Men For All Seasons
This morning I read a Tweet written by Charlotte Edwardes, a The Sunday Times features writer, interviewer and assistant editor. She Tweeted regarding her recently published article whereby she recollects a double thigh squeeze, or, as it should be called, a grope, she received at the wandering hands of our PM Boris Johnson back in the late 90s/early noughties. She says he simultaneously did the same thing to the woman the other side of him.
He of course denies the allegation.
And maybe it didn’t happen? Or perhaps, because it was such common place behaviour at the time, he won’t even remember it. Since two years ago when the #MeToo movement took place on social media he will also now know of course that it’s deny or die. Women were finally given a platform and a green light to firstly acknowledge bad behaviour that they may not have even realised was such themselves back when it happened, so ingrained was it that a quick uninvited grope or unwanted sexual advance would be made, but secondly the ability to make sure that it doesn’t remain the unquestioned norm. As we know, many men have been accused of displaying this dominant and sexually predatory behaviour including world leaders so I think it’s entirely possible, knowing my own experience with men of a certain age in a certain era, that the Prime Minister could quite possibly be suffering from a memory lapse.
It wouldn’t make things right if he were to stand up and say ‘you know what, the culture was very different back then and my learned behaviour at the time could have made me behave in a way that I never would today. We have evolved, I have learned and going forwards we will change’ but it would be a start and we do all have to start somewhere.
As a woman who has just turned 40, I was a newbie to the work place at the time of Charlotte’s experiences and in my early twenties. I experienced, like her and most of my friends, men behaving towards me in exactly the same way she accuses the now Prime Minister of behaving towards her. In exactly the same way that she didn’t make any allegations at the time of the assault, neither did I, neither did my friends. because not only were the men conditioned into feeling that their wandering hands, lewd looks and verbal sexual abuse was ‘ok’ but so were we. It would have seemed fruitless to complain.
I received pats on the bottom in an office of my very first job in London but also way worse things which I simply shrugged off. I didn’t like it but I took a deep breath and accepted it as was expected of me to do so. I am a very strong minded and independent woman who has always been able to speak out when I don’t like something yet here was a situation which I barely questioned, other than to shudder with friends over similar stories before we broke it off as a nothing, rather than the something we now know it to be.
We have been liberated in that thought by women just like Charlotte Edwardes who decided it absolutely is time to tell the truth!
And yet this morning I read countless replies to Charlotte’s Tweet letting me know that not everyone is caught up just yet. And they need to be. Tweets from men, and indeed women, who completely disregard the issue and simply want to know why she didn’t say anything before?! Why was she coming forwards now all this time later and what was the point?
Well… I would imagine, because it would have done absolutely no good whatsoever back then and, I wouldn’t mind betting could have been black marked for daring to rock a boat by suggesting any improper doing. It was taught and never questioned so to speak up could have been career suicide. Coming forwards now is finally acceptable probably only because other women, other brave women, have put their necks on the line and dared to do it first making way for more of us to utter those now immortal words, ME TOO!
Despite knowing right from wrong and being able to bravely make waves when a taxi driver once treated me very abusively – I told you I was not a woman to let things lie if they weren’t right – men touching me or making advances towards me just because they could was a behaviour that had become so normalised that when I was subjected to casual sexism, wandering hands and comments about my body in the work place I didn’t say a thing.
I remember going to a meeting with a man old enough to be my Father who was supposed to be teaching me how to do the job that he did. We arrived in the board room and showing off, as I completely understood that he was, he turned to me and barked ‘Ruth, Coffee, black, no sugar’ and dismissed me to the table of hot beverages where I proceeded to do as I was bid and pour him his drink. This sat with me very uneasily and much more so at the time than the unwelcome pats on the bottom or leering appreciative glances he would follow me with because I knew that I was not there to be his dog’s body. I did not know that I wasn’t there to be at the beck and call of his ogling. I accepted the latter begrudgingly as something that I could do nothing about but the coffee… Oh the coffee prompted me to arrange a meeting with his manager to complain. I was distressed by it all but I knew I could legitimately say I was uncomfortable with the coffee rather than the bum pats and true enough his manager assured me, with a wink no less, and a bit of a smirk, that ‘he’d have a word with P, and that didn’t we all knew what he was like?’ I did. Oh I did and though really that was nowhere near what I should have been upset about, it did make me feel better at the time that something was being said to him about the way he treated me.
Should P come to a prominent position today and the world be waiting on his decisions and actually I think it would prompt me to shame him like Charlotte has BJ and I would want to tell the whole story of how he, and others, treated me when I couldn’t at the time because I didn’t even realise myself back then that I should!
Times HAVE changed. Not enough but they have finally started turning and for a woman like me who grew up thinking it was actually quite flattering to be wolf whistled from a building site, not even remotely understanding until fairly recently that that is the thin edge of the wedge, I have changed too. I suspect so has Charlotte Edwardes since the days when she would sit next to Boris Johnson in a male dominated environment surrounded by an old boys mentality.
Very often with issues in the world needing voice and people don’t like to put their head above that parapet, to speak up even when they know something isn’t right. They don’t for fear of doing it alone and subsequently having their values and views mocked just as Charlotte has, but this is exactly why we need women like her, who have a platform that CAN make a difference to re educate and re programme the way that we think. Just because something has always been the case doesn’t mean it has to be going forwards and the strings of women who came through on social media using the hashtag #MeToo after the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations need to be applauded because they made a difference for every generation of women that will come after them.
So some things HAVE changed on one level but on another there is still a very long way to go and this is why silence is not an option no matter how long ago the events. One man responded this morning to Charlotte asking was she more upset about the thigh squeeze or the fact that he did it to the woman the other side of him as well. I replied telling him that he was exactly the type of man all women need to stay away from and in response to that, another woman no less, suggested the world had gone mad if a thigh squeeze makes a man a sexual predator. I asked her how she would feel if a gross old man squeezed her thigh as she simply tried to do her job and was told in reply that she didn’t deny that it had happened (and worse) but that others have suffered more making this incomparable. She went on to say such gems as ‘back in the 80s a thigh squeeze through clothing was considered a comforting gesture’ – well perhaps it would have been if the squeeze came from one’s mother but coming from a man unrelated to her and I’d say it would have been taking on a whole murkier line. I engaged for a while but this woman, who had a story of her own as it happens, did not see why we should be upset if she wasn’t when what had happened to her was far worse.
And therein lies more of the problem!
I don’t think we can put comparatives on situations like this but just know that ALL behaviour of this ilk from any man, woman or beast to another has to be shown up for what it is otherwise one act will perpetuate another. I’m not sure this person was quite able to understand that mocking the feelings of how one woman felt about being groped on the basis that other women had been groped more would not help anyone.
There is still a LONG way to go.
Because unfortunately, I still say me too:
Recently I was spectating in Norwich Crown Court and before court began session three mid to late fifty-ish aged briefs were guffawing and loudly shouting about their exploits of ‘getting fucking pissed’ over the weekend to each other. The judge was not in the room yet but there was a group of school girls in the public gallery, I assume there to learn, and all within ear shot. The behaviour of these senior members of the court was unpleasant and made me feel very uncomfortable both on behalf of myself but more so for the young ladies in their school uniforms watching, note pads in hand waiting to see how things ‘should be done’. As a 40 year old with some life experience I saw three men in barrister’s robes, happy with themselves despite being middle aged and yet no further on in their careers than Norwich Crown Court, showing off to both the girls, who all looked in their late teens, but also to each other. And it was disgusting. I should have said something, I’ve admonished myself for having not ever since and as I left the court that day I decided I would never allow men to make me feel uncomfortable and say nothing ever, ever again.
8 weeks later, it didn’t take long, I found myself on the Tuesday night train home from London to Norwich at 8.30pm. I was dressed up having been to a party and sat in my first class seat home I was looking forward to a relaxed and quiet journey with only a handful of other people in the carriage. My free hot drink and snacks, as comes with a first class ticket, were almost within my grasp and I planned to spend this rare child free time simply doing nothing but enjoying my own company. Then, just before the train pulled away from the station, four very drunk men who again looked aged in their fifties, all wearing business suits, boarded the train and despite a carriage full of mainly empty seats to plump for, they chose the table next to mine.
My heart sank but I dipped my nose into my phone and tried to ignore their drunken conversation which was getting louder, more inappropriate and leaving me feeling ever more uncomfortable with every gin and tonic they raced to the buffet car bar to buy for themselves. They mentioned wives and grown up children in between the objectification of women they knew in their office. One poor woman in their repertoire became the subject of their ‘banter’ for a good ten minutes as she was apparently dating one of their mates and ‘cor, what a bus she was, absolutely HUGE everything, arse, stomach, but then of course the merits to that were her HUGE TITS of course’.
Guffaw guffaw, laugh, drink, guffaw!
I felt more and more uneasy as I, a woman who IS strong and independent and able to fight my own battles, struggled with just thinking about getting up to get my First Class cup of mint tea and snack with these drunken men as my immediate audience. But I am the sort of person who would never leave a free cup of tea and a packet of biscuits so though I really didn’t want to get up, opening myself up to their scrutiny, I eventually steeled myself and made a dash for it.
Sure enough I heard a ‘WORK that BOOTY’ coming from these late middle aged men in my wake as I walked.
When I got to the buffet car I was shaking. I explained to the guard and the woman serving me why that was so and they were disgusted on my behalf asking if I’d like them to help me move seats. They also assured me that they wouldn’t be serving the men any more alcohol. I declined the offer to move on the basis that I now felt safer with them looking out for me and my determined angler asked why should I move just because men were behaving badly towards me? I dug deep to regain my composure and reclaimed my seat as the sniggers and looks continued.
Within minutes these men were at the bar again and then in a flash back at their seats shouting to each other that ‘SOMEONE had complained about their behaviour’ all while they eyeballed me. I mean it could only have been me really, they knew that as there was just me and the four other people in the carriage all sat much further away.
‘Yes’, I said looking one of them in the eye calmly, ‘I have complained, you are very drunk, you are talking about women in a way I find totally unacceptable and you are making me feel very uncomfortable. You are now also making me feel very frightened’.
You’d think, like you’d think now was a time for Boris to hold his hands up, that this would have silenced them. Made them reflective of their wives and daughters who I am almost certain they would not want subjected to men behaving towards them as they had to and around me, but no…
The man I had directly spoken to jumped out of his seat and thumped his fist on the table in aggression before spitting at me at the top of his voice that I was a FUCKING BITCH. Lots more was said, worse than that comment and far more intimidating words were made with sexual reference. In the end, when I got up to ask the guard to help me once more, so intimidated was I feeling at this point, I found myself boxed in by two of them, it was terrifying but thankfully it was an ordeal that ended swiftly with the train pulling into a station and the guard ejecting them as they ranted and shouted abuse at me from their exit position.
I shook for the rest of the hour’s journey and at the end of it I spoke to a lady in the wheelchair who told me she had heard everything and that she admired me. She apologised for not speaking up or being able to help me but explained that her autism had left her terrified at loud voices and she had been so frightened herself she was unable to do anything.
I don’t know why the other three people in the carriage who were all sat separately, one man who I caught eye contact with as he deliberately looked away, didn’t say anything.
I just don’t know?
But I do know that I won’t ever be the person like them. The person who says nothing in situations like this because when we say nothing it then normalises behaviour from men like these ones who probably DO know how to behave, as they DO have wives and grown up children, but who STILL act this way because they think it’s ok.
Well it’s not ok. And it’s not ok to let it go either. To let it slip as ‘just one of those things’ and we should ‘get over it because worse happens’. We all need to stand up, speak up and not compare our story to someone else’s deeming it not a priority. The fact is that so many of us have stories and that’s the issue. ALL behaviour like this needs a big red stop sign. PERIOD!
A squeeze of the thigh, a wink, a wolf whistle… This may be where it begins, but where does it end if we say those things are ‘ok’? Well I think we know that and perhaps that’s what makes this subject matter so unpalatable.
So good for Charlotte Edwardes for speaking up. It simply doesn’t matter how long ago something happened, its the teaching everyone for the future that it cannot go on and showing men who think it is ‘ok’ up for the types of people that they really are! Only then will change happen and I for one am up for that!
Photograph: Emily Gray Photography