London ~~ Thursday August 2, 2007
A bum rap
The man who pinched the Channel 4 reporter's bottom reveals the creepy double standards of our society's 'respect' for women.
By Beatrix Campbell
Maybe the next time the bum-pincher wants to make light of tragedy - if that's what he likes doing - then he could get himself on television grabbing the buns of a traffic cop policing a flooded motorway, or appear at the funeral of soldiers killed in Iraq wearing Bugs Bunny ears and waving at his mother.
Then we'd all get it: that he's a bloke who likes making an idiot of himself. But he won't, of course, because what he might say he was doing, when he pinched the bum of Channel 4 reporter Sue Turton, he was trying to make an idiot of her, not of himself.
And if he says: "I was just ..." then you know he's lying. Because he wasn't just doing anything. He'd had to think about it, imagine it, decide to do it and then go to the lengths of putting put himself in her picture. We think he's a dumb schmuck if he doesn't know what was wrong with pinching the bum of a woman while she was doing her job; which is like saying he doesn't know anything. But no one doesn't know.
What he did was put himself into an argument with women; and what he thinks, at some level, is that this is an argument worth having. The argument is always specious because it is simultaneously that the harassment of women is nothing, and yet it is too important to renounce. We go on and on having stupid debates about appropriate behaviour because there are still men and women who want to defend inane acts of dominion.
Their defence of low, petty, sneaky insults depends on the mute decorum of the objects of their idiocy. We still underestimate the allure of the vow of silence: who would want to reveal their own indignity or embarrassment? But, of course, the effect is to immunise the man from any indignity, and to silence all those men who don't sanction sexist bum-pinching.
The reporter Sue Turton has done us all a favour by exposing the offence as an insult to both herself and to the flood victims whose experiences she was broadcasting. By taking it seriously, the police have also made an important gesture: here is the most masculinised public service taking responsibility away from a woman for interpreting the action of a man.
Whether their investigation is worth it or not is a debate worth having precisely because it is risky and unresolved: we all have to work out what we feel. Some may prefer to malign the police for wasting police time because that conceals what the man did, why he thought he could, and why the woman's feelings matter. But then these debates always arise from idiosyncracy, ambiguity and uncertainty: we all have to work out what we feel.
It wasn't until someone knocked on my door one day to do a household crime survey that I asked myself whether I'd been sexually harassed in the previous year. No word fell from my lips without thinking. And then I thought. I was wrong: I'd re-interpreted harassment as cheek. The context was professional. The perpetrators were political contacts. Our relationship was that misty domain of the private and the public, the amiable confidentiality of journalist and politician.
I had been compromised personally and politically - by taking liberties they may have harboured fantasies about the straight man seducing the gay woman; but whatever they imagined, the action was uninvited and unwelcome and unrequited. They did it because they could, because they were practised - undoubtedly, they'd done it before - and because they'd learned that their reputations would be saved by a woman's personal and professional pride.
Bum-pinchers of the world depend on the social effort of denial, above all the denial of empathy. This is a society that doesn't take the side of women, and so these petty, sneaky, sexist insults endure.
If there is confusion among men about what is, or is not, appropriate, then they are not helped by a political culture that sanctions moralising when it comes to women's behaviour - especially when it comes to sex, marriage, mothering and manners - but exempts respect for women from its respect agenda.