I remember where I was when I read about the “domestic” that Boris Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds had in the summer: a row so loud that the police were called. I remember because it gave me chills. I realised, then and there, that we were about to exist in a country run by somebody who, if I met him, I would be physically scared of. Somebody whom, over the course of his life and career has shown continual disrespect for women.
As a rape survivor, I spend my days and my life navigating the threat of violence from men. It hangs in the air with every sexist comment, with every yell from a stranger on the street, with every unsolicited touch. The men who do these things are also the men that do worse things: men who don’t understand consent in the context of touch are also men who don’t understand consent in the context of sex; the men who threaten violence are the men who are capable of inflicting it.
Unlike his US counterpart, accusations against Johnson haven’t gone as far as (multiple counts of) rape, but, make no mistake, his misogyny is thinly-veiled. In September, Sunday Times journalist Charlotte Edwards accused Johnson of groping her leg whilst he was editor of The Spectator, also stating that she was not the only woman on the receiving end of this treatment. More disturbing still were the Conservative party’s attempts to defend Johnson, arguably the worst of which was activist Alex Deane’s rehashing of Nazi sympathiser Alan Clark’s infamous line: ”How do I know my advances are unwanted until I’ve made them?”
But it isn’t just Johnson himself – the prime minister no less – who scares me. This school of behaviour and attitudes towards women is disturbingly prescient in today’s Tory party (it’s no wonder that they are haemorrhaging support among young women – only 7% of females under 25 voted Conservative in 2017). The announcement yesterday that former BBC Norfolk presenter Nick Conrad is running as the Conservative candidate in Broadland made me sick to the stomach. In 2014, Conrad was on the receiving end of a barrage of complaints after comments he made about footballer Ched Evans’ conviction of rape in 2014. Conrad said that women “who don’t wish to give out the wrong signals” should “keep their knickers on”. Of course, he apologised. But apologies for a comment as abhorrent as this will never be enough. The remark that Conrad made cannot be undone, and for that reason he should be banned from public office. His decision to run shows a flagrant disrespect for rape survivors and a disregard for his own mistakes.
And then there’s Alun Cairns, the former Welsh Secretary who resigned yesterday over claims that he knew about a former aide Ross England’s role in what the Judge called the “sabotage” of a rape trial. Cairn’s might be stepping down as minister but he’s still running for parliament.
Violence against women has long been the bottom of the Tory party’s agenda. Despite the fact that in the UK two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner, one in six women are raped and one in four sexually assaulted – 50% of sexual assault survivors are turned away from refuge centres because there isn’t space. Indeed, funding for women’s refuges has been cut by 25% since 2010 – and as many as 50 councils have received no funding at all in this time.
In practice, Tory policy has meant that women who are victims of sexual or domestic abuse may have no access to the services they need, greatly reducing chances of recovery. This was the case with Cameron and with May, and it will continue under Johnson. The impact of harsh austerity on vulnerable women is surely more than enough reason to deny the Tories a vote. But with Prime Minister Johnson – a figure of clumsy bullishness and flagrant chauvinism – I fear things will get worse.
Language matters. Mistakes matter. Apologies can be accepted, but they can’t always be enough. If no lines are drawn we face a future where the unthinkable becomes acceptable, where immorality doesn’t exist and where women’s voices and experiences are diminished – one powerful man at a time.
Lucy Hall is an activist for victims of sexual violence and curator of the Sunlight Project.