Crisis deepens over Westminster sex scandal

Time warp : Could society be heading back to days of more restrained personal relationships?

Are we seeing a sexual counter-revolution? Several MPs face uncertain futures after widespread sexual harassment claims. Some say that this reflects big shifts in how society views sex.

Westminster is in crisis. Allegations of sexual misconduct are swirling around many MPs, and one cabinet minister has already resigned. More could be next.

The first to go was Michael Fallon, who had been defence secretary. He had repeatedly touched a journalist’s knee during a dinner in 2002. On Wednesday he resigned. He claimed: “What might have been acceptable ten or fifteen years ago is clearly not acceptable now.”

But Julia Hartley-Brewer, the journalist he touched, called his resignation “ridiculous”. She warned against creating a “sterile world” in which “any interaction between men and women could see them forced to resign.”

But is this really where society is heading? History could give us some clues.

Renowned sociologist Norbert Elias has explained how morality and manners are not fixed, but change with society.

At the end of the 19th century relations between men and women were strictly regulated. For example, women were often accompanied by chaperones when meeting men.

According to sociologist Cas Wouters, a process of “informalisation” broke these rules down. Over time women gained more power, and during the sexual revolution of the 1960s sex and relationships became matters of individual choice.

This change is expressed through dance. In the 19th century the waltz was all the rage. It follows strict steps in which men lead and women follow. Now modern nightclubs are full of young revellers dancing as individuals, and any moves (however out of time) are OK.

But this freedom brought responsibility. With no strict rules to follow, Wouters claims, people had to “self-regulate” their behaviour. And as people trusted themselves to act correctly, they also trusted others to do the same. From the 19th to the 20th century, “suspicion and anxiety” between men and women sharply decreased, argues Wouters.

Not any more, some think. Journalist Lara Prendergast claims that a new “chaperone culture” has risen in which women are “increasingly scared” of men, and men are “more nervous around women”.

But should we call this a sexual counter-revolution?

Love loss

Some agree with journalist Douglas Murray, who describes a “profound shift”, transforming “sexual freedom into sexual fear”. The sexual revolution smashed down barriers between men and women. Now those barriers are being rebuilt. We must deal with serious sexual abuse claims without driving people apart.

“We are moving forward, not backwards,” argue others. How can it be revolutionary to make people account for what they have done? Abuse is driven by archaic attitudes of misogyny and entitlement which have no place in modern society. Clamping down on all levels of misconduct will make us safer.

You Decide

  1. Should all those accused step down from office?
  2. Should MPs be held to higher moral standards than the rest of society?


  1. Design a poster which increases awareness of sexual harassment and offers advice to those people affected.
  2. What measures do you think need to be taken to stop sexual harassment in society? If you could devise one new law to tackle the problem, what would it be?

Some People Say...

“A sexual revolution begins with the emancipation of women.”

Kate Millet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Westminster sex scandal comprises multiple stories. Stephen Crabb admitted sending sexual text messages to a 19-year-old girl, and Mark Garnier admitted asking his secretary to buy sex toys. Also female government staff have used Whatsapp to compile a list of “sex pests” to avoid. Labour Party activist Bex Bailey claims that when aged 19 she was raped at a Labour event but was told not to report it.
What do we not know?
We do not know if any of these allegations will result in police prosecutions. While a spreadsheet is in circulation accusing 40 MPs of sexual misconduct, the names of the MPs have not been officially reported (and some are known to have been contested). We do not know if their names will be revealed.

Word Watch

A spreadsheet has been widely shared accusing 40 Conservative MPs of various forms of sexual misconduct.
Norbert Elias
Sociologist best know for his work The Civilising Process. In the book he argues that individual attitudes to morality are shaped by social conditions. Elias contends that from the Middle Ages people gradually reformed their violent, sexual, and bodily behaviours in response to growing market based economies which valued cooperation over conflict.
Cas Wouters
Theory expressed in his book Sex and Manners: Female Emancipation in the West 1890-2000, published by Sage Publications in 2009.
Sexual revolution
Known as a time of sexual liberation from the 1960s to 1980s which challenged traditional attitudes to sex and relationships.
In her article (see Become An Expert) Prendergrast recounts a story in which actor David Schwimmer asked a female journalist if she needed a chaperone whilst interviewing him.


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