The touch of your hand

Rather strangely, now I come to think of it, I have never worked in an office where sexual harassment was obvious. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t think it happened much. This is curious, since the main defence of men of a certain age (my age, give or take) against current allegations is that, when we were younger, it was all perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable. I don’t think it ever was.  

It does depend on what you call harassment. Sexual innuendo was commonplace when a number of men were gathered together, irrespective of whether women were also present. It was also commonplace on TV, and still is. And there is surely nothing wrong with a little verbal flirtation. For the most part, unless they are directly personal, words do not constitute harassment and are not the problem. What does constitute it is the unsolicited advance, the inappropriate physical contact, and the assumption that it will be welcomed. When it comes from someone in a position of power, it is worse still.

And this has been widespread. Most women who have worked in an office have probably been the victim of such harassment. And most have suffered in silence, for all the reasons that are now being given.

But has it ever been acceptable? No. Doing or saying something that discomforts or upsets someone else for no good reason is bad manners and bad behaviour, and always has been. If it has been done inadvertently, or under a misapprehension, that usually becomes obvious. In which case, an immediate apology is required, and always has been. And if someone wants sex with someone else, there are ways of finding out whether the desire is reciprocated that will make the advance seem like a compliment rather than an assault. No change there either.

It needs to be said that there are aspects of the current climate of exposure that are unsavoury. It is wrong to publicly name people who have been involved in consensual affairs. The very guilty, the mildly guilty and the innocent are all being put into the tumble dryer together, and who knows in what state they will emerge. The chances of the punishment fitting the crime in every case are remote. Outbursts of public sanctimony are never edifying.

But what is the alternative? Without the searchlight, the unacceptable practices will continue without hindrance. Women (and some men) will continue to be abused, some of them seriously. Power will continue to be misused. It is only by making it clear that sexual harassment carries severe consequences, with some spectacular falls from grace, that things might change.

I am not easily shocked, but I was shocked to see the all-male panel on Have I Got News For You? appear to take the issue so lightly a week ago. They might retort that the show takes everything lightly, but it doesn’t. It frequently manages to be funny and serious at the same time. Not much seriousness was evident on this occasion. The attitude seemed to be that this was a lot of fuss about not very much and the sooner it blew over the better. Jo Brand, chairing the show, seemed shocked as well. And she probably shocks even less easily than I do.

Yes, there are serious points to be made on the other side. The public has always liked a good execution. The media have always liked a good witch hunt. As was related in the recent documentary series on the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh ordered the mass execution of possible enemies on the basis that it was more important that the ‘guilty’ should die than that the innocent should live. He was making a point, as Stalin did with his show trials.

Careers and reputations are important, but they are less important than lives. Scale matters. Life has never been fair, and this witch hunt will not be fair. But being abused and having to suffer in silence is not fair either. At least the balance will now tilt a little.

But don’t let any man tell you that, once upon a time, all this used to be perfectly acceptable.