiver, it might be deemed to be so.

As a society, we must decide when unwanted provocative suggestions - and especially repeated suggestions - constitute harrassment. And when harassment - especially the type involving physical activity - becomes assault. (There are, of course, types of behaviour for which the only proper word is assault.)

Another question thrown up by the flood of recent stories is this: are we happy to have alleged harassers tried by social media?

It is convenient to air angry passions, be they righteous or self-righteous, via social media. We may feel that by doing so we are adding our voice in some useful way to the condemnation of bad practices.

More often, however, social media discussions become personalised very quickly. "Oh no, not him as well!" and "I had no idea so-and-so would be like that!" are common responses to new misconduct revelations made in social media.