The wandering hands of Pol Van Den Driessche

Belgium (or at least the part of it that cares about Flemish politics) has been consumed with interested over the last week in the affair of Pol Van Den Driessche, a right-wing politician and former journalist running for mayor of Bruges in October's municipal elections, who has been accused of sexual harassment of his professional colleagues. (Thanks to for alerting me to the story.) We have had the usual depressing circus of his political allies defending him against "baseless" attacks, and even five female colleagues writing an open letter stating that they had never experienced any intimidation from him. (If I had been advising Van Den Driessche on his PR, I would have counselled against orchestrating this letter.)

My linkspam for today includes a first-person account from Liesbeth Van Impe, a top political journalist from one of the main Flemish newspapers, published yesterday. It is worth translating in full:

Liesbeth Van Impe on Pol Van Den Driessche: Why the silence is the real problem

If the whole discussion about Pol Van Den Driessche this week proves anything, it is that we have not yet found a good way to discuss sexual harassment in 2012. All the side issues have now been reviewed. There is shooting the messenger (Humo). There is doubt about the sincerity of the witnesses. The real object of debate was the Mayoral contest in Bruges. Or the whole problem was narrowed down to the purely legal: there are no official complaints, so there is no problem. We can now make lists of women who did not experience any groping. God help us, even the debate over the privacy of politicians was again resurrected.

All very interesting, but often quite beside the point. This story has nothing to do with privacy. It is not about whether Pol Van Den Driessche has or had affairs, a question of importance only to his wife. It's about whether he abused his position to go further with many women than those women liked. The workplace is not an extension of the bedroom. It is very nice that some women will say they have not suffered from the Van Den Driessche phenomenon, but that does not mean that other women are lying. And even if the timing indicates a political agenda, does that make the allegations less bad?

Of course, the comparison with DSK is exaggerated. If there are similarities, it is not so much in what happened, but more in our reaction to it. Until one woman stood up against DSK, he could say there were no complaints, just like Van Den Driessche. Only after the first accusation did some find the courage to tell their stories after many years. And suddenly many more people seemed to have known for a long time that something was wrong.

Many comments during the past week were silent about the merits of the case. And that silence is what this is all about.

Kick under the Table

Eight years ago I was a novice political journalist. Pol's reputation had preceded him, I had been warned that he had wandering hands. During a lunch in the Senate he rubbed my back the entire time, which was not really fun, but neither was it a reason to scream bloody murder. A while later I had another incident. During an N-VA press lunch which we both attended as journalists, I suddenly felt a hand on my knee. I gave a kick under the table. Pol never went that far again.

To be clear, I do not feel like one of Pol's victims. I have no trauma to survive, and once Pol respected my boundaries, he was a fine colleague. What has been bothering me all week is my own reaction then. I found that hand on my knee really not okay, I had not invited it in any way. It hit me more than I would have expected. But I did what everyone did for years: get on and pretend nothing happened. Nobody wants to be the prudish hysteric, I was too cool for that. I had a good laugh about it with my colleagues. It was all over. But why?

This week, the journalist Tine Stephens had more courage than I had then. She does not dramatise, but says that what happened then was not okay. I am now in a leadership position in the newspaper where Pol was once editor-in-chief. As far as I am concerned, the idea that a male boss here would sneak out with a newly hired intern or a female journalist is downright unthinkable today. And that has nothing to do with prudishness. Because I keep wondering if I would have dared to kick Pol under the table if he had been my boss.

Gray Zone

Talking about sexual harassment is particularly difficult. Often there are no witnesses and no evidence. Often it is about subtleties. And what is perfectly acceptable for one person may be a problem for another. Anyone recounting an incident feels a bit ridiculous. There is no clear boundary. Many women know the builders' dilemma: being whistled at on the street can be intimidating, but also flattering, and even sometimes both.

There is much ambiguity about sexual tension, including in the workplace. In the U.S. they solve that with very strict rules. There is white and black, there are rules and prohibitions. If you break the rules, you risk complaints. It is clear, but it can also lead to hysterical situations. A law can prescribe for all the nuances of human interaction.

We are not the U.S., fortunately. Here we have a gray zone. That can work perfectly, provided there is sufficient openness to discuss issues and resolve them. In the gray zone there is greater freedom but also greater responsibility. Every organization, every group should be alert to false signals. You cannot only see the problem in legal terms. We do not go to court because of a stray hand or some inappropriate touching. But that does not mean there is no problem. The defensive line "there are no complaints," is thus simply ridiculous.

Even a gray zone has a border. It is not a license to go as far as possible. Laying a completely unsolicited hand on the knee of a young colleague who you hardly know during a work meeting has nothing to do with the gray zone. Seeing how far you can go with young female colleagues as their boss, is not a case for reasonable doubt. You simply can not do that.

What now?

Pol Van Den Driessche denies any accusations of unwanted intimacy. That is at least strange when some women have stated that in their case it really was not wanted. He would be wiser to ascertain exactly what these women blame him for, and to apologize as much as possible. Steely denial is simply stupid.

Whether there will be political consequences, his party must decide. It is perfectly legitimate for voters to decide how much they care. But can N-VA stop using double standards? You can not be a party of values ​​and then dismiss the women who finally have the courage to testify. You can not be a party of values ​​and only care about the legal side of the affair. Many employers, colleagues and acquaintances have let Pol go on like this for a long time. To continue like that after this week, makes it doubly bad.

And as for me, I blame myself that I have contributed to building an atmosphere in which a young woman needed a great deal of courage, between all the jokes, to say that it really was not okay. But now when I look around in the newsroom, buzzing with many mature women and decent men, I'm pretty confident. And if anyone should bump into a problem in the grey zone, there are three editors, two men and a woman, who will not laugh it off, but will try to solve it.

This morning Pol Van Den Driessche announced that he is leaving politics because of the effect of the accusations on his family. It includes this apology:

…wil ik mij oprecht verontschuldigen tegenover vrouwen die mijn gedrag als grensoverschrijdend hebben ervaren. Ik heb dit toen niet zo aangevoeld en als dit vrijpostig of kwetsend overkwam: dat was nooit mijn bedoeling.

I sincerely apologise to women who experienced my behaviour as crossing their boundaries. I did this when I was less sensitive (aangevoeld – has also implications of raised consciousness), and if this came across as impertinent or offensive, that was not my intention.

So that's the end of the Van Den Driessche affair; but far from being the end of the issue.

One thought on “The wandering hands of Pol Van Den Driessche

  1. Oh, the figures were perfectly accurate as to LibraryThing and GoodReads ownership – they just turned out not to be a terribly good predictor of Hugo votes!!!

    You were in fact third on LT and fifth on GoodReads. Checking them now, you’re still third and fifth, respectively, and the margin with DoD has if anything widened!

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