The headlines in the UK at the moment are frightening. Icon after icon from the 70’s and 80’s is being hauled up before the courts accused of sexual assault, touching and sometimes even rape.
The offences in almost all cases, were described as ‘historic’ in other words, they took place around 30 years ago. But why does it feel that it is MY youth and growing up that is actually on trial?
That was around the time I worked in a large office, first in Dundee and then in Edinburgh. There was nothing exceptional about them – a bunch of people of varying ages all working and often playing together and producing a newspaper every week.
We were colleagues and we were (usually) friends. There was the occasional office romance but we were adults and we all knew that good terms were needed as we all had to work together, and it worked.
There was, what would definitely be classified now as sexual harassment, in abundance.
We touched each other. We massaged each others shoulders. We made rude jokes in front of each other. We tested limits – on one occasion I found a 4X magazine in my drawer with some fairly explicit images. Clearly a reaction was being waited for, so I took it out, flicked through it and dismissed it with a brief and scathing, “Nah, mine are bigger.” Then I chucked it to the side.
I remember one Valentine’s Day popping a red rose (man, these are expensive!) into a colleagues desk drawer because he complained that no one ever gave men flowers at Valentine.
We slapped each others bottoms. We stroked each others hair sometimes for fun and sometimes if a colleague was upset. Occasionally we even hugged, especially in times of distress. We drank together at lunchtimes and partied together in the evenings. We sometimes went to disco’s together in the evening. No one took offence, because it was all part of the way offices ran in these days. Ok. It’ll bring that in a little. I am a journalist and it was the way newspaper offices worked. I can’t speak for insurance companies or other businesses.
In fact in many ways it gave me a really good insight into how to deal with men who got a bit ‘fresh’. It didn’t scare me. It didn’t worry me. It certainly didn’t make me feel that I had been assaulted or sexually traumatised in any way. I gave as good as I got.
Can there really be anyone who worked in office environments around that time who didn’t indulge in a bit of office banter or a bit of touchy feely nonsense? Are you wondering now whether someone from your dim and distant past will turn round and accuse you of harassment any day now? It has crossed my mind.
My only defence is that there were no power differences involved. We were colleagues on pretty much the same level. No one really had authority over anyone else – and we were all grown up enough to stop if our behaviour made anyone uncomfortable. But we all enjoyed it. It was fun. It helped make the office a fun place to work.
I’m sorry if that offends you, but it did.
In the same way that I don’t really feel any responsibility for the horrors of the slave trade and don’t feel any great need to apologise on behalf of my ancestors (who were farm labourers and almost certainly never had any contact with slaves either), I feel it is unfair to judge the behaviour of the 70’s and 80’s in the light of today’s much more restrained and politically correct accepted norms of working life.
I’m absolutely not excusing rape. Really, rape is a crime that is vicious, cold, horrifying and an extreme abuse of power.
But sexual assault – touching shoulders, slapping bottoms, slipping a hand around a colleague’s waist? In the 70’s that wasn’t classed as sexual assault. It shouldn’t be judged to be so today.