Thursday, 28 February 2013

Men's groping hands

The kind of touching that some men indulge in when chatting to women is presently very much in the news, and I suppose I'd better throw in some remarks of my own. After all, I was able to observe these situations almost daily for over thirty years in my Revenue job, and so I know something about them.

I won't discuss the accusations being made against the particular political figure in the news, but will concentrate instead on the subject of Men's Wandering Hands in general.

I will say at once that although social attitudes have moved on a bit, so that it's no longer routine for a man to unthinkingly paw a woman he is sitting next to, I don't believe for one moment that human nature has changed, nor that the long-ingrained licence to touch, that many men have grown up with, has withered away to nothing.

Why do men touch women who are not their wives nor their acknowledged girlfriends? In completely private scenarios, just between the two of them, and where both are willing to let it happen, then it's a matter that hardly requires discussion. It's the public or semi-public situation, where a woman does not expect any touching, that I'd like to explore. Being a passenger in a car, and having one's knee fondled, can also be a molestation in public where there are other passengers. God knows why men will risk a protest in such a situation: they must feel very sure of themselves and their ascendency over all the occupants of the car. In my own view, that feeling of power, of being untouchable, is the main reason why men will try it on. So a man in a position of authority is the one most likely to play Let Yellow Pages Do The Walking up one's thighs.

In the office situation, there are many dangerous places for a woman to be. Classically, the closed windowless room of a more senior member of staff is the spider's parlour, and she the hapless fly. For instance, it may be necessary to examine papers sitting side by side, or with the woman standing next to the seated man. It's his room; nobody will barge in without knocking; he is immune from sudden interruption; and if he wishes he can brush against her arms or legs, and possibly go further. (Open-plan offices, with low partitions between desks, have done so much to prevent this kind of thing)

Then there is the storeroom, or the staff kitchen/coffee room/relaxation room/first-aid room, any of which may provide opportunities to entrap a woman and bar her easy escape.

Liquid lunches in bars provide other opportunities for a man determined to get intimate with a woman. Crowded bars make it easier to sit very close; the background din makes it natural to behave boisterously, and gesticulate a lot, and generally accustom the woman to all kinds of extravagant hand movements; the atmosphere encourages excessive bonhomie and over-familiar conversation; and the drink blunts perceptions and loosens inhibitions, so that after a couple of drinks, perhaps two more than she would really have had, the woman's instinct to be careful may be fatally compromised.

A man of experience will be perfectly well aware of all this. A woman of experience will also know perfectly well what to watch out for. But the conventions that govern office life - the imperative to fit in, to be a sport, to seem grown-up and adult and worldly-wise, to enjoy the goodwill and warmth so clearly offered, all conspire to place her at a disadvantage in a game that men are determined to win. Add to this an unwillingness to seem a prude, or to give offence to important people such as the boss, and the internal voice that says 'get away now, at once' may find itself crying out unheard.

Even a woman who has heard that voice loud and clear may face difficulties when she discovers that the man has manoeuvred her into a position where she can't just get up and leave. It is not unknown for the chairs and stools around a table to be so deftly arranged that the woman is corralled into a corner. Or for a man to simply sit on her coat, so that she can't get up. It takes some doing for the seating to be so packed that knees get intertwined, but in a sardine-tin situation, the woman may find it impossible to go to the toilet without making so many people get up to let her pass that the men present may playfully demand she pays a forfeit, such as a kiss. The scope for further forfeits is obvious.

I have observed all of this. It was standard in the 1970s and 1980s. After that, such behaviour became associated with boozy old lechers nearing the end of their careers; and younger men, especially once the first Recession of the 1990s began to bite, kept tenure of employment very much in mind and shied away from doing anything that might earn them a reprimand, or worse, an excuse to sack them. 'Last in, first out' was the rule, and it concentrated the mind. In any case the concept of 'political correctness' had taken hold. I'm too cynical to believe that a new and enlightened fairness to women prevailed, but certainly it seemed that men in general were treating women with much more respect. By 2000, in the Revenue at least, the normal standard of behaviour was a world away from what it had been twenty or more years before. Life On Mars no longer.

But one can never be complacent. All things tend to go in cycles, and I think there are signs that men are getting back the dominant self-confidence they lost for a while. I see it in the assertions made by men influential in the media and in sport and in politics. Women have barely won a first-class status, and then only by running hard and fast and in every way doing more than men need to. If we are not careful, men will feel it it their right to put an arm around any strange woman's waist, without her leave, and treat her as a swooning toy: just like they used to.

A man called 'Digger' Brown did that to my Mum in a golf club bar around 1976. She froze, and told him to take his hand away. He complied, but it was all very awkward for a while. Dad (then a member of that golf club) tried to explain that Digger was a harmless fellow, very popular, very much liked and respected by all, a great character. He did that to all the women he saw. It was just his way, and it meant nothing. Mum was not deceived. Nor was I.


  1. I am very much surprised that your dad wasn't more protective to your mum. When I first started frequenting my local pub ten years ago there was a guy who knocked about with a few others and who used always to make lewd comments to me, suggestive remarks and outright questions about how he and I could have sex. He would fondle himself suggestively each time he walked past. He would also draw very close and begin to touch me. Naturally I pushed him away telling him to keep his hands to himself, which he did, for a few moments and be at it again. I had to be quick with my own hands to stop him. It appeared to me that he enjoyed it the more I resisted. I got friendly with his son before I knew he was his son and have helped him out on a few occasions with electrical work. His son isn't like him but he does come over to speak with me whenever he sees me in the pub. His son and his son's friend, who is also very friendly toward me both worked at my house a couple of years ago when I was having a lot of renovation work done. I seldom see his dad now but I have met him when he was been with his wife. On those occasions you would think him an angel. I wonder why?

    Shirley Anne x

  2. It was a fairly genteel golf club, and this person put his arm around Mum in a good-natured and unlewd fashion. But it was nevertheless an over-familiar gesture that a lot of other women might have objected to. But not all women by any means. Some do like that kind of bonhomie.

    Dad thought it was harmless, and perhaps it was, but the man was clearly a womaniser. I took Mum's side on the matter.


  3. Times were different and men literally had the upper hand. I have been out to eat with girl friends tonight and they have little sympathy with women who did not make a stance against any treatment they found offensive...

    I would occasionally help a friend on jobs as assistant photographer. Loved the work butI cringed every time he decided to be over familiar with the women we encountered, many seemed to enjoy the attention but others clearly were uncomfortable. Having words with him never seemed to stop it for long!

  4. My children were taught at school that no one should touch them if they did not want it. I hope that my daughter continues to remember that (I'll have to ask her about that next time she visits)

    my advice to the girls I was responansable for when I worked in a bank was step back and make sure the heel (hopefully high and pointy)of their shoe pressed into the middle of the offender's foot. I even went as far as telling one man off when one of the girls came to me in tears.

    At least he left her alone....


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