Joyce McMillan: Still groping around for an answer

Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg symbolised changing attitudes between the sexes in the 1960s. Picture: Getty
Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg symbolised changing attitudes between the sexes in the 1960s. Picture: Getty
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Why men behave badly and are sexually driven to abuse their power is a complex issue, writes Joyce McMillan

IT ONLY HAPPENED to me once, during my time as young journalist. There was a powerful television producer, whose wife I had met and liked. There was a talk of a programme which I might have presented.

There was a business lunch with a couple of glasses of wine, and then a pretty determined lunge, as he tried to grab me and kiss me in a nearby car park. I was shocked, beat a hasty retreat, and never heard any more, either from the producer, or about the television series.

I don’t know whether I scuppered a budding television career on that day, and frankly I don’t much care; giving in to that kind of sexual advance, so clearly linked to a work opportunity, never really struck me as an option.

I do remember that I felt quite worried, for a while, over what this man might say about me, and whether I might never work for the BBC again; but this was the early 1980s, and it never occurred to me that such a brief and grubby personal exchange might be a matter that I could report to anyone, or that this man’s employers would be remotely interested in it.

And it is, I suppose, in the transition from that world to this one that the Liberal Democrat Party finds itself caught.

At one level, the allegations made against the former party chief executive, Lord Rennard, seem fairly minor, the common stuff of low-level sexual flirtation; it would be a sad old world if people couldn’t brush knees occasionally, or play footsie under a table.

The truth is, though, that if you add into the equation Lord Rennard’s high status in his party, and the fact that the young women he is said to have approached were potential parliamentary candidates whose entire career might hang upon his word – well, then you have something that, if true, begins to look like bad behaviour at best, and at worst like a serious abuse of power.

After the torrent of revelations that followed the death of Jimmy Savile, it becomes ever clearer that this kind of abuse can range from actual rape and child molestation, to the sort of groping that young women once used to tolerate as more or less normal; and it also becomes clear that the question of where that line lies, between the acceptable and the unacceptable, is one determined by the whole of the surrounding culture.

I grew up, for example, in the kind of traditional Presbyterian Scotland where men who wanted to be taken seriously were rigorously trained to treat “good” women with respect, and to avoid “bad” women like the plague; of course some broke the rules, but the social penalties for doing so were high, and hardly worth the risk. And by contrast, if the wise words of female veterans like Joan Bakewell are to be believed, men working at the BBC in London in the 1960s and 70s might well have been under considerable peer-pressure to take part in the kind of “swinging”, girl-chasing and subtle sexual bullying that went on; it was the custom of the country, and you were made to feel a fool or a prude if you didn’t join in.

In trying to navigate our way through the current torrent of sexual accusations and revelations, we therefore need some fairly subtle and searching guidelines; and I would suggest two, for a start. First, we can do without the help of the kind of evolutionary biologist who appeared on yesterday’s Radio 4 World At One, spouting a lot of gleefully determinist stuff about how all this bad behaviour is programmed into our genes.

We all know what the basic biological impulses of heterosexual human beings are; how men are drawn to young women, and women tend to flirt with powerful men.

The idea, though, that these basic impulses represent an excuse for bad sexual behaviour, or even a complete explanation of it, is just part of the hopelessly reductive and inadequate account of human society that has underpinned the reactionary politics of the last 35 years.

The fact is that any society which is interested in its own long-term future finds sophisticated ways of restraining and channelling those impulses, so that they become less socially destructive, and more socially useful; and the question is therefore, not why some men grope young women – the answer to that is obvious – but why the social constraints which prevent men from groping women, in situations where such behaviour is abusive or bullying, sometimes break down.

And then secondly, we have to achieve the difficult combination of holding to account those who have abused their power, while avoiding the temptation simply to scapegoat individuals for what is a societal and cultural problem.

At the moment, sections of the media are in full cry after the scalps of Lord Rennard, pictured right, and his leader Nick Clegg; and they are also rubbing their hands over the allegations against Cardinal O’Brien, which date back almost 30 years. Yet most people in Britain over a certain age must know that if every man who ever indulged in inappropriate sexual suggestions to a young employee or subordinate was to be publicly humiliated and hauled over the coals, then millions of men would be in the frame, and their individual guilt would come to seem meaningless.

So while those who can be proved to have abused their sexual power should be brought to account, and even made examples of, the more important task is to try to sustain the social change that has set young women – and young men too – free from the obligation to remain silent about such incidents; and to ensure that everyone in a position of power understands just how wrong, and indeed how sad, it is to try to trade that power for sexual compliance.

And we need to do that, too, without passing on to the next generation the idea that sex itself is a dirty and joyless word; and that if they want to remain “safe”, they had better stay at home on some internet porn site, and forget the troubling and complex world of the flesh altogether.