September 17, 2023 - 3:45pm

Allegations by four women that comedian, actor and social media star Russell Brand assaulted them between 2006 and 2013 have caused a furore, after their release in a Dispatches documentary and Sunday Times story as part of a joint investigation. One of the women was reportedly just 16 at the time. 

The court of public opinion instantly polarised between Brand haters who assume the allegations are true, and Brand supporters who view the report as a hit job, with some claiming that it is politically motivated payback for “questioning the system”. Yet it’s possible that they’re all right. And in this case the only clear lesson of the story concerns not Brand, nor his supposed enemies, but instead our collective public hypocrisy where sex and power are concerned.  

Did he do it? Who knows. Brand, who once bragged that his sex addiction saw him sleep with thousands of women, claimed in a video response to the allegations that every one of his prolific encounters was consensual. Though at that rate of throughput it’s hard to see how he could remember every detail of each incident, perhaps he believes this. Meanwhile, I’ve had my share of encounters that seemed okay at the time but which were, in hindsight, pretty abusive — especially as public norms have shifted since #MeToo. (Brand was repeatedly awarded the Sun’s title “Shagger of the Year”, a testament to how differently pathological womanising was treated even relatively recently.) 

So everyone in this story could well be telling the truth as they see it. Unsurprisingly, then, many Brand supporters have been quick to pivot from the allegations to the question of timing. 

Why did everyone ignore this supposed “open secret” until now? Why, indeed. This question, and the indifference it demonstrates to the substance of the allegations, both highlights and enacts an endemic form of public hypocrisy concerning sexual wrongdoing. 

The report itself recounts that everyone around Brand knew what he was like, and did their best to avoid exposing young women to his attentions. No one spoke out, often for fear of reprisals or professional difficulties. This repeats a pattern seen in sex scandal after sex scandal, from Savile through Epstein to (perhaps) Brand: high-status predators benefit from a kind of wilful unseeing that lets their actions go noticed but unpunished. 

On this metric, we can also extend the definition of “status” beyond wealth and power, to castes which are protected for other reasons. Sexually abusive priests, for example, benefitted for a long time from this kind of selective blindness. More recently, we’ve seen added partial invisibility and benefit of the doubt granted to accused sexual abusers based on race (as in the British grooming gangs), or gender identity (as in cases like this). And on this calculus, too, sexual wrongdoing becomes magically visible again only when it is politically useful. It’s no coincidence that the most vocal defenders of Rotherham’s abused girls are often also campaigners against immigration

This is not to say that grooming gangs should be ignored — only that it’s almost always true that people care more about politics than about the suffering of women who have been assaulted or raped. Whatever the truth in Brand’s case, many on the Left who knew his reputation perpetuated this dynamic for years while he was endorsing Labour. And his fans are still doing so now, in their insistence that the value of his political voice remains a mitigating factor against reports of his sexual wrongdoing.

The same is true of his enemies, including the women who came forward. The Sunday Times report indicates that Brand’s new social media direction, a video channel whose content ranges from wellness to Covid and Net Zero “dissident” material, was a factor in inspiring several to speak out.  

Everyone, in other words, subordinates the question of sexual misbehaviour to a political assessment of the accused. And perhaps it was ever thus, #MeToo or no #MeToo. In this case, the only takeaway from this ugly story is a warning to pretty young women. Be careful out there: for no one will care if you’re assaulted by a high-status sexual predator, except that predator’s political enemies.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.