Monday, October 16, 2017

The way we were

I've held off from saying much online about the latest celebrity-outing as a sexual predator, but the Harvey Weinstein furore has got me thinking about the past - my past. Interestingly enough, my first reaction was to reflect how it's always the really ugly, unattractive guys - just run over in your mind the names that surface and see if you agree. I can recall that time in the 1960s when I asked my mother how a man like Robert Boothby could attract anyone; I seem also to recall that her answer contained a reference to the aphrodisiac of power - the idea that a powerful man could always have his way with a younger partner. Clearly I was not entirely convinced of that; I do recall my 20-something self finding him utterly repulsive.

But actually that's not the whole story. The thing is, when we were young we were expected to be grateful to be fancied by ... well, by anyone. That's part of the sad truth. When I was in Primary 7 - that is, 11-12 years old - we read comics like Romeo (always had the lyrics of a current pop song on the back) and Valentine (had photo-serials instead of comic strip ones - I never liked it as much). The stories were always about a girl attracting some personable bloke by changing her hair or removing her specs, thereby looking more appealing and less brainy. There were columns devoted to pleasing a boy by allowing him to talk about himself - even down to the questions to ask him. And the girl always, always had to wait to be asked.

We joked about it too. There was a teacher in my secondary school whom we avoided as having "wandering hands". Remember that one? But then I remind myself that he was deeply unattractive. Would we have made the jokes about him if he'd been fanciable? There was the unknown man who chased me and two pals along the road, exposing himself as he did. We could hardly run for laughing - though the fact that we were encumbered with violins and (god help us) a cello didn't help. We were interviewed by a policewoman after that; one of my pals was the daughter of a high-ranking policeman. So they took it seriously - we didn't. Why was this?

Remember the cattle-market dances? Girls down one wall, boys facing? And then waiting to see if some pimply youth would ask you to dance, thereby sealing your fate? I went to about two of these: that was enough. And I was lucky. I had a very strict father who had been a secondary teacher all his life, and I'm eternally grateful for the way in which he restricted me and what I did. "Use me as an excuse if you like, he would say - you're not going." Until I was 18 and had passed all the Highers I needed for Uni, I wasn't allowed out to random parties. Imagine how much I hated him at the time, and how thankful I was each time I heard of what had happened at the parties I missed. I wasn't allowed to go hitch-hiking with my pals, nor on cheap, vaguely-planned holidays in Greece. So actually I was never assaulted on the deck of a Greek steamer in the middle of the night, nor on a hotel roof where it was cooler to sleep. And yes, these things happened.

But what of the life of a woman after she's left the protection of her family? (and I know some women aren't protected at all - I'm talking about myself, really) Someone else mentioned the oft-heard question: "Is he bothering you?" And we had to devise ways to avoid being "bothered". Remember, this can include a whole range of behaviours - the sudden hand on the thigh, the tongue down the throat when even a peck felt offensive, the lascivious wolf-whistle from some bloke down a hole in the road. And in the 60s we were never told that it was fine to tell the man what we really felt - rather the reverse. It was regarded as perverse to object to any of it. You made some excuse and wriggled out of the situation, or you let it go on and ended up raped. I was never raped, but I know people who were. They didn't call it rape; they euphemised the whole situation.

Where on earth am I going with all this? I think I'm looking at the sense of entitlement that men have had since time immemorial, and which the women of my generation hadn't climbed sufficiently out of the pit of submission that women had always lived in. So when I hear the current stories about the way famous men have been exposed for the promiscuous predators they are (and it's only famous men - the ordinary tosser in the street just goes on his ghastly way, presumably) - when I hear these, it's like hearing of people waking from a centuries'-long sleep and talking about their nightmares. But they are the nightmares on whose fringes I lived in my youth, and they feel familiar.

Even the best of men - and I'm fortunate: I know many such men - can't know this past as people women my age do. Can't know the present hell that too many women still inhabit. But it's not going to improve unless women occupy the confident upper ground that men have walked since they emerged from the slime; until all women feel the equal of any man they meet and bring up their sons to know this truth; until every girl is imbued with the powerful sense of self that circles her with the armour of confidence; until the Harvey Weinsteins of this world are slapped down the moment they show their true colours.

And until we can be sure that such men will never, ever, become the president of the most powerful nation in the world.