Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Women and sexual abuse cannot be oversimplified

Novel view: Jilly Cooper
Novel view: Jilly Cooper

One of my oldest friends, Marjorie Wallace, made a most controversial statement recently, which caused some stir. Marjorie said that, when she was a young "dolly bird", working as an apprentice at the BBC, she didn't have the slightest objection to being asked to show her shapely legs to the hiring executive.

When she was interviewed for a job on an evening TV news programme, the producer, Derrick Amoore, asked to see her legs. This was part of the interview.

"I wasn't offended at all," she recalled. "That was how it was. I knew I was supposed to be a dolly bird sitting next to the main presenter and was quite relieved I wasn't asked any more difficult questions."

All this was told in a light-hearted way, though in the context of the ongoing investigations into the Jimmy Savile scandals, it is dangerous territory. But, as Marjorie said, "There was a lighter side to men's behaviour, which we didn't take too seriously."

There is, I think, a bit of a generation gap in respect of the boundaries of sexual conduct. Older people, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, are often more relaxed about what these boundaries are, while younger people sometimes seem sterner and more exacting.

The novelist Jilly Cooper, for example, has looked back with nostalgia at the days when men "pounced" on a gal. "Pounces are all right, aren't they?" she laughed.

As Jilly might recall, there was a category of male who was informally labelled NSIT – Not Safe In Taxis – and, if a lass did not wish to be pounced upon, she made sure not to share a taxi, alone, with an NSIT.

These discussions are arising from the questioning by the London constabulary of men of a certain age about their conduct in the past – Jimmy Tarbuck, Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, Dave Lee Travis – and whether they pounced upon, or made a pass at (choose your language option) young teenagers.

Such attitudes are unacceptable to a younger generation, who have a more clearly defined idea of where boundaries lie.

Nick Ross, the TV crime expert, also caused a wave of disapproval when he sought to nuance different degrees of rape. "Rape", he wrote, "isn't always rape".

Many women will not come forward to make rape charges against a man with whom they have had unwilling sexual relations, because, he said; they realise that what happened was just a stupid mistake.

Ross was denounced by every women's group: what he had said was "heresy", "sickening" and "misogynistic prejudice". Nick Ross is 65 and those calling for his metaphorical beheading were all of a younger generation.

Generational categories are never exact. There are probably plenty of people in their sixties and seventies who don't take a relaxed attitude to pouncing.

I am still receiving angry e-mails from women who feel I have belittled their sufferings by saying on the radio that there were different levels of abuse and that sexual abuse should not be a catch-all description.

Any assault on a child, or a young adolescent, is a serious crime, but not all women, at all periods of history, have thought it objectionable to be admired for their bodies.

Many women down the ages have used an attractive anatomy as a means to power, to careers, to social advancement, to a wealthy marriage.

If a better opportunity was available to you because you had great legs, why not admit it? Some older women who admit being relaxed about this are only being honest.

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