Winter 2018

Women Fighting Back – With Men as Their Allies?

Rowan Pelling

Back in the 1990s I was office dogsbody on a publication famed for its dedication to exposing corruption and hypocrisy in British public life. It was a fantastic place to work with one exception – a regular contributor with wandering hands and a creepy repertoire of chat-up lines.

On one occasion before my day he came in to drop off a copy and made a leering comment to one of the mag’s female staffers. A little later he passed the stock room and glimpsed a rear view of the woman in her distinctive Breton striped jersey and jeans, reaching down for envelopes. So he tiptoed in, swept his arms down around her and tried to cup her breasts. At which point the magazine’s male art director, who happened to be wearing a near identical top, straightened up and said, Really? I didn’t think I was your type.”


There was another journalist in the office given to ribald comments, but they were fired at men and women alike in the dry style of an investigative hack who’d seen it all. I fondly remember the time he approached me as I was manning the office’s reception desk and said, Fancy a knee-trembler?”, before adding, I’d settle for a cup of tea.” I adored this second journo and he was a valuable lesson in the fact it’s hard to police certain forms of risqué́ banter. Intent is key and for that you need to consider a person’s whole pattern of behaviour. The first writer was predatory, while the second was warm, funny and treated women as absolute equals.

These anecdotes betray my age. Fifty this year, since you ask. Few young women nowadays who would give leeway to the kindly cuppa tea” hack. When I set up the Amorist magazine for devotees of love and passion” in early 2017 the fast-changing current was evident to any keen observer. I’d mostly swum with it, waving farewell to Erotic Review days when colleagues routinely asked, May I rummage through your drawers?” So I was aghast when a male colleague said in all earnestness I should put a grown woman in a school girl’s uniform” on my front cover, as everyone loves St Trinian’s.” I sighed as I explained there’s a popular website called The Everyday Sexism Project and I didn’t want my equal amorous opportunities mag to be the lead story on its home page.

I wouldn’t claim to be uniquely prescient, but by October 2017 the Harvey Weinstein scandal had broken, swiftly followed by the #MeToo movement highlighting the fact there was barely a woman alive who hadn’t experienced some kind of sexual harassment or abuse.

There’s no doubt #MeToo has been a magnificent turbo-charged broom of social change, sweeping away the myriad indignities of kneejerk sexism and uninvited sexual advances. I am relieved my nieces won’t have to deal with routine lechery in the way my generation did – that if they do encounter inappropriate behaviour, public opinion and workplace policy will tilt in their favour.

I was at a publishing party this spring when a married, left-leaning author started caressing the bare shoulders of a discomforted young female publicist while we were discussing Brexit. I looked straight at him and said, Didn’t you get the memo?” He immediately removed his hand. Because every person in the western world who wasn’t living in a hermit’s cave got the #MeToo memo. Even Donald grab pussy” Trump — although he determinedly ignored it.

But of course it’s not just women who bene t from #MeToo going viral. The movement has been a boon for the legions of decent men who were exasperated by boorish colleagues and by being portrayed as puritanical, or humourless, if they intervened. Follow-up reportage on the Weinstein Company made it clear a number of its male employees were aghast at the mogul’s behaviour. The most entrenched problem was bullying on an endemic scale, which cowed or gagged whistle-blowers of both sexes.

As the dust settles, it becomes ever clearer that the #MeToo movement advances most persuasively when activists understand most men are its allies; that they’re appalled at what’s happened to sisters, friends, wives and often have their own understanding of what it means to be belittled.

I don’t propose mounting a counter-offensive, as Catherine Deneuve and other French female luminaries did when they wrote to Le Monde denouncing a #MeToo witch-hunt” against men. It seems more effective to acknowledge abuses of power are manifold and affect the most vulnerable in society. As it happens, the worst sexual abuse in my close circle happened to two men when they were at boarding school.

What’s consistent, whether abuse is physical, verbal or more sly, behind-the-scenes manipulation, is that there are people who believe their clout will put them beyond accountability and they brazenly exploit that sense of status. A friend who’s a TV producer recently participated in a handwringing corporate discussion about #MeToo and said it was a staggering irony that everyone present knew his company’s worst problem wasn’t sexism, but its tyrannical female boss. Recent bullying scandals at the Institute of Directors, Institute of Cancer Research and House of Commons shows how prevalent and unisex the problem can be. This, it seems to me, is where the crusading energy mustered by the #MeToo movement would most usefully turn next – in full acknowledgement that Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women happened because he terrorised everyone around him into submission. He was turned on by his power to humiliate.

If we’re strictly honest, the urge to humble others isn’t solely restricted to tyrants. Most of us feel some fleeting desire to level our foes. With this in mind, the more zealous outriders of the #MeToo movement need reminding that sisters of the revolution can appear bullying too.

The divide is often generational. Women who are 45-plus generally don’t wish to see men reprimanded for small gallantries, or ill-expressed but well-intentioned comments. Take 76-year-old Richard Ned Lebow, the professor of political theory who was formally reprimanded for replying to the question Which floor?” while in a US elevator with the retort, Ladies’ lingerie!” But then I imagine the incensed American female academics who shared the lift had never seen the Brit comedy Are You Being Served. More recently, I was taken aback when a young woman told me that a man had winked at her in a meeting and she’d felt violated”. I gently said that as something of an expert in body language a wink was far more likely to signal humour than erotic intent.

In the wish to be treated fairly, we women must be fair to others; our behaviour is best steered by kindness and common sense. These aren’t very revolutionary concepts, but they are the nutrients which will allow #MeToo to flourish. And we will all be the beneficiaries.

Rowan Pelling is a columnist on the Daily Telegraph and former Editor of the Erotic Review. She is editor of the Everyman’s Library pocket classic Erotic Stories.