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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Sex on the Hill, theatre of the absurd Add to ...

Here’s the scene: One of your colleagues is a married guy. You both play on a recreational sports team. One day after a game, he asks you back to his hotel for a drink. (He commutes to work from another city.) He makes clear that he wants to have sex with you, but you don’t want to have sex with him. What do you do? (a) tell him no, and leave? Or (b) join him on the bed, say nothing and hand him a condom?

Even in our brave new age, where consent to sex is supposed to be explicit, most people would agree that if you get on a bed with a guy and silently hand him a condom, he could reasonably infer that you’re willing to have sex. And if he’s wrong, it’s hard to complain that he misread your intentions.

But that’s exactly the complaint (as we understand it so far) made by an anonymous female New Democratic MP about Massimo Pacetti. He’s one of the two Liberal MPs who were summarily banished by Leader Justin Trudeau for serious but unexplained “personal misconduct” involving unnamed female MPs.

Now, in a series of interviews with the media, including The Globe and Mail, one of the two female complainants has explained what the misconduct was. Mr. Pacetti had sex with her, but without “explicit consent.” She didn’t tell him “no” and she wasn’t drunk. She didn’t leave because she “froze,” having been assaulted on another occasion, years before. She doesn’t want her name to be made public because she wants to “heal.” She doesn’t think Mr. Pacetti should be punished (it’s a little late for that) and she hasn’t gone to the police (in any event, as any lawyer will tell you, she doesn’t have a shred of a legal case). But she does want the incident to be investigated, providing she remains anonymous. She thinks Mr. Pacetti should apologize and get counselling. Mr. Pacetti says he’s innocent of wrongdoing.

The details should make everybody cringe. Although I have no sympathy for married men who cheat, Mr. Pacetti is actually the bigger victim here – it sounds like his first apology should be to his wife. Mr. Trudeau (and, by extension, his party) should be cringing because he’s recklessly trashed the career of a man who seems to be guilty of nothing more than boorishness and infidelity. The NDP should be cringing because Ms. Anonymous has embarrassed the caucus and trivialized the seriousness of genuine sexual assault. This complainant is no intern or some star-struck groupie exploited by a powerful older man – she’s an elected federal politician.

We should be outraged on behalf of victims of assault. But in this instance, she’s not one of them. She’s blithely jettisoned due process and demanded that her privacy be protected, but not his. I completely understand why women are reluctant to come forward, but men’s reputations are worth something, too. And these days, assault accusations are the kiss of death. (See Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, et al.)

The second Liberal MP, Scott Andrews, has been accused of harassment under the influence. His lawyer vigorously denies it. The allegations were supposed to be confidential, but everyone has been leaking like sieves.

This story does illustrate a valuable point, however. In some cases of sexual misconduct, two people’s versions of what happened can markedly differ, not because one of them is lying, but because they may experience the same intimate encounter in very different ways. I’m not talking here about out-and-out rape or forcible assault. I’m talking about more subtle situations. Watch The Affair, a television drama that turns exactly on this premise. It’s told as two alternate versions – his and hers – of the same story, but with diverging memories, feelings and facts. This is what makes some cases of misconduct (or alleged misconduct) genuinely ambiguous.

Sexual misconduct has always been a hot potato, but the allegations, leaks and general confusion on the Hill have become a farce. It’s obvious that both the Liberals and the NDP should have run, not walked, to recruit some experts in workplace harassment at the first sign of trouble.

Because there will always be trouble. Any gathering in politics, where high-energy people are thrown together in intense environments far from home, will guarantee that. And like every other workplace, the institution needs fair and equitable ways to deal with it. Please, people – get a grip. And keep your wretched sex lives to yourselves.

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