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Can Christian women counter a boorish office culture of lasciviousness and harassment?

Following the Jimmy Savile revelations, more and more women are coming forward with stories of sexual harassment

By on Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Sandi Toksvig says she was groped on air 30 years ago (PA)

Sandi Toksvig says she was groped on air 30 years ago (PA)

Following the publicity about the late Jimmy Savile, more and more women have been coming forward to talk publicly about sexual harassment in general and their mistreatment at the hands of their male colleagues at work. Yesterday on Woman’s Hour a woman called Laura Bates was testifying to the office culture in the decades before the law stepped in to protect women in the office: harassment, lascivious innuendo and inappropriate touching were commonplace, as well as outright assault and even occasionally rape. Her overriding theme was that such behaviour on the part of men was accepted with resignation. There was nothing you could do. You had to grin and bear it. If you complained you might face the sack.

Listening to all this made me ponder the whole question of the feminist struggle for equality with men in every area, such as pay, work, sexual freedom and so on. Recently I blogged about the late Helen Gurley Brown, long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, who invented the “Cosmo” girl: tough, career-minded, using and abusing men and in revolt against babies and the kitchen sink. Her message, along with the wider scenario of the so-called “Swinging Sixties”, the pop culture, the fashion for mini-skirts and the freedom from fear of pregnancy heralded by the newly invented Pill, did not do women any favours in the long run – and they gave ambivalent signals to men. I do not condone any kind of sexual harassment – but, to paraphrase that great phrase-maker, Kipling, “The female of the species is more complex than the male”: where women in the office might see fun and flirtation and enjoy the sense of their sexual power, for men the signals women were giving out could be confusing. Their own subliminal thought was, “If she has lowered the barriers on social and moral decorum so far in her dress and behaviour, what’s wrong with me lowering them a little further?”

Hugo Rifkind in the Times yesterday suggests something similar: he writes, “The whole spate of abuses currently under investigation at the BBC, for example, happened at a very particular time. The teenager had just been invented… Children were sexualised like never before and the morals of a previous age must have looked as though they were going out the window. In the 1960s the feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote that sexual liberation had largely served as a spur to male sexual aggression. Maybe the sexual awaking of teenagers did something similar.”

Where does a Christian view of womanhood come in to all this? In the September 2012 issue of the Newsletter of the Association of Catholic Women, journalist Joanna Bogle reviews a book with an intriguing title: The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years by Emily Stimpson. Joanna writes: “This handbook is written by a young woman who knows what she is talking about. Where and how to find a suitable mate? How to dress modestly without looking dowdy? How to cope on your own with the practicalities of life?…[She] assumes correctly that most young Catholic women do want to marry and have children. She is right to ask why these perfectly good and natural desires are less likely to be fulfilled now than they were 20 years ago.”

Such a perspective is completely at odds with the general outlook and it made me think of the particular pressure young Catholic women are under to conform to the “liberated” sexual behaviour of their secular peers. Also, how can young women today effectively counter the boorish behaviour of men? The law now offers some protection for women, but the confusion of signals, the ambivalence, the death of old-fashioned courtship rituals and the relentless sexualisation of the media make it very hard for such women to retain their own sense of virtuous behaviour.

MercatorNet, the online magazine, carries an inspiring testimony this week by Kate Harvey, entitled “The beauty in waiting”, which is in complete contrast to the dispiriting experiences related by Laura Bates on Woman’s Hour mentioned above. Miss Harvey states: “I am a woman living in the age of the hook-up culture who waited to have sex until her wedding day.” She adds, “There is very little in mainstream culture in the way of encouragement for women like me who have decided to swim against the tide and do things differently.” She is convinced her decision was “empowering”: “You are in control of your own heart, your own femininity, your most intimate being.” Her choice “has given me an inner peace and an esteem for my own worthiness as a woman; it has taught me the real beauty in self-control.”

It hardly needs to be pointed out that this outlook is at odds with the kind of sex education given to girls which goes on in our classrooms, with their messages of “Be safe; always use contraceptives” or “A woman’s right to choose”. To return to Laura Bates: suppose women in the office thought harder about what it means to be a woman; suppose they stopped dressing provocatively; suppose they made it clear they disliked blue jokes; suppose they gave firmer signals about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behaviour from their male colleagues. Would this change the office culture? I would like to think so.

  • Lazarus

    I’m going to sound like Methuselah, but until we get back to an idea of courtship -ie a period when a man and a woman get to know each other with a view to their suitability for the long term job of being married and having children- our children are being left to paw each other in the vague hope that everything will turn out all right in the end.

  • JMK

    Why is it always the woman who has to change her behaviour? I’m not saying that women have licence to behave as they wish, but it is just as important that men moderate their behaviour. A man who is capable of turning up for a job everyday should be capable of knowing for himself what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
    Read to see just how widespread a problem this is.

  • Kevin

    Also, how can young women today effectively counter the boorish behaviour of men?

    Your idea that sexual predatoriness in the office is confined to men is naive and highly offensive.

  • Kevin

    This succinct point is better than the whole article.

  • Rizzo the Bear

    The BBC shifted sex pests from one department to another – either by floor or another location. 

    The BBC have wriggled out of confronting bullying, discrimination, harassment, mental abuse and intimidation – even when the evidence is there in black and white! 

    I’m talking about male AND female victims of this injustice.

    Instead, they seek to put the victims, their evidence and any pursuit to do the right thing by shoving it in a tin and attempting to concrete the lid down in the hope it does not come back and bite them on the bum.

    Well, that wheeze worked… NOT!

    Jimmy Saville is the tip of the iceberg. And that includes those who aren’t as high profile as him.

    There are those in the Corporation who have been running their own little ‘empire’ for years and have abused their position in many heinous, immoral ways – often presenting a Janus-face to their bosses, who in turn were afraid to ‘grow a pair’ in nipping the problem in the bud! 

    These sorry excuses for Emperor Elagabalus got away with their behaviour UNCHECKED and UNQUESTIONED for as long as 30 bloody years!

    Here is one example of abuse of position – innocent, good, talented, consciencious employees who were on to the wrong their so-called bosses were doing… only for their ID passes to be invalidated when they would turn up for work the next morning followed by an order to Security to ‘ban them from the building’!

    The question is: Why the ban, for something that could be handled better at a nursery between teacher and pupils than handled by a major media organisation? 

    The answer is simples. It was so that the victim would not be able to access proof or any information that would to be useful and damning in exposing the abuse perpetrated by the boss in question by way of written matter, emails etc.

    There were many who would ask what happened to so-and-so, only to get a shrugged shoulder from their equals and a bad dose of attitude and lies from the boss in question. 

    It doesn’t do for an atmosphere that could be cut with a chainsaw and bad morale in what should be a vibrant, creative, imaginative corporation worthy of its licence fee.

    Now the BBC must know how it feels to be on THAT end of the stick! They vilified the Roman Catholic Church for these things at will and without impariality in their documentaries and mentioning these thing whilst the Holy Father was here in England and Scotland. 

    Now – shock horror! – they find they have much in common with the way they have handled these heinous matters in their own back yard.

    The Roman Catholic Church have expressed sorrow, contrition and have started their path on a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ by putting rules and regulations in place that, when implemented properly and justly, makes today’s Roman Catholic Church even safer for children and vulnerable than before.

    Will the BBC do the same? They’d better had, if they know what’s good for them! An overhaul in their work practices wouldn’t go amiss either, then in a good, honest, supportive atmosphere the renowned high standards that once defined the BBC would return.

    In this Year of Faith, stand up for TRUTH in the workplace – this is an appeal to both men and women.

    Don’t stand for bad behaviour. Don’t ignore the pain these bosses inflict on you or your colleague by burying your head.

    Keep copies of every correspondence. Keep a diary. Keep evidence. Then hit them with it full in the face when the time comes.

    PS: What I have written re the BBC is based on FACT. It’s not a random, groundless attack. 

    Since the Jimmy Saville stuff came out and the reasons for why he got away with his heinous behaviour, I feel it is a DUTY for me to add to the sexual misbehaviour other just as heinous matters of abuse. 

  • Cestius

    My impression is that what happened in the 1970s is of very little relevance to most office culture nowadays. There is a new climate of fear, but it’s not because of the traditional sex pests but because of the fear that even the most innocent flirtation or sign of affection could be misconstrued (often deliberately) and lead to an accusation. It is a minefield for men and women alike.  Modern sexual politics mixed with office politics can be a very unhealthy brew.

  • Jonathan West

    It seems to me that in this article you are buying into the male stereopypes of women, that they “dress provocatively”, that they are asking for it and so on.

    What you seem to miss is any idea that men have a responsibility to treat women with equal respect, that acting on the basis of these stereotypes is wrong.

  • Hugo

    With respect, and while acknowledging that this maybe wasn’t the most lucid column I’ve ever written, I think you perhaps missed my point. Yes, I did suggest just that about the 1970s – that the moral landscape was confusing, and nobody knew the rules, and this perhaps led people to behave in ways that today we consider abhorrent.

    But my point was not that this was the inevitable, ultimate result of sexual liberation. Far from it. In fact, my point was almost the reverse – that this was a phase passed through (that abhorrence has returned) and that it is probably quite possible for basic morality to wholly endure through sexual liberation of any sort. 

  • Emma07

    As a married Catholic woman in the workplace i’ve found that generally the rest of the office think you are slighlty odd anyway – “she’s RELIGIOUS” as though its some sort of disease!!!!!!!  While never pushing my faith down the throats of anyone, I’m not ashamed of being a Catholic and therefore, if men flirt (and they have done, even after seeing my wedding ring) I just gently tell them that i’m not interested for 2 interconnected reasons, firstly I’m very happily married and that furthermore I’m a practising Catholic and therefore believe in fidelity.  That always shuts them up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jonathan West

    Even if we were to accept your point as valid, it doesn’t address the issue of women receiving unwanted sexual harrassment in a workplace shared with men they are not courting.

  • Allan Daniel

    Most women I know dress immodestly, use language like dockworkers, live unmarried with their partner ( male or female), abort like crazy, drink like pirates, view the trashiest of the current movie crop daily, and have fully accepted a pop culture that has rejected religion.

    In contrast, I live not far from a Orthodox Jewish community. The women dress modestly, have lots of children, love and nurture their children, are religious, do not engage in trash culture, and very rarely have abortions.

    One might suggest that there are far too many women in the work-place because they live unmarried with their partners, abort like it’s on sale, don’t have children, and do not pay heed to religious concepts. 

  • Rizzo the Bear

    Way to go, Emma07! That’s the way to do it.

    Neither am I ashamed of my faith. 

    If they find that a problem, then they have nothing else better to do… or too much time on their hands.

  • Rizzo the Bear

    How true!

    How embarrassingly true.

  • Lazarus

    To address such an issue, you need two sorts of responses: short term and long term. In the short term, my point has little to offer. In the long term, an encouragement of both men and women seriously to plan for and take steps to procure a stable, child rearing relationship (which we used to call marriage but now, in view of the impending hijack of that word by a completely different same sex relationship, we’ll have to start calling something else) will avoid the poisonous ethos of consensual grope and grab which is what our children are currently being encouraged to pursue.

    Francis has set out some of what that would require on the female side. There’s another article in this issue on bringing up boys not to behave like cads (that’ll be ‘liberated fun loving sexonauts’ in your speak). 

  • Kate Ann

    What a sad specimen of a human being you are. Articles like this make young Catholic women want to run a mile because it makes them fear the church is stuffed with people who hold views such as yours. As for those orthodox Jews you live so close to, they can be dismissed by their husbands on a whim. It is servitude you are witnessing, not Christian devotion

  • Jonathan West

    And yet, the issues of sexual harrassment in the workplace were worse in the days when gender roles were more separately defined, the country was more religious and women more often stayed at home and marital rape was not a crime.

  • MV

    The article is making the point that the breakdown that the moving away from these things led to a breakdown of social mores in the workplace and therefore sexual harassment. Women, by breaking the social mores that suggested sexual conservativeness, the apparent availability for sexual activity etc event directly against the religious precepts previously fostered by society.
    Even though the majority of women may still have maintained the traditional ethos you described the fact that the public consciousness was becoming dominated by the attitude to ‘free love’ at that time is being suggested to change men’s perceptions of what would be acceptable at that time. It is the apparent acceptance of a ‘new’ sexual standard that creates the environment.

  • MV

    The point is that, not that women had to change their behaviour, but that women did change their behaviour, therefore creating a response from men.
    I don’t entirely agree with this point. I think that, it may have contributed to the situation, but that sexual harassment is and was an abuse of power and that is normally a response to power being threatened. In this case that was the power of a male dominated workplace.
    However, if there appears to be a sudden change of the sexual language that encouraged more license then it’s not surpassing if signals that are given are responded to.

  • MV

    I take your point Kevin. As a schoolteacher in have seen the sexual agenda pushed more by girls than boys. It’s true girls mature develop more quickly and they want to be seen as older and more sophisticated at an earlier ages when boys are, on the whole, happy to be still playing. With a sexual agenda that is pushed down their throats continually it appears that sex has becoming the new tool for girls to achieve this.

  • MV

    Or maybe you’re buying into the male stereo- type that women do know or can’t think for themselves? I dressed provocatively when I was younger in a direct response to the ‘cosmos girl’ type image and of eating to be attractive to men. It never really went as I wanted and it took me some time to realise that I was sending a signal of sexual invitation by wearing low cut tops etc, rather than allowing me to speak for myself. Clothing communicates, and that includes sexual invitation. It is naive to suggest otherwise and, I an tell you from experience, we do not aid young women by pretending otherwise.

  • Lazarus

    Possibly. (I suspect you’re referring to a very narrow time and geographical period here -ie the 1960s and 1970s- and quite apart from the difficulty in examining  your claim even for that period, I’m not sure it would stand up in other workplaces in different times and places.)

    In broad terms, we’ve been going through a period of rapid social change in which there have been two relevant aspects: a) the entry of women into workspaces where they were not present before; and b) a disintegration of traditional sexual morality and traditional constructions of gender identity. That produced a situation where both men and women were unsure how to act towards each other -and that I suggest is a large part of what’s been going wrong here.

    So my suggestion would be -following Francis- that women need to think harder about what it is to be a woman, and, moreover, a woman who has to engage with men, sexually and in the workplace; and likewise, men need to do the same. A key component of that is understanding the nature of the male/female relationship (with respect to their natural end) as oriented towards founding a family, and taking the necessary steps (ie courtship) to make sure that this is done successfully.

  • Jonathan West

    People make mistakes when they are young. You’ve learned a clothing style that makes you comfortable, and I’m pleased for you.about that.