Where am I on the scale of bad behaviour?
As more and more women voice their experiences of being sexually harassed, examines his own conscience.
Far more women have written and talked about the Weinstein scandals than have men. Given that there’s an abuser for every abusee this can’t be because it involves women more than men. It’s because, I think, there’s no place a man can quite be on this and feel comfortable, eloquent and admired. Or even edgy and admired. It’s a landscape full of glissades and sudden crevasses, best kept away from. And for that reason if for no other, here we go.
Nowhere is a happy place to be with this. A man certainly doesn’t get away with saying: “That Harvey Weinstein, what a unique bastard,” even if you feel it with a rare intensity. A chorus is raised against it. “Weinstein has become a public monster overnight. But he’s not a monster, he’s a man,” wrote the playwright Lucy Prebble, before outlining some of her own awkward and unprofessional experiences at the hands of theatrical men.
One of my favourite British journalists is Helen Lewis at the New Statesman. She’s clever, sensible and nuanced, but Lewis sees a trap in the very awfulness of the Weinstein revelations. For men who are actually harassers of women – but not in Weinstein’s grotesque league – “will hear the Weinstein stories and think, ‘Oh, I’m not so deviant after all. And anyway, that guy is worse.’“And other lesser abusers, or men who are, in effect, complicit with abuse will not see themselves, but rather see what they are definitely not and carry on as they did before.
Turn the other way. There’s no respite. There will be a female writer telling you that there’s too much of a fuss being made about it all. A Daily Mail columnist was bannered recently above the paper’s masthead: “Ladies: A clumsy pass over dinner is NOT sex harassment.” Well if she says so, being a “she”, how can a man disagree? Who wants to be a snowflake’s snowflake?
Oh well, I think, if in the Weinstein war I have to choose between being a pussy or a dick, I’ll be a pussy. No to older men making unwanted passes at younger colleagues. Daughters and all that. Then a female colleague on The Times sent me a link to an American writer who blogs as Katykatikate, and was writing ostensibly to men. “I hear you. You are shocked. You have daughters. You wish to express your outrage and solidarity with women… know you genuinely feel upset and angry and staggered at the scope of the crime. But I’m going to bring you into the inner circle right now, guys: I DON’T REALLY BELIEVE YOU. NONE OF US DO.”
Guardian journalist Sali Hughes, who has a slew of stories from well below the belly of the beast, challenges with “Of course, ‘Me too’… But what
his feels uncomfortable, almost unfair even. There’s a viral tweet going round of a comedian called Peter White offering advice to blokes on how to behave. “I think the golden rule for men should be: if you’re a man, don’t say anything to a woman on the street that you wouldn’t want a man saying to you in prison.” It’s funny, it’s cute, you can happily share it with your Facebook friends. And it’s impossibly glib.
You see, what I am taking from this is just how bad this has been for many women for so long, and not in obvious ways. And the challenge needs to be addressed. Am I now or have I ever been a low-level bastard? Not a Weinstein, but a wiener.
The Weinstein-induced stories, not of rape and assault, but of creepiness and unpleasantness on the part of men towards women, indicate the subtle damage that is often caused. The guy who invites his younger colleague to dinner – and then tells her that he is priapically attracted to her – is not just a fond old fool, or a “bit of a lech”, but a f...er up of psyches and a disruptor of careers. That is the thing I didn’t quite see before. As Lewis writes: “This behaviour poisons everything it touches – like the ground slipping suddenly beneath my feet. What comes next? A grab, a tussle, my surrender to get it over with? Or nothing at all, just a lingering feeling of disquiet, and my shame at joining the grisly pantomime that this was all good fun?”
When I read this a penny dropped. A while back I was working in an office with some younger people.
touch me” – which gradually gets reduced word by word to just: “Oh!” – was a favourite at the camps I used to go to as a kid. Then it became “no means no”. And then “anything but yes means no”. Which is right, but wasn’t right for the first 30 years of my life.
Part of this is about male entitlement. There’s an attractive young woman out there, Bob feels attracted, so maybe if she’s friendly to him, it means she’s attracted too, so let’s give it a whirl despite the MASSIVE AGE GAP. What’s the harm? Maybe Bob was the guy who, on the birth of his son, sent out a round-robin proclaiming: “Lock up your daughters!”
Some of it is about the sad-doggishness of middle-aged chaps who reach the zenith of their power at the same time as their wives and everyone else begin to find them unattractive. I’ve felt that fear. And yet middle-aged men are simultaneously slightly desperate and easily flattered.
What about the related failure to separate fantasy and reality? In 1976 the born-again Baptist president Jimmy Carter told Playboy magazine: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” and a billion men thought: “What are you trying to do here, Jimmy, get us all killed?” It was a seep-through. We all fantasise all the time.
And men are quick to notice female ambiguity. We went from Obama to Trump the pussy-grabber, partly courtesy of a majority of white women voters. If they voted for him, how bad can being a total sexist pig be?
And again that relation between male power and sex. What apparently are the top two qualities American women look for in a man? Confidence and ambition. What was voted the funniest British comedy line of recent years? Caroline Aherne (as Mrs Merton) asking Debbie Mcgee: “So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” Which means: “You’re screwing the old, unattractive man because he’s rich.” Everyone knew it. Everyone thinks it of Melania. Right there is a male sadness, if you’re interested in it. It’s horribly illustrated by the story of the young woman effectively chased by a naked Weinstein into a bathroom. When eventually she came out he was sitting there in a dressing gown, crying: “You don’t like me because I’m fat.” There’s the feeling, always present, that actually we’re unloveable. Unless we have confidence, power, money – unless we magnetise babes.
I leave this with one quite appalling thought. However bad it is in the offices and workplaces, bars and clubs – the diminishing and power games – if it’s like any of the other transgressions, it’s likely to be a thousand times worse at home. If men behave like this to comparative strangers, how do we behave when we think we’re safe?