I’M not easily shocked. Even I, however, was taken aback by an uncomfortable conversation I had the other week with a friend who had recently started her first job.
It’s at a big hotel as a conference organiser. She rang me asking for some advice. What I heard made my blood run cold. Her boss, a man in his 40s, keeps asking her to stay behind and “help him with a few extra things”.
When they are alone, he is making unwanted advances towards her. Nothing violent, but enough to make her feel uncomfortable and more than a little scared. She doesn’t know where to turn. She loves her job and doesn’t want to walk out. Yet she feels sick to the stomach every day, wondering what this man might eventually do to her.
I was so incensed that I wanted to drive there and smack him in the face. I can’t do that though. And neither can she. It took her 18 months to get this job. It’s a competitive industry. She’s constantly asking herself if she should shut up and put up. Accept it as a part of working life. Deal with it by ignoring him and making sure they are never alone together.
Her mind is racing with confusion, but one thing is clear to me. The sexual harassment scandal in Westminster is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite what the PC brigade might like to think, and despite all the guidelines and rules and so-called “equality”, predatory behaviour is as rife in the workplace and wider society now as it has ever been. In fact, I’d argue that it is worse in many respects.
A recent Channel Four news report, The Palace of Sexminister, uncovered a shocking number of cases of male MPs pursuing young aides and researchers – of both sexes.
A family newspaper is not the place to go into lurid detail, but one thing is very clear. Sexual harassment has become very nasty indeed.
When I was the same age as my friend, I had begun my first job. We all knew the “dodgy” men in the office. The ones we would avoid in the lift. The ones who would hang around the photocopying room. The post-room assistant who brushed past you in the corridor, and not with his trolley either. The senior editor, who it was rumoured, drilled a hole in the wall so he could spy on the ladies’ toilets.
In those days, we giggled about it and took the stairs instead of the lift.
We regarded these men as dinosaurs and considered their behaviour generally laughable and irrelevant.
However, something has changed. Something that we young women could never have anticipated. We were reaching adulthood fully expecting both sexes to become equal. These silly incidents were just the death throes of a culture which was on its way out.
Little did we realise – in our innocence – that the clock would start turning backwards. And not only turning backwards, but turning in a very disturbing way.
None of us in the late 1980s could have anticipated two things: the rise of so-called “girl power” and the sexualisation of our world. Young women setting the agenda seemed liberating. And it was for a while, until men cottoned on to the fact that we were having it all our own way. Rather than welcoming us as equals, they determined to put us back in our place.
I’ve faced more put-downs, more patronising comments, more slights and offhand comments in the last five years than I ever did when I began my career. And I don’t think it’s anything to do with the fact that I’ve become older and more outspoken.
It’s because a certain type of man can’t cope with assertive women. And this certain type of man knows only one way to deal with it – and that’s to fight back with their own power. This might be authority. It might be physical strength. It might be the ability to block a promotion or send an unco-operative victim running for the door.
Whatever it is, it happens every day. No wonder United Nations envoy Rashida Manjoo has concluded that Britain is the most sexist country in the world. According to a report she is preparing for the UN Human Rights Council, we’re characterised by a “boys’ club sexist culture” worse than Azerbaijan, India, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy or Jordan.
And the really toxic thing is that this is happening in a climate which is becoming terrifyingly sexualised. You can’t turn on a television soap opera without having this thrust in your face. You can’t stand in the newsagents and ignore the magazine headlines shouting about some celebrity’s “sexploits”.
Children in primary school already know more about sexual practices than some of us did when we got married.
Sex has become just another currency, and a devalued one at that. It might make us feel uncomfortable to talk about how it is used and abused, but we ignore it at our peril.