Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Why we must not return to Victorian idea of helpless womanhood

Beyond evil: Rolf Harris has been jailed for indecently assaulting young girls

In the wake of the Rolf Harris conviction, I was invited to discuss the general issue of sexual "inappropriateness" and "unwarranted sexual contact", as the current phrases have it, on the BBC Radio Ulster programme Talkback.

"Look," I said to the producer, "the most important distinction that should be made in this arena is that there is a major, crucial difference between the sexual molestation of children, or under-age young people, and sexual relations between adults." In the reporting of, and reaction to, the Rolf Harris case, that difference was not always sufficiently underlined.

To molest a child of seven is an odious crime, for which there is no defence. However, to "grope" an adult woman – in law, that means a person over 18 – is quite a different matter.

Cope with it, I'd say. Give the groper a good kick in the shins – or in a more sensitive place of the anatomy, if need be.

However, the discussion went on to focus on any uninvited sexual attentions, from which "women must be afforded protection", in the words of a lawyer contributing to the discourse, Matt Higgins, of the Belfast law firm Higgins Hollywood Deazley.

This sentiment is no doubt decent, well-meaning and even chivalrous, but I can't help feeling that we are in danger of returning to a Victorian attitude to women, and sexuality, as exemplified by the weak and soppy view of females taken by Charles Dickens.

The Victorian woman is, primarily, a frail "victim". She's either being tied to a railway line by the dastardly villain, chaperoned everywhere by some sour-faced companion so that she is suitably "protected" – or locked up in an institution (or in the attic, like Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre) to control her feeble and deficient character. This poor swooning maiden is a delicate creature. She will be upset if someone says something "inappropriate" to her. She will be traumatised for life if a man puts his hand on her leg, a little like the Liberal Democrat former county councillor in England, Susan Gaszcak.

Ms Gaszcak and her whole family have resigned from their political party because Lib Dem bigwig Lord Rennard "inappropriately touched and propositioned her" (and, it seems, three other women), and Nick Clegg isn't prepared to make it a hanging offence.

Rennard, owlish and overweight (but an influential back-room politico), has admitted that he "inadvertently ... may have encroached upon personal space" in his approaches to these ladies, whom he invited to his private quarters. Tsk, tsk.

"Did you ever experience inappropriate sexual advances as a young woman?" I was asked, in preparation for the broadcast. "You bet!" I replied. "And moreover," I added, "I made inappropriate advances too! It's called flirtation. It's called 'trying it on'. It's the small change of everyday life."

If "inappropriate sexual advances" are to be placed in the category of a crime, 90% of the human race would surely be in a court of law. Ridiculous.

There used to be a sensible tradition in Common Law known as "lex minimus" – that is "the law does not concern itself with private trifles". We will soon get to a stage where the law will concern itself with all private issues. There was an attempt at Westminster earlier this year to introduce a "Cinderella law" – that is making it illegal to be "emotionally cruel" to anyone in family life. How on earth could such a law be policed?

There was a nun at my convent school many moons ago who warned us against ever being alone with a man, and never, ever to enter a private place with a man alone. For, at the stroke of midnight, a man may turn into a ravening wolf who will ravish any helpless damsel!

It sometimes seems that we are returning to this Victorian template of the predatory male – rapists, abusers and violators of every kind – while women are always the trembling little victims.

"Women must be afforded protection," is, as I said, a well-meant intention, but to consign the entire female sex to this category is to disempower women of intelligence, force of character, will or fortitude. Or indeed, female predatory sexuality – which also exists.

Of course, some women are, genuinely, victims: vulnerable women have been exploited by powerful men and been physically attacked by them, too. Where there is a crime, of course the law must be involved to defend the innocent victim.

But the interchange between men and women cannot always be patrolled by law. The history of the novel, not to mention the opera, is the history of seduction.

"No Means No" is a legal construct – applicable if you are drawing up a contract to rent a flat or buy a car. But in human relationships, "No" can mean "woo me", "win me", "persuade me", or a hundred other nuances so entertainingly present in the musical 'Kiss Me, Kate'.

There's a compelling Somerset Maugham short story called Sanatorium – set in a TB clinic in the 1930s. A pretty young woman, Ivy, is being pursued by an old rake, and her response is admirable.

"She accepted (men's) attentions with self-possession and humour, but she had at her disposal plenty of firmness when they showed an inclination to go too far.

"She had a force of character unexpected in anyone who looked so flower-like and when it came to a showdown knew how to express her meaning in plain, cool and decisive words."

Ivy didn't need "protection" by lawyers. She was fully in command.

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