The Sunday Times

October 14th, 2012

Girls, I learnt to deal with the gropers, so must you

It now seems that scores of people may have been sexually abused as teenagers by the late Jimmy Savile over many years, some of them on BBC premises. This would not be surprising. Society generally, including the BBC, was astonishingly lax about sexual harassment and even about sexual abuse until fairly recently. Almost any woman working in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — the time of most of Savile’s alleged crimes — will have stories that would make their daughters’ and granddaughters’ hair curl.

Sure enough, with the Savile accusations, other angry memories are emerging. Sandi Toksvig said last week on The Andrew Marr Show that she was groped while on air by a famous person she refused to name; her complaints at the time were shrugged off. Earlier the Radio 1 DJ Liz Kershaw said that she was routinely groped, even while on air, during the 1980s. One presenter put his hands up her top while she was broadcasting, to fondle her breasts. “Don’t you like it? Are you a lesbian?” was the incredulous response of the person to whom she complained.

Like most women of the baby boom generation I, too, have plenty of nasty memories of groping. My introduction came early. Along with being hissed at and repeatedly pinched in the street in Italy, I found my gap-year odd jobs instructive: until then I had no idea about the old Adam.

When I was 17 in the late 1960s, up from the country, I got a temporary job as a Girl Friday — the title speaks volumes — in a London insurance office. One of my tasks was to take the mail round; there were two unattractive men in suits in a basement office who regularly put their hands up my miniskirt or fondled my breasts when I handed them their letters.

They were entirely unashamed: the trick was to move away fast, or to spill their coffee. When I told them I was leaving, to go to university, they were astonished. “What? Going to Cambridge?” said one. “If we’d known that, we’d never have …” and his voice petered out. I think a young woman today would have been apoplectic with indignation; then, somehow, I was more concerned about how to deal with it.

Later, having proudly got an editorial job at the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong in my twenties, I overheard the editor, Derek Davies, saying in the open-plan office that I wasn’t bad but that my tits were great. “Yes, but not as fantastic as Rosemary’s,” said another man, meaning my predecessor, the clever and now distinguished Rosemary Righter. My immediate boss, actually a kind Australian, told me each morning, with a fully frontal hug, that we should “lock loins immediately”. It was all, as my grandmother might have said, rather trying.

The BBC, which I joined as a trainee at 28, was more trying still. For instance, at my first departmental meeting in general features, run by the late Desmond Wilcox (soon to be Esther Rantzen’s husband), the famous charmer addressed us with a conspiratorial smile and told us loudly before proceeding to business that there was to be “no more effing effing under the effing hospitality room effing table”. That, to my amazement, was the tone taken at the heights of BBC TV.

Some time later Wilcox rang David Frost on my behalf for help with a programme; he told Frost how reliable I was. “Yes,” interrupted Frostie, and I could hear him down the line, “but what are her legs like?” Sex of the most puerile and demeaning kind was certainly in the air — the leering, the casual touching, the insinuations — even in a sober outfit such as general features, and I have no doubt the atmosphere was worse on the other side of the cultural tracks in BBC light entertainment.

I could go on. No one interfered with my person while I was on air, but that may have simply been because I was in sight on television and it might have been awkward for the perpetrator. General sexism, both at the BBC and elsewhere, was much more of a problem for me than groping, but the tendency among some men — with countless honourable exceptions — to see women first as sex objects (if of interest) and secondly as inferior (and not of interest) was deeply demoralising.

However, what strikes me today is that when things were harder, women were much tougher. I’m not talking about the victims of vicious predators here: I mean adult women subject to conventional sexual affront from more or less ordinary men.

Because gropers were almost always more powerful, because they held your job prospects in their roving hands, because complaining was useless, because going to an industrial tribunal meant you’d probably never work again, women realised they just had to deal with it. We tended not to confront or complain; we even tended, as far as possible, not to take it seriously. Don’t get mad — get even, as Americans say, and women have managed to go a long way, not least in television, towards getting even.

Feminists would and did say that those of us who put up and shut up were betraying our sex: only by united female confrontation would men be forced to change. But I wonder. It’s true now that we have legislation and tribunals and human resources departments obsessed with sex and gender, and it’s probably true that many men may have been shamed into keeping their sexual hankerings to themselves. Feminist activists can take credit for this.

What’s less good is that women are encouraged to see themselves as victims. There’s a tendency to rush to the law with dubious accusations of sexism, to the point of dishonesty. Meanwhile, relations between men and women at work have become sexually awkward and embarrassing in a new way: men are frightened of doing the wrong thing, or of being accused of it.

And despite all this, sexual harassment is still with us. The Sunday Times’s Camilla Long did an interview recently with the former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis and said that, in 90 minutes, “I don’t think there is a part of my body that he didn’t grope.” Clearly the old Adam dies hard — or perhaps I should say the old Andrew.

Because the broadcaster Andrew Marr was photographed recently groping a young woman on a pavement, with a hand down her trousers. If such a man as Marr, the apogee of high-mindedness, right thinking and superior education, and married to a Guardian moralist, cannot restrain himself from fumbling with a girl on his production team, then things haven’t changed much since my youth, or indeed since Adam ate the apple.