Before I get started on my own true story of sexual harassment, I should set the scene for readers outside Britain. Lord Rennard, a Liberal Democrat peer, has recently been accused of being bad at keeping his hands to himself, an accusation that he denies. It’s been quite tricky and embarrassing for the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, who has been doing some fumbling himself in his handling of the crisis.
I feel this is the right time to break my own silence and tell my story of being sexually harassed at work. The reason that I’ve kept quiet about it all these years is not because, as is often claimed, it is painful for women to talk about such things. On the contrary, I’ve been longing for an opportunity to air it, and now – hooray – I have one.
The incident occurred when I was about 26 or 27, shortly after I joined the newspaper. It was an ordinary day in the office and a company I wrote about had announced its financial results and had invited me, along with a more senior colleague, to lunch to discuss them. He was a man of slightly below-average appearance whom I didn’t like terribly, but admired in a grudging sort of way. He was clever and his jokes were funny – if slightly nasty.
Lunch, as I recall, was a dullish affair; but in the cab on the way back to the office, my colleague turned to me. With no preliminaries, he suggested we got out of the cab and checked into the red-brick monstrosity of the Hotel Russell. I said no thank you: I really had to be getting back to work. And that was that. We returned to discussing the company’s results and nothing was ever said about it again, by either of us.
The story now strikes me as so unlikely, I would accuse myself of having made it up were it not for the fact that I can remember that day perfectly. The weather was hot and sticky; I was wearing a black-and-white linen skirt I had made myself. I also remember precisely how I felt about being propositioned. Intimidated didn’t come into it. Instead, I was mildly embarrassed and vastly amused. Even now, when I hear his name – he went on to become rather well-known – I smile and think of the Hotel Russell.
Unpleasant didn’t come into it, either. If a clever man finds you sufficiently attractive to want spend an afternoon in a hotel with you, isn’t that a compliment of sorts, even if you’re not so keen? Maybe if you’re the sort of woman to whom this happens all the time, you get tired of it. But if it hardly ever happens, it is a pleasant novelty.
The incident is what is now deemed “inappropriate.” He was senior to me. He was propositioning me. But as an employee, the only thing he did that was obviously wrong was trying to keep me from my work. Otherwise he asked a polite question and got a polite answer. He did, I believe, happen to be married; but that’s a private matter between him and his wife.
It seems to me that in classing all advances from men at work as “inappropriate” we confuse harmless ones – which can be fine even when unwanted – with sustained harassment or sexual assault, which aren’t fine at all.
There are four things that made my colleague’s approach perfectly appropriate: a) I didn’t work for him directly; b) he took no for an answer; c) there were no recriminations; and d) he refrained from any unseemly groping. It is true that his flirtation technique was lacking, but that isn’t the point.
Last week I told someone I was going to write this column and he protested that it was okay for me as I’m someone who is confident enough to say no. This is a pathetic argument. If any woman is not able to decline a colleague’s polite advances, she is not grown up enough to be in the work force at all.
And then he said: So who was this man? It would be inappropriate of me to say. If he is reading this, maybe he won’t remember that day. Or maybe he’ll deny it (he would, wouldn’t he?).
However, if he wants to out himself in the media (to which he has considerable access) as the appropriate face of inappropriate conduct, I won’t stand in his way.