Helen Martin: Here’s what the rules of sex were like in my day

A secretary in a mini-skirt catches the eye of bowler-hatted businessmen in the sexist 70s. Picture: Getty
A secretary in a mini-skirt catches the eye of bowler-hatted businessmen in the sexist 70s. Picture: Getty
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The Harvey Weinstein allegations and the subsequent sexual harassment scandal at Westminster show our values are very different to the 1970s, writes Helen Martin.

At school, bullying was never mentioned. No action was taken even when it was evident to the rest of the class including the teacher. Coping with it seemed to be a character-building part of growing up.

When I began work in the early 70s, the culture was equivalent to the Life on Mars TV series, although with a lot more sexism and harassment than portrayed in the programme.

Bosses, politicians, newspaper executives, radio DJs, senior police, pop bands etc were, with few exceptions, male and the more “star-like” they were in their sector, the more advantageous it was when it came to hitting on pretty girls.

Pop bands were followed by groupies who would literally queue up, their heads full of romantic nonsense, begging for a kiss or a grope at least.

Not all men behaved badly, but for those who did the fact that a young woman was naïve, drunk, afraid to say no, or didn’t understand where the flattery and flirtation was going, was simply a green light. Technically it was seen as consensual.

The man would have no fear of repercussions. Under such circumstances, girls would be seen as equally culpable and would probably keep any incident secret because of the shame they would have to endure for their gullibility and getting themselves into that situation in the first place.

Even when it came to outright rape by a stranger, judges back in the day would take into account the fact that a girl had been tantalisingly dressed in a micro-skirt, high heels and had been drinking, thus laying part of the blame on her.

A man placing his hand on a female’s knee? That wasn’t considered wrong in any way and certainly didn’t qualify as harassment.

That was ’70s reality. Fortunately, the world has changed in many ways, our attitude to predatory men is quite rightly condemnatory. And even though we haven’t quite reached total sexual equality and respect, the goal is very much a part of modern culture.

The Weinstein revelations, followed by the allegations surrounding Westminster and Holyrood, even managed to put the issue of sexual harassment above Brexit on the news agenda.

But this is complicated. How are we going to define new rules for men and women’s interaction?

As equality has progressed women have developed more power and confidence to deal with sleaze-balls themselves.

We now need firmer definitions of “sexual harassment”. Even a good, loving, long-lasting relationship begins at some point with determined flirtation, that first passionate kiss and proposition, whether that’s about a date or something more. And relationships often start in the workplace.

Consent is crucial. If a woman says “yes”, where’s the crime? If a man in power is secretly promising promotion in exchange for sex, that’s certainly disgusting and against HR policy. But how do we legally define that as “harassment” – if the woman willingly consents and gets her enhanced role?

Does a hand on the knee really constitute harassment? Can’t today’s woman just deal with that by slapping the hand away and telling him to “‘something’ off”?

Or do I suggest that simply because I’ve lived through grimmer times? Moving forward from this furore will be complex, extremely challenging and sociologically fascinating.