First there was Jimmy Saville and then, rightly or wrongly, the not wholly unexpected news that Gary Glitter and was under investigation by Operation Yewtree. But then came Rolf (please not Rolf!), Tarby and Stuart Hall and I felt the first stirrings of pity as a string of Saturday night icons from my childhood years were brought to account for the ambiguously named ‘sexual misdemeanors’.
What a strange place the world of light entertainment must have been in the 70s and 80s. It was a time when Benny Hill was deemed appropriate family viewing of a Saturday night and now it seems that some of the stars of the time availed themselves of the odd fumble with a ‘willing’ fan in television green rooms across the land, in an odd life-imitating-art kind of way.
Just as I caught myself wondering where ‘misdemeanour’ comes on the sliding scale of sexual atrocity, up popped human rights barrister, Barbara Hewson a few months ago, in an article for online magazine, Spiked, calling for an end to the persecution of aging celebrities for minor misdemeanors and calling it a ‘witch hunt’. According to Hewson, ‘taking girls to one’s dressing room, bottom pinching and groping in cars hardly rank in the annals of depravity with flogging and rape in padded rooms”.
True, and I guess that’s the sliding scale I couldn’t quite picture before.
At first it reminded me of those old routines about childhood hardships, where people try to outdo each other. “You think that was hard, we had to walk 10 miles to school and sleep in a cardboard box” etc. But what it really reminded me of, was that casual sexual advances from older men to younger girls were the norm, a “laugh”, the universal experience of every woman I know aged between 30 and 50.
The neighbour who always put his hand up my skirt playing chase when I was 9. The friend’s uncle who made me watch a porn movie when I was 11. The teacher who made a different girl fasten up all the buttons on his lab coat each lesson. The countless drunken men at rugby and football club dinners who tried to corner me as a teenage waitress. The pub landlord who gave the tips to the girl who wore the shortest skirt. The ski chalet guest who broke into my room and held me down until I screamed for help. And then bought me a drink at the bar the next day. And I let him because I wanted to be a ‘good sport’.
These aren’t ‘poor me’ stories. They happened to me but they are universal. Every friend I know can reel off the same list. We dealt with it. Those experiences were our introduction to sexual relationships, to the idea of how men behave towards woman. We dealt with it and possibly it equipped us for the wider world, gave us the confidence in later life to rebuff inappropriate advances with brutal efficiency. But I have two little daughters now. Would I wish that kind of introduction to sexual powerplay on them? Of course I wouldn’t.
In her book, How to Be a Woman, (a funny, inspirational must-read for every woman), one of my favourite feminist writers, Caitlin Moran, has a brilliant strategy for detecting misogynistic bullshit. She simply asks “Are the men doing it?”.
So, were the men doing it? In the 70s and 80s, were the men being felt up in green rooms by celebrity lady chat show hosts? Were men rebuffing the advances of oversexed women neighbours and being touched up by female teachers? Were men, throughout the land, being subjected to low-level or even high-level sexual intimidation for that matter, as part of everyday life, as the norm? It’s possible. But unlikely.
As Operation Yewtree rumbles on, I can’t help feeling that it might, just might, close the gap a little. Move that sliding scale a little further in the right direction. Can we judge the actions of the past by the laws of the present day? How far back can we travel to right wrongs? Truly, I don’t know the answer, but change has to begin somewhere. A few old men, just the wrong side of the line, might have to take one for the team.