Arriving late to a drinks party, I looked across the bar and spotted a former colleague, who beckoned me over.
She was perched at a high table, one arm languorously coiled around the neck of the very young man by her side.
Although well-preserved, in an expensive, highly maintained kind of way, I knew this woman would be seeing 50 before too long. I also knew she’d been happily married for more than 20 years, and has children not much younger than the man she was drooling over, as if he was a rare steak on a platter.
The female groper is not taken as seriously as the male one. So she continues apace, dispensing unwelcome caresses and inappropriate conversation because she is a woman, and because she can
‘Angela, come and meet Ryan,’ she said. ‘He’s just joined my firm. Isn’t he simply delicious?’
Ryan looked terrified. Ensnared by an older woman – his professional superior, no less – he was clearly clueless as to how to deal with the situation. No wonder the minute his boss loosened her grip to talk to me, he shot off like a rat up a drainpipe, but not before enduring a humiliating slap on the bottom as he made his retreat.
I caught his eye as he ran, and recognised something I thought I’d never see this side of the Seventies. Though he was trying to laugh it off, I saw the desperation of a subordinate being sexually harassed.
Whereas, in the past, it would have been a female office junior, hiding in the toilets at the office party from a predatory male boss, now the roles were reversed.
I’d like to say this cringe-inducing display was an anomaly – the drunken slip-up of a middle-aged woman who’d wake up burning with shame in the morning – but that wasn’t the case. My ex-colleague saw nothing wrong in her behaviour. ‘It’s just a bit of fun, darling,’ she scoffed when I challenged her.
If anything, she saw it as entirely justified, a retrospective ‘fingers up’ at all the sexism she’d to endure from middle-aged men on her own climb to the top.
There are many like her. Unashamed and brazen, the female groper operates with impunity, unlike her male counterpart who fears a summons to a tribunal should he linger too long when greeting a female subordinate.
Caught in uncharted, dangerous territory, young male victims are left confused and vulnerable. Should they complain and risk a ribbing from male colleagues while incurring the vengeful wrath of their female boss? Or just ‘man up’ and put up with it? It all feels so sadly familiar.
Last year, 23-year-old digital marketing co-ordinator Poppy Smart sparked a storm by reporting wolf-whistling builders in Worcester to the police
No wonder cases of men complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace are increasing: a third of men reported some sort of inappropriate attention in the workplace during a recent survey.
I couldn’t help thinking of the case of Neil Fox, the DJ cleared of historic sexual assault charges.
Interviewed afterwards, Fox said of one accuser, a former colleague: ‘There were times when I would easily wander by and slap her bum, touch her on the way past. If I thought anyone was uncomfortable with that, I wouldn’t do it. She joined in high-spirited banter, funny chats – none of this would in any way have offended her.’
Oh really? I suspect the woman ‘wasn’t offended’ in the same way the poor soul I could now see, clearly hiding behind a pillar, ‘wasn’t offended’. And other young men like him, all over the country.
One friend, an ambitious financial strategist at a large blue-chip company, told me he’d avoided the firm’s Christmas party because of the way some female colleagues behave towards him.
Already the recipient of relentless female office commentary about his gym-honed body, he told me he simply wasn’t prepared to endure the harassment masquerading as ‘fun’ that inevitably awaited him. It was so much easier, he said, to simply stay at home.
Perhaps the female groper – sexually confident, financially independent and emancipated by equality of opportunity – feels a sense of entitlement
So why should there be one rule for women and one for men? Last year, 23-year-old digital marketing co-ordinator Poppy Smart sparked a storm by reporting wolf-whistling builders in Worcester to the police.
It seems utterly unjust that women baulk at being wolf-whistled at, yet Coca-Cola built an entire advertising campaign on a beefy, shirtless window cleaner who titillates the office typing pool by drinking a can of Diet Coke outside their window. Perhaps the female groper – sexually confident, financially independent and emancipated by equality of opportunity – feels a sense of entitlement. She lets her hands wander and laces her patter with double entendres because she feels it is an unabashed right.
The female groper also believes, perhaps, that men can take it. Yet many can’t. Militant feminism may have succeeded in emasculating men on so many levels.
Yet it continues to turn its back on the thought of men also being the victim. Groups such as Everyday Sexism clamour loudly – and rightly – about harassment, but remain silent when it comes to male victims.
According to Danielle Ayres, an employment lawyer with Gorvins Solicitors, sexual harassment clearly applies to men and women, since it is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act.
Yet through the course of her work, Danielle points out that women are much more likely to raise complaints than men.
‘Perhaps it does happen more frequently to women. But I doubt the disparity in the number of complaints is purely due to men being the main perpetrators.
‘Nor do I think it’s because women are more sensitive or more easily offended either. ‘The women brave enough to complain feel they have a genuine grievance. Rather it’s more likely that more women complain because men are more reluctant to say anything.
‘They may feel they’ll lose face if they complain. Or that they won’t be taken seriously.’
Maybe, then, the female groper is able to flourish because of the cliched vicious circle. She does it because she can. And because she can, she does it.
It’s a knock-on effect that breeds an atmosphere of acceptance, all too familiar in the recent Yewtree investigations, where quite repulsive, predatory behaviour of celebrities such as Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris was seen as normal – and often copied. On this last point, I hold up my own, occasionally wandering hands, and admit how easy it is to fall into tactile behaviour or gentle sexual banter with men.
Take the time a few weeks ago when I bumped into a former colleague who had lost more than a stone since I’d last seen him. We’ve always had a gently humorous working relationship.
So I found myself commenting how he was ‘quite the hottie’ these days. I even asked him to give me a twirl (he demurred) before patting his arm and asking what had prompted him to venture into ‘centrefold territory’.
He took my remarks in good spirit. Perhaps he loved the attention, as many men may do. But what if he was, as Danielle Ayres suggests, putting on a front?
And there’s more. Last month, after completing a project with a group of colleagues, we began discussing a celebration dinner.
Steve, a good-looking man in his 30s, said he’d be unable to make the proposed date. ‘Oh no,’ cried one of the women, ‘what will we have for hors d’oeuvre?’
I cringed inside, but laughed just as loudly as everyone else.
Driving home, I replayed the scene. What if the ‘hors d’oeuvre’ comment had been made to me, by a group of men, as a young, ambitious reporter? What if it happens to my daughter, in future years, joining colleagues for a bonding, post-work glass of wine? I could feel the indignation rising up in me like a flush.
Conversely, I remember interviewing a fairly high-profile businessman who admitted that, at one firm where he’d worked, a female colleague regularly directed lewd remarks towards him and would often pinch his bottom in the corridor.
He told her to stop, but she didn’t. His reprieve came only when she left the company – with a glowing reference and unblemished character. Why didn’t he make an official complaint? He felt he couldn’t do so because he couldn’t bear to think how ‘making a fuss’ would go down at the partners’ meeting.
The female groper is not taken as seriously as the male one. So she continues apace, dispensing unwelcome caresses and inappropriate conversation because she is a woman, and because she can.
As for myself, after watching the unedifying spectacle of poor old Ryan, I have every intention of keeping my hands and my wit to myself in future.
I just wish my ‘sisters’ could do the same.