We’re all in this together, but is Charles?

Independent, Thursday 30 June 2011

Cognitive dissonance or taking the you-know-what? I’m still trying to decide, but judge for yourself: as ordinary people in this country cut back on even small luxuries like chocolate, Prince Charles has increased his staff to 159.

His overall income, which includes funding from the Government and the Duchy of Cornwall, rose by almost five per cent to £19.7m last year. Meanwhile the salaries of his expanding staff of butlers, valets, aides, dressers, housekeepers and gardeners were frozen. It’s tough out there, you know!

The prince is, as we know, a doughty campaigner against climate change and “over-consumption of finite natural resources”. It says so in his annual review, which also reveals that his own travel costs rose by 56 per cent last year as he and Camilla clocked up 34,000 miles on official trips. The review speaks in glowing terms of his Start initiative “to encourage people and communities to take practical steps to reduce their energy use and carbon footprint”. But the prince has yet to start cutting his own expenditure, although one economy has been announced this week: his newly appointed harpist won’t receive a salary.

Perhaps the Royal Family doesn’t follow the news. How could they have failed to notice that the word “austerity” is everywhere, along with alarming phrases like “retail carnage”? In Greece, there are riots over the prospect of another round of savage cuts, and in this country a swathe of high-street names is announcing shop closures and redundancies. Ten thousand jobs are set to be lost as one company after another recognises that consumers have less money after paying soaring household bills.

But while shoppers can no longer afford to indulge themselves with a few chocolate truffles, Charles’s personal spending rose by 50 per cent to £2.5m in 2010. His expenditure on entertaining and receptions alone rose by more than a quarter, to £323,000. And he claimed it all against tax, along with £155,000 for the upkeep of his gardens. This ancien-regime lifestyle is all the more astonishing against the background of today’s strike by public sector workers, with millions of people protesting about having to work longer for smaller pensions.

There’s no doubt that there is a pension-funding crisis, but an evident lack of fairness makes the bitter pill harder to swallow. One of New Labour’s failures in government was its unwillingness to tackle the pay gap between the highest and lowest paid, allowing a culture of excess to flourish unchecked in publicly funded institutions. I’m not just talking about the lucky residents of Clarence House, but the way in which all kinds of people – from council chief executives to top BBC presenters and executives – began to expect (and got) eye-watering salary and pension deals.

The BBC refused to comment yesterday on reports that it has paid more than £1.3m to make just two of its most senior staff redundant, saying only that it has made “significant progress” in reducing the number and salaries of top executives. But the deputy director-general Mark Byford is believed to have received just under £950,000 in addition to a generous pension pot, while another senior member of staff, who had worked for the BBC for less than two years, left with just under £400,000. Presumably the corporation was contractually obliged to make the payments, but the question is why the BBC’s salary structure was allowed to become so detached from reality.

Envy is an unattractive emotion, but this isn’t just about a few overpaid individuals. It’s about fairness at a time when people who don’t have very much to start with are seeing their pensions reduced, getting fewer visits from home-helps or having their day centres closed. That’s the reality for millions of people, and I can’t help wondering why we put up with an heir to the throne who’s a one-man argument for the introduction of sumptuary laws.

We Are Men: Changing how young men think

Will talking about rape through songs and a Jackass-style video change how young men think? Joan Smith looks at a campaign aiming to find out

Independent, Tuesday 28 June 2011

A young man tries to vault a parking meter and falls flat on his face. A streaker races towards a sports pitch and collides (painfully, one assumes) with a post. A cyclist shows off, lifting his front wheels in the air and careers into a ditch. The soundtrack fills with raucous male laughter, followed by good-natured catcalls when a young woman walks past a group of young men in a skate park. “I tell you what – she could do with a good raping,” one of them remarks casually. Everyone falls silent. The man who’s just made the crack about rape protests: “What, man? I’m joking.”

Words appear on the screen, making the startling claim that every nine minutes a woman is raped in the UK.

“That’s not who I am,” says a male voice. “We are man. Are you?”

The short film is the brainchild of London advertising agency Kream, whose client list includes well-known names such as Nintendo, Lastminute.com and Bombardier beer.

It’s the focal point of a hard-hitting new campaign which aims to get young people to think again about violence against girls and women, calling on schools and other educational establishments to get more involved.

Far from blaming boys, the people behind it acknowledge the pressure young men are under from their peers and the commercial sex industry and they’re keen to get them to think in new ways about what it means to be men.

“We wanted to try and promote non-violent forms of masculinity and address issues around peer approval,” says Somali Cerise, prevention programme manager at the umbrella organisation End Violence Against Women (EVAW).

“It’s one of the factors leading to the perpetration of violence. There’s very little community sanction. We wanted a short film to look at the role of the bystander – when one of the young men makes a joke about sexual violence, he gets a reaction from other men. We wanted to have a message that this is not what it means to be a man.” EVAW cites a series of chilling statistics in support of its campaign. Surveys suggest that one in three girls aged 16 to 18 have experienced unwanted touching at school; that one in three teenage girls has experienced sexual violence from a partner; and that half of boys and one in three girls believe there are circumstances in which it is OK to hit a woman or force her to have sex. Cultural factors also expose teenagers to violence: it’s estimated that more than 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of female genital mutilation in this country, while forced marriage is an issue for girls and a smaller number of boys.

Against this background, EVAW is calling on the education secretary, Michael Gove, to ensure that violence-prevention strategies are a priority for schools.

It wants to see all teachers receive training on violence against girls and women and argues that the national curriculum should include sex education which discusses consent and healthy relationships. But the We Are Men film breaks new ground by trying to speak to young men in language with which they’re familiar.

“It’s a really hard project compared to an advert,” says Lisa Green, a partner at Kream. “This is aimed at young men, what they’re watching and how they watch it. We didn’t want to make guys feel bad, that was the main point.”

In fact, there’s evidence that young men are already challenging commonly-held ideas about rape and domestic violence for themselves. Members of the punk band King Blues, who played at Glastonbury this weekend, attack stereotypes in the outspoken song called “Five Bottles of Shampoo”. It starts with gender stereotypes as the lead singer Itch complains about a woman pushing in front of him at the checkout to buy five bottles of shampoo and goes on to make fun of both sexes: “I’ll never understand women,” the singer complains, while acknowledging that some women think “all men are all the same”. But then the song becomes darker, about young men touching up girls in a club and calling them “slags” when they reject their advances: “You call her a slag when she don’t accept your advances/You just show you got no respect for yourself/show you ain’t got the balls to just talk to a girl.”

What’s so striking about King Blues is that some of their lyrics could have been composed by feminists back in the 1970s, especially when Itch drones “down with the dick-tatorship, that is so cock-sure/they use rape as a weapon of war”. Yet Laura Craddock from Eaves, an organisation that campaigns to highlight the damage done to women and girls by prostitution and sex-trafficking, says young men taking part in a pilot prevention-project reacted so positively to the song that Eaves is hoping to work with Itch in future. “Young people know rape is wrong,” agrees Susie McDonald, director of Tender, an organisation that uses drama to challenge teenagers’ attitudes to sexual and domestic violence. “But they think it’s about a stranger jumping out of a bush in the night. We explain it might involve a boyfriend or someone known to them. We also talk about why women stay in abusive relationships. Girls will say: ‘If my boyfriend hit me I’d walk out’ so we look at pressures on women to stay. Two women each week are killed by a partner or former partner and they know that when they leave, their lives are in danger.”

Tender has worked in more than 100 schools across London since 2003. Like other organisations working in this area, it often has to deal with the tricky subject of disclosure. As the course progresses over 10 weeks, some girls and boys gradually realise that what’s already happened to them – controlling behaviour, slapping and shaking, unwanted sex – is abusive.

“They’ve discussed it so they feel able to talk to workshop leaders,” says McDonald. “They’re able to identify what has happened to them as abusive behaviour.”

This is one reason why the subject of rape has to be approached sensitively, says Michelle Barry, of the STAR Project in Southampton.

The project is run by Southampton Rape Crisis and goes into every school in the city.

“If we went into year 10 and said we’re going to talk about rape, obviously we know it’s going to be very real for some of the young people,” she says. “We have to approach it in a user-friendly way and make it easy for young people to engage with the issues. Our starting point is healthy relationships: what you might look for in a partner, why someone might delay their first sexual experience, we talk about non-consensual sex.”

Like Lisa Green from Kream, Barry is careful not to demonise young men.

“We’re clear that young men can be victims,” she says.

One of the chief aims of EVAW’s new campaign is to get programmes like the STAR Project into schools and youth centres right across the UK – and that the We Are Men film will provide a lively starting point.

“What we’re hearing so far is that it’s a very powerful message,” says Somali Cerise. “I watched the shoot and the actors were talking about the end of the film, where it says every nine minutes a woman in raped in Britain. It generated a lot of discussion and I heard one young man say: ‘Now I know that, next time one of my friends makes a joke about rape I’m not going to put up with it’.

“We’re hoping that the film will go viral.”

Misogyny is the issue in the Milly Dowler case, not her father’s questioning in court

While the Dowler family deserves every sympathy, scrutiny of the victim’s family life was a necessary part of the legal process

Independent on Sunday, 26 June 2011

It is sad but not unusual for the aftermath of a sensational criminal trial to focus on entirely the wrong issue. But seldom has it happened so dramatically as in the three days since Levi Bellfield was convicted of the abduction and murder of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old girl who disappeared as she walked home from school in Walton-on-Thames in 2002.

Milly’s killer is a horrible man, a pitiless misogynist who went on to bludgeon two young women to death and tried to kill a third. He has a lengthy history of rape and domestic violence and the question highlighted (not for the first time) by last week’s trial is why he wasn’t recognised as a danger to women long before he escalated to murder.

We will probably never know the true extent of Bellfield’s crimes. In 2008, when he was convicted of murdering Amélie Delagrange and Marsha McDonnell and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy, the CPS decided there was no public interest in pursuing a series of rape allegations against him. But instead of looking at the toxic combination of excuses, denial and terror that allowed Bellfield to beat and rape women for so many years, the overwhelming response to the end of his trial has been to criticise the way Milly’s family, in particular her father, Bob Dowler, were treated in court.

Being cross-examined in a murder trial is a traumatic experience for close relatives. Milly’s mother, Sally, said her family had lost their right to privacy, while Bob Dowler described giving evidence as a “truly mentally scarring experience on an unimaginable scale”. The Government’s Victims’ Commissioner, Louise Casey, attacked the family’s treatment by Bellfield’s defence team as “appalling”. Yesterday the Chief Constable of Surrey, Mark Rowley, added his voice to the concern expressed about the family’s experience of the criminal justice system.

There is a problem here. First, no matter how ghastly Bellfield is, he is entitled to a defence. Second, the “extremely personal” matters raised by his barrister, Jeffrey Samuels QC, were distasteful but relevant in a trial which turned on misogynistic attitudes to women. As well as looking at the movements of known sex offenders who lived near Milly’s home, detectives would have been remiss if they had not scrutinised the behaviour of people close to her.

They became suspicious of Bob Dowler when the following facts emerged: he kept pornographic material at the bottom of a chest of drawers in his bedroom; Milly was hugely distressed when she came across a magazine containing “probably extreme pornographic material… a fetish nature… latex and bondage” a few months before her disappearance; Dowler lied to detectives about his movements on the day of his daughter’s abduction, failing to tell them that he stopped at a motorway service station to view pornography; he kept further “extreme” material in a desk in the hallway and in a sitting room; he kept bondage gear in a box in the loft, including a rubber hood and a ball-shaped gag.

Even if Milly hadn’t disappeared, it is hard to see why possession of such material by the father of two teenage daughters should ever be treated as an entirely private matter. Looking at extreme pornography and acquiring restraints for use during sex are worrying behaviours, and it isn’t hard to imagine circumstances – a custody battle, for example – in which they might even be interpreted as potentially abusive. Indeed, what is so extraordinary about the outpouring of sympathy for Bob Dowler is that so many commentators have been willing to overlook what this might imply about his feelings towards women, while rightly denouncing Bellfield’s misogyny in the strongest possible terms. It is possible to sympathise with the Dowler family over the dreadful loss of Milly without arguing that the entire trial process is in need of an overhaul.

Bellfield’s hatred of women and violence towards them was well-known among his partners, acquaintances and co-workers. Girlfriends lived in terror of his violence, which included beatings, being burned with cigarettes, rapes, and, on at least one occasion, a hammer attack. His ex-wife says he boasted about raping women, even claiming that he’d lifted a disabled woman out of her wheelchair before assaulting her on the bonnet of his car. A man who worked with Bellfield at a club in Maidenhead, Berkshire, recalled that he gave the date-rape drug Rohypnol to a young clubber before raping her in the car park and stealing her mobile phone. Witnesses who gave statements before his first trial in 2008 recalled more astonishing incidents, including an occasion when Bellfield offered to sell his 16-year-old girlfriend and her younger sister for sex.

Selling girls is as much a crime as rape, which Bellfield openly boasted about, so why wasn’t he repeatedly reported to the police? One acquaintance described Bellfield as an “animal”, but that’s another way of avoiding the issue of criminality. It seems more likely that this is an extreme example of the way in which abusive and even criminal conduct is tolerated within some social groups.

When men like Bellfield are finally apprehended, there’s usually a history of abusive behaviour which has gone unchecked over a long period. But a consistent failure to respond to danger signals allows them to get jobs where they come into contact with the public. The Soham murderer, Ian Huntley, was accused of having under-age sex, an indecent assault and four rapes before he killed Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman; he never appeared in court and was able to get a job as a school caretaker. Bellfield was a wheel-clamper but he also worked as a nightclub bouncer, presenting himself as an authority figure to whom girls could turn if they needed help.

There is no doubt that the conclusion of Bellfield’s trial has raised difficult and distressing issues. But the most important lesson is that we stop regarding men like him as enigmas, totally disconnected from the society they live in, and understand the existence of a spectrum of abuse. Domestic abuse and rape are serial crimes, committed over and over again with escalating violence, but they’re often associated with other behaviours that aren’t necessarily illegal: humiliating remarks, defacing images of women, using prostituted women, sex tourism.

When such conduct goes unchallenged by friends, family and co-workers, it becomes normalised and excused. Bellfield was a serial sexual predator before he was a serial killer, and he should have been stopped long before he killed poor Milly Dowler.

Who are these fleeing artists?

Independent, Thursday 23 June 2011

Panic stations! The UK’s high tax regime is causing the country to bleed talent, according to the distinguished composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. He warns that the 50 per cent tax rate on the highest earners “could be the nail in the coffin of Britain PLC”, causing a shortage of creative talent and costing the country billions in lost revenue. Who will be left for him to collaborate with?

First, let me point out that the quote comes not from yesterday’s Lloyd Webber broadside on the subject but another article two years ago, when he made an almost identical apocalyptic forecast. The imminent demise of what politicians like to call the “creative economy” is a favourite theme of Lloyd Webber’s, repeated so often that there’s a widespread belief (which he denies) that he once threatened to leave the country himself.

His latest salvo was inspired by the singer Adele, who has apparently just received her first big royalty cheque and is reeling from the amount she’s paid in tax. Maybe it’s time for her to line up beside Tracey Emin, another tax-moaner, who really did threaten to leave the country a while ago. “I’m simply not willing to pay tax at 50 per cent”, Emin declared, although as far as I’ve been able to establish she’s still here – and packing in visitors to her retrospective show on London’s South Bank. Lloyd Webber doesn’t actually mention any big names who’ve left the country since his warning of an imminent exodus two years ago. He says he recently had dinner in Toronto with an unnamed cinematographer who’s moved to Canada because he doesn’t see why someone with a young family should have to pay tax at 52 per cent (I think that must include National Insurance). So who are all these creative talents who’ve upped sticks and gone to countries with more favourable tax regimes?

A quick search comes up with an almost random list of celebrities who’ve opted to live abroad for one reason or another. It appears that the racing driver Lewis Hamilton has shifted to tax exile in Switzerland without my noticing, while I can live without his fellow driver Jenson Button (now a resident of Monaco) since I never knew he was British anyway. Then there’s a clutch of knights, including the actor Sir Sean Connery and the entrepreneur Sir Philip Green, which makes me wonder about the value of the British government dishing out all those honours.

Have you noticed that it’s never the poor who use the pages of national newspapers to moan that the country is losing its brightest talent? The common factor among folk who complain about the UK’s tax regime is that they’re well off, live in lovely houses and could actually afford to relocate to somewhere like Monaco.

They also tend to justify their tirades by complaining about the decline of the UK, citing “rubbish services in everything from health to education” and the “third world” state of Heathrow Airport, to pick two key phrases from Lloyd Webber’s latest article. Anyone who thinks British airports compare with those in developing countries obviously hasn’t used Lungi airport in Sierra Leone, which had just introduced flush toilets when I was there last year.

But the real point is that average national income is very low in West Africa, which means tax revenue is so low the government can’t afford world-class public services. High taxes and decent services – ours aren’t “rubbish” by any standard, even if delivery is sometimes patchy – are signs of affluence, and to be welcomed by anyone who believes in social justice.

If a handful of affluent celebrities is unhappy with the situation, they’re welcome to say so. But they shouldn’t expect sympathy. I work in the UK’s “creative economy” and I might just start a trend by announcing that I have no intention of leaving the country.

Bad luck, Hef – the bunny’s hopped it

The jilting of the original Playboy

Independent on Sunday, 19 June 2011

Discovering on the eve of your wedding that your prospective bridegroom is still seeing other women might come as a shock. But I can’t help feeling it should have been a less-than-seismic event for Crystal Harris, 25, who turned down the opportunity to become Mrs Hugh Hefner at a lavish ceremony in the Playboy mansion yesterday.

The former Playmate of the Month (December 2009, if you wish to consult your archive) pulled out of the wedding last week and gave a tearful TV interview, astounding the world with the revelation that “I wasn’t the only woman in Hugh Hefner’s life”.

In other breaking news, it also turns out that Henry VIII had a bit of a roving eye, although sadly his contemporaries were denied his thoughts about matrimony on Twitter. The Playboy founder responded manfully to being jilted, tweeting that he hadn’t seen it coming but “I’m glad things went wrong before the marriage instead of after”. I can see why Hefner, 85, is relieved to have escaped the prospect of decades (ahem) of marital disharmony, but the cancelled wedding has caused red faces at Playboy magazine. Executives are frantically trying to fix “runaway bride” stickers to the latest issue which features Harris with a jaunty sailor cap and pipe – no, I don’t know why either – and describes her as “Mrs Crystal Hefner”. Technically, indeed prophetically, this form of address suggests she’s already divorced, but I don’t suppose they worry about such details at Playboy.

Playboy has been around for nearly 60 years. Its founder has aged and so has his ideology of faux-sexual liberation, overtaken by gender equality on the one hand and a rapacious commercial sex industry on the other. For years there’s been something vampiric about this elderly man, shuffling along in pyjamas and dressing gown but still casting a critical eye over “girls” who weren’t even born when he launched his career as America’s most swinging bachelor. Hefner was actually married when he founded Playboy in 1953 and he didn’t get divorced until six years later, but in the drab post-war world he offered American men a vision of themselves as perpetual consumers: of apartments, flashy cars, vacations and women.

He amassed a fortune and enjoyed a lifestyle most of his readers could only aspire to, but he also surrounded himself with acolytes who seem never to have warned him what an absurd figure he was becoming. His decrepit appearance at the recent reopening of the Playboy club in London was a brilliant metaphor, a reminder that his “philosophy” is long past its sell-by date.

The original Playboy bunnies were expected to abide by a code that might have drawn approving nods from the religious police in one of the more liberal Arab dictatorships, permitting them to “converse briefly with patrons, provided that conversation is limited to a polite exchange of pleasantries”. Hefner flatters himself that his ludicrous empire was at the forefront of liberal values and it’s true that there was a moment, probably circa 1965, when he was briefly in step with some of the aims of the sexual revolution. But that was before a new generation of feminists emerged and proposed that modern women should have more adventurous erotic ambitions than being nude centrefolds or glorified waitresses.

I can’t say I blame Harris for rejecting another alternative, becoming the third Mrs Hugh Hefner. She’s had to forgo the strawberry wedding cake and the party at the Playboy mansion, but every cloud has a silver lining. My advice is to dump the sailor cap, get a proper job and go for a younger man. He’s unlikely to be as immature as the world’s oldest swinger.

Rape is part of military culture, a secret among soldiers

Independent on Sunday, 12 June 2011

Three months ago, a Libyan woman burst into a hotel in Tripoli and told foreign journalists she’d been gang-raped by Colonel Gaddafi’s soldiers. TV crews filmed distressing scenes as Iman al-Obeidi was dragged away by Libyan security forces, despite attempts by reporters to prevent her abduction. Last week a senior figure at the International Criminal Court repeated claims that the Gaddafi regime has used mass rape to terrorise the civilian population. In what was widely described as “a horrific first”, the regime was accused of distributing the anti-impotence drug, Viagra, to soldiers.

A similar claim was made in April but the ICC’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, gave it credibility when he said there was evidence of Libya acquiring “containers” of such drugs in order to “enhance the possibility to rape women”. Such accusations suggest that the regime has deliberately planned crimes against humanity, but they’re also sensational and problematic: rape in war is so common that the problem is stopping sexual violence against women and men, not persuading soldiers to carry it out.

The historian Antony Beevor has revealed the truly staggering extent of rape by the Soviet Red Army as it advanced at the end of the Second World War; between 95,000 and 130,000 rape victims were treated at Berlin’s two hospitals, while the number of German women who were victims of soldiers may have reached two million.

Beevor quoted a playwright, Zakhar Agranenko, who wrote in his diary that “Red Army soldiers don’t believe in ‘individual liaisons’ with German women. Nine, ten, twelve men at a time – they rape them on a collective basis.” At the same time, Allied soldiers were committing similar atrocities in Japan: during a 10-day period in the autumn of 1945, they were accused of carrying out 1,336 rapes in a single prefecture.

More recently, American soldiers not only sexually abused prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq but filmed each other as they did it. For once, some of the perpetrators ended up in court, but it’s far more usual for a culture of impunity to flourish in the military. Against this background, it would be surprising if Gaddafi’s forces hadn’t been accused of rape; what’s changed is the willingness of women like al-Obeidi to speak out.

Even so, the outrage of the international community is selective: not a single member of the Sri Lankan government is currently under investigation for crimes against humanity, despite the existence of filmed evidence that its forces committed atrocities, including mass rape, in 2009.

On Tuesday evening, Channel 4 will screen the evidence in a harrowing documentary called Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. But some of the most distressing sequences come from the soldiers’ mobile phones, filmed as trophies as they posed and joked beside the bound corpses of violated women. This is the military culture of rape at its most sickening, rarely seen by civilians.

It calls for a tough international response to get justice for the thousands of women who’ve been raped in Sri Lanka, Libya and other conflicts. Just as important, though, is that world leaders send the strongest possible signal that the days of impunity for soldier-rapists are over.

A Conducive Context? Misogyny, inequality, violence

DIARY REMINDER: I will be talking about my book Misogynies at a conference in London on June 22, details and booking information here:

When: Wednesday 22 June 2011
Organised by: LSBU
Location: LSBU (exact venue confirmed upon booking

Event type: One-day conference

This conference will explore relationships between violence against women and the broader cultural, social and economic context.  Opened by author and journalist Joan Smith reflecting on the state we’re in twenty years after her feminist classic ‘Misogynies‘ was first published, the conference will ask: How have things changed? What are the challenges that academics, policy makers and service providers face, and where do we go next? Join leading academics, activists, professionals from the women’s sector, charities, law, media and policy, to debate and discuss. Affordable sliding scale. Download the programme and booking form (PDF 186KB – opens in new window)

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Say au revoir to the cinq-à-sept, messieurs

Since the arrest of DSK, France has started to question the once private lives of its most powerful men

Independent on Sunday, 5 June 2011

If you walk into any British supermarket, you will see shelves groaning under the weight of magazines that promise to spill the secrets of stars’ private lives. Love rats, love birds… there is a virtual zoo of celebrity sexual behaviour on offer, along with tabloid revelations about politicians’ private lives. Where else would a party leader face questions on television about how many people he’s slept with and feel obliged to answer? In France, such forays into private matters have traditionally been observed with amused indifference, if not a weary sense of Gallic superiority.

Now scarcely a day goes by without a new set of allegations against leading French politicians. The country’s journalists have been left squirming, unable any longer to offer a coherent view of the boundary between public and private conduct. Last month’s arrest in New York of the Socialist politician and head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on serious sex charges was just the beginning. Last weekend brought the resignation of a junior government minister, Georges Tron, who has been accused of sexually harassing two former municipal employees in the Paris suburb where he is mayor.

Hardly had that piece of news broken when Luc Ferry, a leading right-wing philosopher and former education minister, made incendiary allegations during a TV discussion about privacy, accusing another Socialist former minister of taking part in an orgy with young boys in Morocco. Ferry didn’t name the man, whose identity is known throughout France, but claimed to have been told about the orgy by “high authorities of the state – in particular, a prime minister”. On Friday, Ferry was summoned to a prosecutor’s office in Paris where he was asked for precise information about what the man is alleged to have done, although Ferry has said he doesn’t have proof of his claims. There has been a queasy reaction to his use of a television studio to air such damaging allegations, but it should be remembered that frank admissions of sex tourism by Nicolas Sarkozy’s culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, did not cost him his job 18 months ago.

As it happens, Mitterrand and the unnamed ex-minister accused by Ferry were among the most vocal supporters of Roman Polanski when the film director was arrested and threatened with extradition to the US in 2009. Polanski, who has dual French-Polish citizenship, fled Los Angeles to avoid a prison sentence after pleading guilty in 1977 to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl; he had been technically a fugitive from justice ever since, but his supporters in France brushed aside the unpleasant details, as though his illustrious career in cinema placed him above such squalid accusations.

With hindsight, the Polanski affair may have been a turning point. With so many politicians now facing allegations of sexual harassment or assault, it looks like the last gasp of a culture that was confused not just about the distinction between public and private life but the line between pleasure and criminality. At the time of Polanski’s arrest, Mitterrand had just been appointed culture minister and he forcefully expressed the view that the director was a victim of puritanical American attitudes towards sex. It quickly emerged that in his autobiography, published in 2005, Mitterrand had boasted about visiting Thailand and Indonesia as a sex tourist, admitting that he was fully aware of “the sordid details of this traffic”. Although he implied that he had paid for sex with under-age boys, Mitterrand’s admissions passed largely unnoticed until Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the French National Front, read out the relevant passages from his book on live TV. Traditional respect for public figures’ private lives, combined with the fact that the attack on Mitterrand came from such a tainted source, worked in the minister’s favour and he kept his job. But the reaction outside France was very different, signalling that time was running out for the self-styled libertines of this world.

It’s long been a matter of national pride in France that ministers, mayors and presidents do what they like in private, even maintaining a secret second family in the case of President Mitterrand, without fear of exposure in the press. According to this view of the world, Bill Clinton would never have got into so much trouble over a mere intern if only he’d been French. But French disdain for tabloid culture was always selective: Sarkozy’s then justice minister, Rachida Dati, was the subject of intense debate in 2009 when she returned to work five days after giving birth and refused to name the baby’s father. It also overlooked the crucial point that some forms of sexual behaviour tip over into the category of abuse and are a legitimate matter of public interest.

French journalists have been so pleased with themselves, and so fearful of imitating Anglo-Saxon prurience, that the events of recent weeks have hit them with the force of an electric cattle prod. Overnight, they’ve gone from seeing themselves as relaxed about trysts, love affairs and the celebrated cinq-à-sept – those hours in the early evening when French men traditionally spend time with their mistresses – to facing accusations of colluding in sexual abuse if not actual rape. Some of the accusations have come from inside the country, from feminists who have finally spotted an opportunity to bring this enabling culture into the open. The effect has been devastating to the French psyche.

The alleged victims of abuse by some of the most powerful men in France are among the poorest, most vulnerable people in society. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the slew of allegations against politicians isn’t about consensual affairs between adults: they’ve been accused of misuse of power, coercion, having under-age sexual partners and being involved in sex tourism. Some of the allegations may not be true, but there have been sufficient to suggest a pattern, and DSK’s arrest seems to have acted as a catalyst. One French women’s organisation has recorded a sixfold increase in complaints about sexual harassment in the past fortnight.

Privacy is important. In this country, celebrity culture has turned private life into a commodity which is currently being fought over on social-networking sites, in Parliament and the courts. The French are right to believe that there’s something infantile about wanting to know which famous footballer is sleeping with an actress, but wrong to argue that every aspect of private life is off-limits. A country that believes in equality and human rights stands accused of turning a blind eye to exploitation, and of colluding in a sexist culture where women ministers no longer wear skirts in Parliament to avoid “salacious” comments from male colleagues.

Instead of railing against American prosecutors or Anglo-Saxon prurience, the French political and cultural elite needs to ask itself an uncomfortable question. Why have so many alleged abusers been able to thrive for so long in its ranks?