“I couldn’t make any of these wonderful women come…”
Distasteful. Derogatory. Dismissed, as if nothing was wrong.
Ask Alex Salmond if he supports equality between the sexes, and he will tell you yes. No doubt, feminist Nicola Sturgeon will say the same. But ask the former First Minister of Scotland to apologise for his joke about having sex with female politicians, and you will be disappointed. Ask his successor to criticise his dismissal of the issue, and you will remain so.
“He is not sexist,” said the First Minister in defense of her former colleague who made the joke during his sell-out show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. The closest her remarks came to criticism was: “Occasionally Alex is not as funny as he thinks he is”, to which she added that the joke may belong more in “the Benny Hill era” than our own.
Twitter took a less ambivalent view of the situation. 140 character retorts came flying as some expressed disgust, others anger, more dismay. The words “gross” and “sexist” became the favourite descriptors of the former political star. Labour MSP Monica Lennon joined the defiance, demanding that Salmond apologise: “It would set a horrendous example to young men if he tries to hide behind these sexist comments as risqué humour.”
The joke itself was bad; outdated, unacceptable, and unamusing. It is almost unthinkable that a modern day politician would condone a boss joking about having sex with their former colleagues. It may not have been intended to degrade the women who have broken into chauvinistic circles and defied the odds to assume their positions in the modern world, but it did. Girls saw their role models spoken of in crude terms, and everyone saw a reputable public figure setting the precedent for making degrading statements.
Salmond should have dealt with the upset instantly. An apology would easily have quelled the unrest. A clear statement could have calmed those worried about him setting bad examples. But where Salmond failed to live up to his responsibility as a public figure, there should have been an effective response. And there was not.
Sturgeon was wrong to defend Salmond. Upon his refusal to apologise, it became her duty to step in. Not to call him sexist, or even “too blokey” as she has in the past. Simply to demand an apology, and to refuse to be spoken of in such a degrading context. It was her job set another example: to tell women they deserve to be respected, by everyone – even those who fancy themselves as standup comedians.
Surely, then, Lennon gave a successful response. Unlike Sturgeon, she called Salmond out. Unlike Sturgeon, she stood up for feminism. But making such strong accusations of sexism let the focus shift from the questionable nature of what Salmond had said to the defence of his character. When someone is accused of any form of discrimination, they and those around them become defensive. Friends will jump to their aid. Whether to defend her party or her former colleague, Nicola Sturgeon did just that. And she was able to. “Scottish Labour are just miffed they didn’t get a mention,” was the “witty” response from Alex Salmond’s spokesperson. “It’s the Edinburgh Fringe we are at, not fringe politics with Labour.”
A self-deprecating joke about Salmond’s sex life quickly escalated into a debate about sexism. Yet nobody managed to state the simple facts: Salmond made an inappropriate comment and is not at liberty to ignore his responsibility to apologise. Instead, Lennon’s argument faded into the backdrop as she allowed herself to be painted as exaggerating for political gain; and Nicola Sturgeon rose to Salmond’s defence where she should have appreciated his wrongdoing. In the end, there was no consensus, and where the matter is sexism, there always should be.
This scenario, borne of a joke at the Fringe, serves as an important reminder. We cannot let sexism go unchallenged. A comment made by the most fervent of feminists is not automatically acceptable. And where we challenge them we must do so in a direct and effective manner. It is a sad fact that party politics is often the driving force behind accusations of discriminatory behaviour and determines how it is treated. Let us show our politicians that we expect better. Make them lead by example. Make them approach issues of discrimination head on. Make them join us in the fight for equality.