Harassment and abuse

Sexual harassment and abuse accusations against film producer Harvey Weinstein have made news headlines on both sides of the Atlantic during the past week or two. Mr Weinstein has become the target of a media feeding frenzy, and most people would say “Hell mend him, he deserves it”. True, no doubt. But the still-emerging story of his fall from grace and privilege merits reflection.

The accusations against Mr Weinstein range from impropriety and ethically unacceptable behaviour to outright law-breaking. Those of us who aren’t directly involved are not entitled to judge any of those accusations, but I offer three observations. First, the accusations of felony (rapes, to be specific) are under investigation by the police, and although it’s very rare for women to fabricate such complaints, we have to abide by the“innocent until proved guilty” principle in those cases.  Second, the courage of the women who’ve come forward with complaints must be respected and commended, particularly those who were the first to speak out. (I suppose it became relatively less difficult for those who followed.) One supposes all their reports to be genuine, though as we know, time can distort our memories of distressing or traumatic experiences that took place years ago. Third, several eminent women actors have told us that Mr Weinstein’s unacceptable behaviour is the “tip of the iceberg” (I quote). Hollywood is said to be rife with sexual harassment and abuse; many young women at the start of their acting careers have told upsetting and frankly disgusting stories about “the casting couch”. In this regard, Mr Weinstein is a scapegoat; according to reports he’s been dismissed from the production company that bears his name, ostracised by all the prestigious film-related organisations, vilified by the media, deserted by his wife, and left with few friends – and that’s before we know the outcome of the police inquiries. Clearly, the sins of the many are being loaded on to him in addition to his own transgressions. Even if only a quarter of the allegations against him were true he’d deserve retribution, but we need to acknowledge that he’s far from alone. And Hollywood is far from alone.

Morally unacceptable male behaviour towards women has been with us since the human species evolved, and probably before that. (Chimpanzees can be pretty rough.) In particular, men in positions of power – political, economic, social, or whatever – are potentially dangerous, not least to female subordinates, and while no right-thinking person of either sex condones such harassment, few do anything about it. For example, I’ve known male university lecturers exploit or try to exploit women students, and neither the victims nor the lecturers’ colleagues have taken action. This is a major societal problem. Some people claim that having more women in powerful positions will ameliorate it. I’d like that to be true, but I’m not sure it would be.  

As a boy, I was brought up to treat women with respect. I was taught to raise my hat to them if they spoke to me in the street; to give up my seat on public transport if a woman was standing; to stand in greeting when a woman entered the room or joined my group at a restaurant table; to walk on the outside of the pavement if a woman was with me; to hold doors open for women to pass through before me. During the 1970s I was chastised by certain vocal feminists for those patterns of behaviour because, they said, I was insulting women by treating them as weak and in need of care and protection. I disagreed. Those gestures of respect helped me to resist any temptation I might have felt to harass or abuse, and since my professional post at the time gave me a position of power, there could have been opportunities.

Maybe this is an old-fashioned view, but I believe we could do worse than return to a culture in which such gestures of respect are instilled into young males as the norm. The training I was given when I was a boy went out of fashion during the 1960s and ‘70s, and perhaps the aforementioned complaints by the vocal feminists of that period played a part in this regrettable cultural shift.

It would be worse than ironic if the feminism of a generation or two ago had inadvertently exacerbated the tendency of men in powerful positions to perpetrate acts of sexual harassment. But I can’t help but wonder.


  • This whole thing has been very distressing – for everyone I think, there are no excuses, and there is undoubtedly more to learn about what’s been going on. But you raise some valid points. I love old-fashioned courtesies – male or female, opening doors, please and thank you – giving up a seat for someone that needs it more than you, etc. I would never take offence. I hope my 3 boys will remember those things as they grow older.

    • Thanks, Sophie, and I’m delighted you support my belief in courtesy. I’m afraid my comments will annoy some readers so I expect criticism, but that’s fair enough – provided it initiates reasonable debate. Whatever we think the best way to deal with this deep-rooted problem, something certainly needs to be done.

  • Totally with you on the manners front.
    My mum was a stickler for good manners and gentlemanly behavior towards women, which has stood me in good stead all these years.
    Sad to see so few men behaving in this way now.

  • I was intrigued to read about a young woman, who went onto Twitter and wrote, “If it happened to you send back the words, “Me too”, thus reflecting an experience of abuse. Thousands of women tweeted back “Me too”. I believe this to be important in our social development, and acceptance that we live in a very unfair society.

    As a very pretty teenager and adult woman I experienced many events, which would not be acceptable by the law, and I remember phoning into a radio station to talk about this many years ago– the male presenter was rude, undermining and treated me like an idiot. It seems now the climate is right to expose these universal experiences. Here are just a few of mine:

    Walking down the road aged 13 in broad daylight and a tall muscular man walks past me but not before he punched me between the legs;

    Working in Tesco during the summer aged 13, the butchery manager ordered me into the meat freezer and comes in after me; when I wouldn’t submit, he locked me in the freezer;

    Walked into a sweet shop aged 10; the shopkeeper’s friend, a robust giant of man, grabbed hold of me so that I could not move my arms and kissed me… I felt very threatened indeed but thankfully was able to kick him on the shins;

    Walking down my street broad daylight in my 20s, I had a funny feeling, turned around and a young man was right behind me masturbating… the police caught him but he didn’t turn up to court and changed address;

    Stuck overnight in the Salle de Attente at Gare du Nord, Paris, as the hours ticked by the hordes of men poking at my newspaper and me reached a pitch and I asked the plain clothes policemen to lock me up for the night [a medical room and leather bed]… the next morning the officer came back with a coffee and a croissant for me…

    I could go on and on… and worst of all my own family leaves a lot to be desired on the abusive front… Sad, huh?

    • Yolanda, thank you very much for sharing those experiences. Ghastly for you; but they’re more or less universal, so their equivalents are ghastly for the large majority of women. The “grooming” and sexual exploitation scandals that have hit the headlines during the past few years are merely the extreme end of this chronic scandal.

      I’ve seen the “Me Too” exchanges. I think the responses number tens of thousands rather than thousands. Enough said.

  • “I was taught to raise my hat to them if they spoke to me in the street; to give up my seat on public transport if a woman was standing; to stand in greeting when a woman entered the room or joined my group at a restaurant table; to walk on the outside of the pavement if a woman was with me; to hold doors open for women to pass through before me.”

    De-gender your list, Mark, and you have the beginnings of showing respect to all. As a feminist, that’s what I’d like to see happen. I’m worried that too many people have now decided that Others are Ogres, basically – I think it started with politics, and has radiated from there. If only we could get back to knowing that everyone is human, and have that always be our baseline.

    So, give up your seat on public transport for anyone in greater need; stand in greeting for anyone, to show them respect; hold doors for others *whenever* it’s appropriate. Walk on either side down the sidewalk. And raise your invisible hat to anyone you speak to! 😉

    • In practice, Sara Jayne, I do exactly that. But in the context of the blog I thought it appropriate to return to the training of my younger days, and to lament the fact that respect (in general, let’s admit!) has largely disappeared.

  • I have often mourned the loss of the ‘gentleman’ and have attributed to the rejection of them to ‘liberated’ women. I grew up with similar values and though I was extremely independent I always thanked any man who opened a door for me or offered to assist me in some way. To me it was not an insult, but an act of kindness and chivalry. I don’t fit the modern female scenario and I never plan to. In fact, I still wear skirts rather than pants. I teach my girls to be ladies and that real men want real women. Perhaps others will not agree and I do not argue the matter. People will be what they will be regardless of my puny opinion. I have never considered it an insult to my ability or intelligence to have someone do a kindness, whether male or female. I long for the days where men were men (and not ridiculed for it) and where women were women, strong enough in who they were to accept masculine offers of kindness without assuming negative actions.

    God bless you, sir, for retaining chivalry. You may open a door for me anytime. I will be sure to nod, smile, and offer you thanks.

    As for Hollywood, I think the corruption therein will crack the whole thing into the sea one day. The horrors that have been inflicted on women and children for the sake of show business lacks adequate adjectives. I pray one day those inflicting harm will get what is due them, though it could never repair the damage done. But perhaps it could salve the injured to a degree.

    Thank you for another thought provoking write.


    • Thanks again, Shai. I’m delighted that you share my views on this matter. Alas, as I said, Hollywood is very far from alone. If nothing else emerges from the Weinstein furore, at least it’s made women around the world more vocal about the harassment and abuse they’ve suffered, so public awareness is being increased. That can only be a good thing. I take off my hat (literally and metaphorically) to the women who’ve been courageous enough to say “Me too”.

      As my friend Sara Jayne (from Louisiana, now holding a British passport) wrote in her comment on this blog, courtesy ought to be extended in equal measure to both sexes. She made a good point. A very recent survey in Britain revealed that some 50% of women have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace or in academic settings, and so have about 36% of men. Among female victims of such unwanted attention, 63% failed to report the incident(s). Among male victims, 77% remained silent. Of course, my blog focussed on the ill-treatment of women, but Sara Jayne was clearly right: it isn’t one-sided.

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