The appropriate face of inappropriate conduct
Before I get started on my own true story of sexual harassment, I should set the scene for readers outside the UK. Lord Rennard, a Liberal Democrat peer, has recently been accused of being bad at keeping his hands to himself, an accusation that he denies. It’s been quite tricky and embarrassing for the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, who has been doing some fumbling himself in his handling of the crisis.
The story has been the cue for women writers and political aides bravely to come forward to air their I-was-the-victim-of-sexual-harassment-in-Westminster stories. Writing in the Telegraph, Cathy Newman described the trauma of being chatted up in a bar by a newspaper editor, an experience she found “intimidating and unpleasant”. Then the Financial Times published a blog post from an unnamed woman claiming to have been propositioned by MPs of all parties and by half of Fleet Street too. “We must not accept this behaviour any longer,” she declared.
I feel this is the right time to break my own silence and tell my story of being sexually harassed at work. The reason that I’ve kept quiet about it all these years is not because, as is often claimed, it is painful for women to talk about such things. On the contrary, I’ve been longing for an opportunity to air it, and now – hooray – I have one.
The incident occurred when I was about 26 or 27, shortly after I joined the newspaper. It was an ordinary day in the office and a company I wrote about had announced its results and had invited me, along with a more senior colleague, to lunch to discuss them. He was a man of slightly below-average appearance whom I didn’t like terribly, but admired in a grudging sort of way. He was clever and his jokes were funny – if slightly nasty.
Lunch, as I recall, was a dullish affair; but in the cab on the way back to the office, as we inched eastwards through Russell Square, he turned to me. With no preliminaries, he suggested we got out of the cab and checked into the red-brick monstrosity of the Hotel Russell. I said no thank you: I really had to be getting back to work. And that was that. We returned to discussing the company’s results and nothing was ever said about it again, by either of us.
The story now strikes me as so unlikely I would accuse myself of having made it up were it not for the fact that I can remember that day perfectly. The weather was hot and sticky; I was wearing a black and white linen skirt I had made myself. I also remember precisely how I felt about being propositioned. Intimidated didn’t come into it. Instead, I was mildly embarrassed and vastly amused. Even now, when I hear his name – he went on to become rather well-known – I smile and think of the Hotel Russell.