Women can be sexual on their own terms. Isn’t that the point of #MeToo?

Barbara Ellen

How difficult is it going to be for female actors to navigate sexuality in a post-#MeToo landscape?

Reese Witherspoon has spoken to Vanity Fair magazine about how actresses shouldn’t be made to feel they can’t express their sexuality because they’ve been vocal about #MeToo. Witherspoon (who previously spoke about being assaulted by a director when she was 16), said: “[A woman’s] sexuality shouldn’t be diminished because she’s having a conversation about consent. You should be able to be sexual, to display your sexuality, because consent is consent, no matter what.”

Witherspoon was referring to actresses stripping for photoshoots alongside articles where they discuss the treatment of women in Hollywood – but it could just as easily have been about acting, and how sexualised roles could lead to actresses being denounced as #MeToo phonies.

This is an important conversation, and timely in the week that Harvey Weinstein began his 23-year sentence for rape and sexual assault. While Weinstein’s conviction was a major win for #MeToo, there’s a danger that, for some, his scalp could represent not just the end of him but also the end of the matter. Indeed, while there’s plenty of reporting about how the industry is responding to #MeToo (from on-set guidelines to intimacy coordinators), what about actresses themselves, and how they’ll cope with criticism for highlighting abuse, and then taking “sexual” roles?

Not that this attitude ever really went away. We all know how it goes: “They don’t mind using their sexuality when they want to, when it suits them.” To which the only logical response is: well, yes, sweetie, that there’s the whole point.

The insinuation is that these women are guilty of hypocrisy, having their cake and eating it, picking and choosing when to feel threatened or objectified. Which is nonsense. #MeToo was and is about destroying an entrenched industry-wide matrix of female sexual abuse and exploitation. It isn’t about outlawing depictions of sexuality, ushering in creative puritanism or conjuring an Amish-themed Hollywood, where no woman is permitted to be attractive or sexual ever again.

Certainly, actresses shouldn’t feel railroaded into uber-pious career choices (“Henceforth, I shall only portray 90-year-old nuns who’ve given themselves to God!”). Those who had the guts to speak up should not feel pressured and stressed all over again about taking on a spicy role, posing up a storm in a photoshoot or running their careers any way they want.

The point surely is that whatever a woman chooses to do, it’s her choice. She’s not being pawed, dribbled over, and worse. She hasn’t got powerful predators intimidating her on and off camera. She doesn’t feel she has to agree to pointlessly graphic and humiliating sex scenes, or lose the job she loves. She isn’t being tricked or coerced into visiting hotel rooms, and sexually assaulted when she gets there. As Witherspoon says, it’s about “consent, no matter what”. It always should have been.

Execution can never be right... even for the worst of crimes

The father, left, and mother, centre, of the murdered victim celebrate after the hanging of their daughter’s convicted attackers in New Delhi, India. Photograph: Rajat Gupta/EPA

Last week saw the hangings of the four men in Delhi who gang-raped a 23-year-old student on a bus in 2012. (The unnamed woman later died of her injuries.) The case shocked the world and sparked a revolution about female safety within India (although women there are still raped at the rate of one every 20 minutes. The family of the victim expressed their relief that the executions were finally happening after many delays, which is understandable. But is the death penalty ever the answer?

It was the first time in five years that capital punishment has been carried out in India. People either think that the death penalty is morally wrong, or they don’t. To my mind, the hangings in India are as fundamentally unethical as a lethal injection in a US jail. I say that, while feeling nothing but disgust and outrage at what those men did, and my heart breaks for the young woman and her family. I understand why people think that, for certain crimes, the death penalty is justified.

However, there can’t be a sliding ethical scale for the death penalty. The dial must stay stuck, or it’s meaningless. I would argue that it could never be justified, even for appalling crimes. And that’s because executions echo and amplify the barbarity of any act. However horrific the crime may be, retaliatory executions shame and reduce us.

A shout-out to the Lib Dems, who at least were an option

The Lib Dem leadership candidate Layla Moran. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

It’s time the Liberal Democrats stopped wailing. In contrast to Labour’s risible “winning the argument” post-election line, the Lib Dems have done nothing but self-castigate. Granted, it was a disaster (even its leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat), but there has to be a limit to the yellow-hued sackcloth and ashes.

Now leadership candidate Layla Moran has criticised the Lib Dems’ electoral strategy, saying they shouldn’t have offered to revoke Brexit (should they have won a majority), or said that Swinson could become prime minister.

Oh, come on. Everyone knew that revoking Brexit was just election yak – a way for the party to distance itself from Labour in safe Tory seats where it had a chance. Similarly, with Swinson becoming prime minister (as if!) – the real goal was to win enough votes to be needed for a coalition and demand a second referendum.

To her credit, Moran also addressed the need for election pacts, and the unfair electoral system that was the main reason the result was so poor. I would factor in chaotic, contradictory tactical voting advice, which made a difference in areas like mine, where the Lib Dem candidate (Paul Kohler) came from third position to an agonising 628 votes from unseating the Tory. Both these factors eclipsed any strategic errors the Lib Dems made.

And while the 2019 election was undeniably grim, the long-term reputational gains could be immense. I can’t be the only one who remains grateful to the Lib Dems for offering a safe political harbour from Corbynism and Brexit. I also applaud how they stuck to their Remain principles, without trying to work both sides. If nothing else, this helped dislodge the mud that’s stuck to them since the 2010 Tory coalition. While there’s much to be done, people feel they can trust the Lib Dems again.

•Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist