Carl Sargeant’s tragic death shouldn’t be misused to stop women coming forward

Carl Sargeant (1968-2017) . Picture by National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

Carl Sargeant served his country as an elected representative for 13 years and his contribution as an Assembly Member and as a minister won’t be forgotten.

His death yesterday at the age of just 49 was a tragedy and the outpouring of grief by all who knew him showed that he was both loved and respected in the Assembly.

No one knows what motivated Carl Sargeant to take his own life, and only a few what the accusations against him were.

It’s unfortunate, however, that this did not stop many speculating within minutes of the horrifying announcement of his death yesterday afternoon.

First to comment were those who considered the recent revelations about sexual harassment, in politics and elsewhere, to be a ‘witch hunt’ which has now ‘claimed its first victim’.

It feels wrong to have to descend into a political debate so soon after a man’s death. But this rapidly forming narrative is one that must be resisted.

‘Witch hunt’ implies that this is a made up problem, while the reality is the sexual harassment and abuse of women is a massive problem in our society and it has to be tackled.

We know that almost 100,000 women are raped in the UK every year – which means about 5,000 in Wales. Only 1% of the perpetrators are ever convicted.

That’s just the most serious form of sexual abuse. Less serious forms, and sexual harassment more generally, are rife.

Yes, sometimes innocent men are accused and go through hell for no reason. Carl Sargeant may be among them. We have no idea.

But what we need to appreciate is that the number of men falsely accused is tiny in comparison with the number of men who get away with it and are free to do it again.

This isn’t a victimless crime that can be swept under the carpet. Sexual abuse and harassment can leave deep psychological scars on women that ruin lives.

Silence

Many have argued that the names of men accused of sexual harassment or abuse should not be made public. That by naming them, they face trial by media, and are guilty until proven innocent.

I won’t defend the media’s handling of this issue – today’s Sun front page is particularly stomach-churning.

But the unfortunate truth is that the only way many sexual abusers or harassers face justice is if many women come forward and, independently of one another, give very similar accounts of what they suffered.

The only way this happens is if someone is named publicly. At that point, other victims realise that they are not alone, and are less likely to be accused of being fantasists.

Even then, it’s a hard slog. The women have to appear in court and have every detail of their traumatic story picked over by a defence team that will imply that they’re either lying or deranged.

At the end of all that, few prosecutions result in a conviction.

Women already have every reason not to come forward, without also being accused of driving innocent men to their deaths.

We have no idea what the accusations against Carl Sargeant were, what substance they had, and what part they played in his decisions to take his own life.

But as has been pointed out since his death, Carl Sargeant fought for action on gender equality and domestic violence, and whatever his motivations it’s fair to say that it wasn’t to silence women.

Unfortunately, there’s no good way of dealing with accusations of this nature. It’s a nasty, horrible business. But claiming that it’s a ‘witch hunt’ and pretending the problem doesn’t exist is the worst possible option.

In the light of the Harvey Weinstein accusations, women are finally finding their voice on this issue. I dearly hope that Carl Sargeant’s tragic death isn’t misused by those who would wish to silence them again.

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