Emma Duncan is the Associate Editor of The Economist. Her piece in yesterday’s Times, the emphases are ours:
When I was 19 I had an internship at a firm in which I rather fancied getting a job when I left university. One of the big cheeses was an ancient chap who was probably about the same age as I am now. He would sometimes take me out to lunch or along to meetings, telling his colleagues that it would be instructive for me to watch him in action.
The action, however, mostly happened in the back of the taxis that took us to and from meetings. He would stick his bristly chin into my neck and kiss me. I hated it. Even writing about it now makes me grimace with disgust. But I let him do it.
I suspect that this year has been one of those social turning points when behaviour that has been widely approved, or at least condoned, suddenly becomes unacceptable. Stephen Lawrence’s murder, and the country’s visceral reaction to the indifference of the police, had a similar effect on racist attitudes in this country to the one the revelations about the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and many, many other abusive men will have on sexual harassment in offices all over the world.
I am delighted that we seem to have reached this point. Women need to know that they can rise without fear of having their careers sabotaged by men to whom they have refused sexual favours; men need to know that they cannot use their power to pressure women into having sex with them.
But like Catherine Deneuve (and, sadly, the similarity ends here), I am uncomfortable about the good-and-evil, aggressor-and-victim version of the story that has dominated the media. As my colleague Jenni Russell argued in her excellent column about Twitter on Thursday, we have a better understanding of the world if we accept that morality comes not in black and white but in shades of grey.
As far as the men are concerned, every case needs to be judged on its merits, and every person judged on their individual demerits. Harvey Weinstein is at one end of a very long spectrum, at the other end of which is the weird guy from IT who gets a bit too close to people in the lift. On the basis of the evidence that has been made public, some of the people who have recently been “let go” — in these euphemistic days nobody seems to be fired any more — did not, in my view, deserve it. So far as I can tell, on the basis of what has been published, Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary, patted somebody on the knee. The worst he did was to kiss somebody who didn’t want to be kissed. That is bad, but in my book warrants warning before sacking.
My experience made me realise that the woman’s side of the story is also nuanced. The standard explanation for why victims don’t complain about abuse is that they are afraid that their powerful abusers will victimise them. That was clearly true in the case of Harvey Weinstein’s victims but it wasn’t in mine. It didn’t occur to me that the beard would bad-mouth me if I removed his bristles from my neck, nor that, if I resisted him, he would turn me down for a job for which I was the best candidate. I don’t think that was just the naivety of a 19-year-old. He may have been a sexual harasser but he was also dedicated to his profession.
So why didn’t I push him out of the door and into the moving traffic? Partly because of social embarrassment, something that afflicts the British more than most. The ability to say “Oi! Stop that!” is bred out of our children, and particularly our girls, at an early age. To point out that somebody’s actions are less than exquisitely desirable is in breach of the codes of behaviour that have been drummed into us since we were toddlers. If we don’t like what’s going on, it’s easier to pretend it isn’t happening than to risk the embarrassment of saying something that might stop it.
That, I think, has changed somewhat since I was young. The country has become less polite, which is bad, but franker, which is good. Workers are less inclined to defer to managers than they once were, women less inclined to defer to men, and the insertion of beards into necks is tolerated less than it used to be.
But there was another factor at work, which is not entirely to my credit. Going round with the beard gave me a kick. I was flattered by the attentions of a powerful man, however unattractive his bristles: seen in his company, I was no longer just an unremarkable undergraduate, indistinguishable from the rest of the aspiring crowd. I was beginning to be somebody. It also gave me a competitive advantage. I got to meet people I otherwise wouldn’t have. And I probably hoped that if a job came up (which it didn’t) he would have looked as favourably on my candidacy as he did on my neck. By letting him inflict his bristles upon me, I was maybe gaining ground over others in the field.
This does not excuse his behaviour. What he did was appalling and a great deal worse than what I did. Yet I don’t think I’m entirely in the clear. It’s certainly wrong to use power to get sex but it’s also, in my view, wrong to use sex to get power.
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