Men Behaving Badly

Russian attitudes to sexual harassment may shock us now, but it wasn’t that long ago that customs here were not so very different

“Humans need sexual harassment”, ran a recent headline on the foreign pages of The Daily Tele­graph. A 22-year-old Russian advertising executive had sued her boss for sexual harassment after he had locked her out of her office for refusing to have intimate relations with him. There have only ever been two successful harassment actions in Russia, and she had hoped to bring the third.

But it was not to be. The judge threw out the case on the grounds that the employer had acted “gallantly rather than criminally”. (This presumably means that he hadn’t actually assaulted her.) He ruled that employers were justified in making advances at female staff to help ensure the survival of the human race. “If we had no sexual harassment we would have no children,” he added.

This decision is so far removed from our own attitudes to the subject that it seems like something from Monty Python – indeed, any judge who made such a ruling here would instantly be forced to resign. In this country, eminent professors keep the doors of their offices open while teaching female students, in case anyone might accuse them of the crime of making an advance; just staring at someone’s body too hard can get you convicted of sexual harassment.

But it wasn’t that long ago that customs here were not so very different from the Russian model. Laws specifically against sexual harassment were only introduced in the 1990s. Before that, unwanted passes, pinches, insinuations and leers were regarded as one of the hazards of a woman’s life. Women were expected to keep them at bay as best they could, or just shrug them off. When, for example, I joined that most enlightened of Fleet Street newspapers, The Observer, in 1964, as secretary to the literary editor, I had only been there a few days before the highly esteemed chief reviewer suddenly walked over to me, squeezed my breast and then prodded it with a pencil. He did this quite openly, with a grin, in front of the equally esteemed literary editor. It was the first of several unwelcome advances by literary figures and members of the staff. The other secretaries I knew on the paper had similar unpleasant experiences. Men behaving badly in this way was more or less taken for granted, which doesn’t mean that we didn’t find it obnoxious – or at best pathetic.

Those were the bad old days. How good are they now? It’s obviously an excellent thing that it has become much harder for men to use their status to take sexual advantage in the workplace, or anywhere else. But have things gone too far in the other direction? Perhaps the law has become more punitive and rigid than it needs to be – there are, after all, few areas of life which are more fraught with complications and uncertainties. Perhaps, too, it has instilled unnecessary anxieties in many men: I don’t suppose most women want men to be completely inhibited.

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