When I was 18 I worked for a well known holiday camp. I was working 70 odd hours a week in 3 different departments to save for university. On Saturdays I worked in the sales department an my boss was a man who was at least 40, good looking in an oily sort of way. Fairly soon after I started work for him he nicknamed me Busty Bertha, Bertha for short, which he would use liberally including in front of colleagues and customers. When I would go into his office he would sit with his leg splayed and indicate using unsubtle gestures that I should sit in the vicinity of his crotch. There were verbal exchanges too. I tried to hold my own, giving a good game as I thought I should, when in reality I was a sexually naive teenager.
In the midst of trying to hold my own I took the decision to mention the behaviour to another manager. I was clear that I wasn’t making a complaint. In reality I didn’t have the language to articulate what the problem was, I wasn’t even sure there was a problem, beyond my feeling uncomfortable. This was a holiday park, sexual hotbeds full of people temporally living in close quarters, in a holiday atmosphere. This is how it was. I tried to hold my own in order to make people like me. The comments I made to my other manager were self preservation. I actually said to him that I wanted to mention the behaviour, in case anything untoward should happen; that if I made a complaint it wasn’t out of the blue.
I mention this because this morning I was listening to politicians on the Radio 4 Today Show, Gisela Stuart, Labour MP, Sheila Gunn, former press secretary to John Major, Jo Phillips, former press secretary for Paddy Ashdown. The discussion was in response to the allegations made about Lord Rennard, the former Liberal Democrat Chief Executive, or inappropriate behaviour towards at least 10 women. The extent of the argument went as follows: politics is a tough business, you know what it is like when you get into it and women need to toughen up. One of these women discussed tactics she used to get away from a particularly frisky colleague who was trying to get her to go to his room at a party conference. Another useful tactic is to just pretend to cry about a previous boyfriend, that soon puts a damper on proceedings. Apparently it is our sisterly duty to share these escape tactics with our colleagues.
If only at 18 some girlfriend had sat me down and shared some tips with me things would have been much better… No, no, NO. What my 18 year old self needed was for someone to sit me down and tell me that I did not have to put up with that sort of behaviour, and that they would support me in making a complaint.
It’s bad enough that women are still having to work in these environments, but what makes it even worse is that STILL we are being to to put up and shut up about it. Men in positions of authority and power are being allowed to treat women as sexual objects, and according to Sheila Gunn we should just consider them as “naughty boys”. This is belittling both to the female victims (or male victims as in the allegations against Cardinal O’Brien, leader of the Scottish Roman Catholic Church) and men, the ones who don’t perpetrate these actions. Men are not young children without control over their desires and actions. They are conscious actors who make choices, some men make good choices and some men make bad ones. Let’s not let the ones who make bad ones ruin it for the good ones.
And let’s get away from this resignation over the situation. Women need to know that they do not have to put up with this behaviour, there is no environment is which it is appropriate, no age or position that excuses men treating women as objects for their taking. We will stand next to these women in solidarity and say “enough is enough”.