Ever since the tsunami of revelations concerning Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room broke into the public domain too many of us have been able to spend time recalling indignities and horror stories, and, dare I say it, some that made us laugh. In retrospect, we didn’t necessarily think so at the time, some of the men were just pathetic. Their crass fumbling, their lack of chat, could be pitied. They didn’t know they were doing wrong. They thought the last dance, and a lift home, qualified for an awkward grope in the dark.
Sometimes we put up with them, sometimes we did not. Zero tolerance was an unknown concept. Back then we were conditioned just as much as the guys. They thought we were fair game. They copied their elders and betters. Most did not have a political thought in their heads about women, and at that time many of us did not see ourselves through a political lens, or have the self belief and confidence to challenge society. And believe me, it was society not one or two rogue, misguided souls.
Most women will have encountered predatory men in their lives, and observed the most pathetic who think that every woman is theirs for the taking (albeit sometimes dressed up as asking). That was life (let’s hope it is changing). How we deal with them, and the consequences of how we deal with them, are what really matters. Each of us is entitled to decide what is acceptable: what we consider intrusive, threatening or undermining. Equally, it’s our business, too, to decide what we consider fun or flirting. That, after all, is what makes the world go round.
When I was a teenager I never wanted to be left alone with a ‘respectable’ friend of my parents.
Now I wonder why I never told my mother and father of their friend’s predatory tendencies. Was I frightened I’d be disbelieved because he was such a popular, entertaining character, or had I decided it wasn’t worth the upheaval (he had lovely, kind wife) because I could cope and decided his strengths outweighed his weaknesses.
Many of us knew we could handle boys. When we were kids we played with them, we sat in the same classes. Some of us could row a dinghy better than them, kick a ball higher than them, or beat them in exams. Probably we should have been insulted (rather than secretly pleased) when called a Tomboy but we didn’t know any better, and the upshot was that we learned at a young age that boys had no reason to feel superior to girls.
As we grew up and started working in summer jobs or in our chosen careers we met sexism, overt and covert. We coped, some we told to piss off, others we pushed off. Did our upbringing influence our behaviour?
We were able to avoid much of the groping, make sure the snatched slobbery kiss didn’t happen again. Should we have called all of them out? I don’t know.
Although I and many of my friends were sound on domestic abuse, pornography and the sex trade, we found it more difficult to deal with some of the blatant, morale and confidence sapping sexism in our offices. It’s hard to complain when a colleague publicly makes suggestive marks, and others are laughing, without looking like a prude. Possibly some of these sexist guys did not mean long lasting harm but that was the consequence. It shouldn’t happen.
It is no surprise at all to read reports of endemic abuse in Parliament. It’s gone on for a long time. One Tory Cabinet member was often mistaken for the late Teresa Gorman by one of her own Cabinet colleagues who, when corrected, laughed and told her “You’re all the same underneath”.
Two esteemed women political editors who bore no resemblance to one another were often called by each other’s name. In 2003, women in the Parliamentary lobby were referred to as the “Lezzie lobby” because they had the temerity to organise a lobby lunch for themselves. (Of course, not all our colleagues were culpable, not even the majority). The guilty men were called out on that, and on the “Top Totty list” that some thought a good idea and a good laugh. The subliminal message for those of us who objected was that we minded because we were
too old, too ugly or had no sense of humour. Some of these guys will be fathers of daughters now. I wonder if they think such lists are still such a good laugh.
We need to change the rules. Predators should be called out, of course, but most of all boys and girls should learn about equality at early age. Only then will men and women understand what is acceptable, reasonable behaviour.