MUCH has been written in recent years about the toxic “boys’ club” atmosphere of Westminster politics. It’s a charge often levelled at the institution as though it is uniquely sexist and stands alone in its inclination to protect perpetrators of sexual harassment and shield them from the consequences of their actions.

This belief is understandable and not totally without merit.

Before long-overdue changes to the complaints procedure at Westminster, victims of workplace harassment and bullying often felt reluctant to come forward.

Even now, the system is far from perfect. You need only look at the Conservative Party’s lack of action against MP Rob Roberts to see that.

Some cite the drinking culture, the imbalance between numbers of male and female MPs and the knee-jerk responses of political parties as reasons why the House of Commons is unique in its misogyny.

READ MORE: Stanley Johnson accused of groping women at Tory party conferences

In truth, it’s not. Men who bully, harass and touch women without their consent can be found everywhere. Why? Because they’ve been allowed to get away with it for so long. What has traditionally been seen as “low-level” harassment is excused and minimised.

We know how the script goes. Can you not take a joke? It’s just banter. He’s not meaning anything bad by it – that’s just his sense of humour! Women are used to hearing these heartfelt defences of the men who have made them feel uncomfortable. Westminster’s culture is not the exception. In workplaces across the UK, it’s often the rule.

Last week, we saw the Prime Minister’s dad, Stanley Johnson, accused of sexual harassment. Tory MP and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee Caroline Nokes alleges he smacked her on the bottom “about as hard as he could” at an event in 2003, before making a vulgar comment towards her. When he was asked about the allegations, Stanley Johnson said he had “no recollection” of Nokes and had “no idea what she was talking about”.

In the wake of Nokes’s allegation, a political correspondent at The New Statesman, Ailbhe Rea, said on Twitter: “Stanley Johnson also groped me at a party at Conservative conference in 2019. I am grateful to Caroline Nokes for calling out something that none of us should have to put up with, not least from the Prime Minister’s father.’’

As so often happens with these types of high-profile allegations, the alleged victims were criticised for not saying something at the time. People wanted to know why they hadn’t acted in the moment. One Tory minister who was asked about the allegations said her “instinctive” reaction would have been to slap Stanley Johnson. While she praised Nokes for her “restraint” in walking away, it was still a deeply unhelpful comment.

It’s easy to say what you think you would do and how you think you would react when you’re not the one experiencing it. In the moment, a whole range of emotions can hit before indignation or anger does – shock being one of the most common.

In the days that followed the allegations, social media followed a predictable cycle of scorn and blame. Shock-jock Isabel Oakeshott sought to get in on the action. She posted a photo of herself with Stanley Johnson and a tweet which said: “The charming Stanley Johnson can be a little over-friendly – indeed handsy – but I don’t believe this is one for the police. Officers should focus their limited resources on investigating real crimes.”

Give me a break.

No doubt she thought she was being helpful to Johnson. But what she actually did was highlight how normalised “handsy” behaviour is. It’s a deceptively cutesy word for something which can be shocking and downright frightening if you’re on the receiving end of it.

READ MORE: Caroline Nokes: Tory MP condemns 'victim blaming' after Stanley Johnson claim

Oakeshott seemed to be at pains to stress that she’s not like other girls. She’s cool. She can take a joke. As a point of principle, she will give men who touch women without their consent the benefit of the doubt. Because there are more serious things going-on in the world and, after all, this is the kind of stuff women just have to put up with …right? Wrong.

When I think of some of the “low-level” harassment I laughed off, excused and accepted at work in my late teens, it makes me shudder. I’m not at all angry with myself for not acting in the moment. There was never any prospect of 17-year-old me just giving anyone “a slap”.

But when I imagine my daughter in similar situations it makes me want to burn the whole rotten thing to the ground. We should want things to be better for the young women that come after us. We shouldn’t tell them to toughen up or accept abusive behaviour just because we were sold the lie that it’s not a big deal.

Normalising harassment only keeps us stuck in this hellish place, where women are viewed more harshly for how they respond to “handsy” men than the “handsy” men are for their grotesque sense of entitlement.