NOTE: This is NOT intended to be a pity parade. I learned a lot, and was not traumatised.
A few years ago, I was a “victim” of sexual harassment from my unofficial boss at the time. This was before I started questioning social norms, reading political opinion blogs (ah, the glory days of inner peace), and before I truly understood my own boundaries…so…whose victim was I really? Possibly my own.
I was interning at a small events and media company headed by a successful bloke from West London. He offered me a weekly unpaid job and I thought job opportunities would just burst out at me after this, no doubt. I wrote up phony articles about some bars in Camden (for a website I now suspect he’d just set up to occupy my time) and was part of a team helping him to organise some skeezy luxury-themed events. He would get me in his office whenever I finished my writing and would congratulate me for my work and “confide” in me. He’d show me a terrible film he was working on and ask for my approval. It was weird, to say the least, but me, being the remarkably agreeable person that I was, I went along with it. I kind of admired him as I tend to admire those who make something of their lives, I assumed I should probably learn something from him.
Anyway, one evening he took me and a friend of his to review the opening of a new club night in central London. It was exclusive, fancy, free drinks, great fun. I interviewed some people just to impress my boss – I hung out with him and tried to ask him what elements I should review and how (this was my first reviewing gig) – most of all, I drank. His friend kept seeming to leave us alone together and bring us booze whenever we ran out. Somehow it wasn’t quite the professional visit I’d bargained for.
A few blurry hours later, at the end of the night, his friend had disappeared. It was just us on the armchairs by the bar. I complained of sore feet. Ken, not his real name, gallantly offered me a foot rub. I was mildly disturbed and said no, but he insisted. Fine. Rub the feet if you’re so inclined, Ken. I laughed. The bar staff were the only people there, and it was time to finish our drinks and go. He said “come on my lap,” I said “oh come on, Ken, for Christ’s sake,” and he pulled me onto his lap.
Quick, scene: massive dark room, two armchairs illuminated by front hall lights. Clumsy vacillating girl with long hair and a fancy gown perched on top of man’s lap, laughing her head off and mussing his hair around in the friendliest manner she can muster. Man whispering to her “come home with me, come home with me” as he reaffirms her position on top of him.
Girl feels boner looming underneath. Girl is drunk and barely notices, continues to negotiate with man. “Oh come ON, Ken, I don’t want to. Naaah, Ken. You’re so damn silly,” laughing nervously and pushing his face away.
“Come on, it will be amazing. I swear you’ll love it.”
“You know I have my boyfriend,” I say, internally berating myself for using that lame excuse.
“Eeeh, go on Jen, don’t we have a good time, Jen, don’t we?”
Gently trying to slip off of him…
“Go on, Jen, just try it, give me a little kiss…”
“UGH, Ken, you’re so ridiculous, anyway they’re closing now, let’s get out of here.”
I get into a cab with him, at which point all I remember is a drunken sod slumped next to me, trying to kiss me further, and begging to come home with me. I am finally at peace because I know my boyfriend is waiting for me in my cozy room, and I ensure that my pathetic companion will pay as I leave and thank the bemused cabbie.
The next day I told my boyfriend about it. He was livid. He called it an utter abuse of power, total harrassment bordering on assault – at which point I horribly recall the boner raging against my ass – and encouraged me to go to the police. I didn’t know what to think anymore, suddenly just a lame night with a drunken asshole had been turned into something far more sinister to my sober mind. So my caring partner accompanied me to the station where I described my ordeal, particularly the fact that the guy was my superior and had used the party as an excuse to finally hone in on his prey. I felt a bit silly as I hadn’t actually been physically assaulted, but simply felt betrayed and demeaned. The police were very forthcoming, however. This was before the age of the “systemic rape” theory, remember, before men were spooked into tiptoeing around women.
So sympathetic were the Met, in fact, that they went and got the CCTV footage of my drunken ordeal from the club and called me in to review it and think about what to do next.
What I saw on the screen was my inebriated self dawdling on the lap of some ecstatic dog-man, tongue practically hanging out with excitement. I couldn’t hear the dialogue; I only saw body language which clearly showed more willingness than disgust. Obviously, had I been into it, I would have kissed him and made it far more obvious. For me, it was plain that I was just trying to tactfully “friend zone” him. I hate to reject people! I know how it feels.
But watching this video two weeks later with a professional cop next to me felt like my own actions were being dissected in a doctor’s office. The video demonstrated, in the plain light of day, a sexually intoxicated male with a compliant female on his knee, playing with his hair and kissing his cheek (at his stubborn request, may I add, but that was not apparent in the video). The only truly incriminating action on his part was when he pushed a drink into my hand.
There was nearly half an hour of this odd, innocuous dynamic, and I caught myself thinking why doesn’t she throw the bloody drink in his face and be done with it? Embarrassment mounted in me and I glanced at my kindly cop’s face. He looked slightly pained, caught my eye, and honestly said, “I’m so sorry, miss. I understand, but I’m not sure you have much of a case here.”
There was no dramatic “life crashing down on me” moment. I was just pissed off that I had worked for this creep for free and even let him touch me – for that is what I did. I had let him touch me, as a fully functional young woman, and I had touched him back out of compassion. The guy was an unprofessional creep, a sexual opportunist, and the owner of a company, and there is no doubt he deserved some public humiliation if I’d had the goddamn guts to give it to him. But he didn’t deserve prison – I knew it and my cop knew it. No matter what the girl in the video’s turbulent emotions after the event, no matter what outside influences made her feel outraged and abused, it was the bare facts that stood before us on video. There had been no clear cut crime. In a sexually liberated world, I took responsibility for my conciliatory reaction to his attempts at seduction.
Yes, men ought to be educated, but without bringing the authorities into it. The justice system is all-encompassing, costly, inflexible, and tortuous for everyone involved. In matters of human relations, where everybody is in possession of their own faculties, there is no better way to educate or change an oblivious pervert’s stubborn, instinct-driven mind than by making them feel like shit (unless of course they are a cold-blooded criminal).
People’s interactions are rife with awkwardness and misunderstandings: this is both the beauty of life and the danger of living in a secular, amoral world. Without the archaic guidelines established by strict social norms, we have been left to our own devices. I think this gives people the beautiful opportunity to live and learn: learn about themselves, learn about the dynamics of social behaviour. It gives them the chance to suffer a bit, to be embarrassed a bit more, to finally steer their life in the direction they see fit. It’s the very definition of liberalism.
Problem is, you can’t have that if you start regulating the actions of others or molding them, as children, to your standards. Your own freedom must not come at the expense of others’, no matter how scummy you believe they are. A liberal society soon becomes an authoritarian one if only a certain part of the population – the most vocal and emotional one – gets to dictate what’s OK to do and what is not. Especially if they consider themselves exempt from the basic biological standards of body language and communication skills.
None of this is meant to excuse that man’s completely unprofessional behaviour towards myself and probably countless other women. It’s not a simple matter of men vs women… it is the people in our competitive society who enable such things to happen – the men who extort sexual favours in exchange for status or money as well as the women who take them up on the bargain.
To be honest, I don’t think the world would lose out on much if this particular guy were to be incarcerated, and I have no warm feelings towards him whatsoever. But we would lose out as a culture if we were to attack consensual (albeit dirty) transactions between autonomous (albeit inexperienced and/or opportunistic) individuals. The police are there for true instances of physical coercion or entrapment. Women would be once again reduced to eternal minors in need of chaperoning, and innocent men would be open to prosecution from all sides, if we were to further blur the definition of assault.
Education is vital, but let’s stop focusing on the sexual side of it. The blame game (AKA “self-pity” and “victim blaming”) is not useful to anyone. Life is rife with both positive and negative experiences. Let’s teach ourselves to communicate with others, to put ourselves in our counterparts’ shoes no matter how distasteful the other person may be, and to learn from each other. Nothing could be more important in a world of almost boundless sexual freedom.