‘I do like kissing games’

After Harvey Weinstein there have been suggestions that we’ve reached a ‘tipping point’, that the genie can’t be put back into the bottle and that our society will clean itself up with respect to sexual harassment. I wish. In the meantime, the low level denigration of women continues, from wolf whistles in the street to offensive casual remarks, as illustrated by the Virgin tweet enquiring if someone who had objected to being called ‘honey’ by one person, would prefer ‘love’ or ‘pet’ instead. Some people simply don’t get it. The recipient of this tweet, Emily Cole, wrote a very well-argued piece in the Guardian about what this episode demonstrates about ‘toxic masculinity’ and how it impacts on everyone, whatever their gender. I would like to think Virgin trains will be running some training sessions for staff, both those on trains and those who are in charge of their social media, so that similar embarrassing and offensive remarks do not recur.

What can the community do? To begin with it behoves all of us not to tolerate disdain and belittling behaviour, whether addressed to you or directed at someone else in your hearing or sight. Remind people that the world has changed and what might have been regarded as OK in your parents’ or grandparents’ generation is simply not OK anymore, be it in words or actions. In order to achieve this, all of us in a strong enough/senior enough position to do something need to be mentally prepared to act and to follow up after the event where required. I am not particularly optimistic that collectively society will change, but it certainly won’t if pressure is not put upon it. I, like many another woman I’m sure, has tended just to grin and bear the tediously common low level misogyny I’ve faced, from teenage years on: I used to think there was something odd about my face which meant people shouted ‘cheer up love, it may never happen’ at me repeatedly. Being wolf-whistled at on the way to school was just a fact of life (and it happened despite our not particularly fetching dark green school uniform and knee high socks; even, for a couple of years, being required to wear a beret).

However, from now on, I will be less tolerant of taxi-drivers calling me darling in a sneering kind of way, as illustrated by my recent explosion – and complaint to the firm – under these very circumstances. I will speak up about people’s inappropriate behaviour when directed at me. If people are prepared to do this to me, they almost certainly will also have been doing it to much more vulnerable, less senior people. So, if I’ve been touched inappropriately I will let people know, politely but in no uncertain terms when they have crossed a line that is likely to cause some people offence. Since such behaviour may also land them in hot water, you could be saying I’m doing them a favour! Not so long ago I was even kissed by a very senior, even elderly, someone who told me ‘I do like kissing games’, I quote, before they acted. This was in the not so distant past, but I did not complain let alone stamp on their foot. I regret that.

During my career the senior male who patted me on the arm has been all too common. In most cases it was a case of old-fashioned patronage that surely was not meant to cause offence. Probably, these older generation folk thought they were just being friendly and supportive, although plenty of people – for instance, my one-time mentor Sir Sam Edwards – could be both without ever getting close to arm, shoulder or any other part of my anatomy. Nevertheless 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago, I thought little of it other than ‘here we go again, I wish he’d desist’. But, this particular worm has turned; I’m not going to shut up any longer.

Before Christmas I was at a dinner when my host and neighbour at the dinner table repeatedly patted me patronisingly on the arm. It happened to be in the presence of the University’s new Vice Chancellor and it did not feel the moment to make a fuss or slap the guy, however irritating he was. Instead, I decided to mention his behaviour in my note of thanks, being very conscious the guy in question would be likely to interact with many students from all round the world; some of them might justifiably be not at all happy about such unwanted and unwarranted light touching, and/or might well feel they were being inappropriately condescended to.

I wanted to keep this low key and, rereading what I wrote, I still think my email was to the point and hardly abrasive:

In today’s rather febrile atmosphere, and with changing attitudes, you might find that some people – from different cultures, gender and degrees of seniority – might find your friendly pats on the arm unacceptable. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but younger folk may feel differently. Hope you take that in the spirit intended!

I got no reply, but subsequently saw the email appeared still to be sitting in my drafts. Feeling embarrassed that the thanks which had started off the email was going to turn up awfully late, I decided nevertheless to send the email. To which the curt reply came

I got your message the first time. Thank you

That was it. An inadequate response if ever there was one. I have to hope that, despite the unforthcoming tone, my message had got through. If it happens again, with him or anyone else, I think it is incumbent on me to do the same again.

I am glad to say the men with whom I work on a daily basis are not of this inclination. The men with whom I’d choose to go out for a drink do not casually dismiss women as post-menopausal or hot totty or a bit of all right. Their conversations demonstrate their acute sensitivity to unconscious bias and I’m sure they would be the first to highlight a letter of reference as being inappropriate when describing a woman as feisty or that they’d only got as far as they had because there were so few women in the field. But it is impossible not to know that there are plenty of men in labs and offices around the university who simply don’t realise that they are being inappropriate, insensitive or worse.

So, although we all know new year’s resolutions are made only to be broken, perhaps this year I really will be motivated to stick with mine: not to let such behaviour pass by without some comment, be it at the time or privately later. If more of us (senior) folk not only felt empowered to act this out but actually did so, perhaps academics and taxi-drivers alike might shower fewer unwanted pats, darlings and worse on women. One can only hope.

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6 Responses to ‘I do like kissing games’

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Athene, this is extremely humane and reasonable. Often when I read posts along these lines, I think about my father-in-law, a very old-fashioned but lovely man, whose behaviour towards women is 100% well-intentioned, wholly respectful, yet would be perceived as unwelcome or even unacceptable by most younger women today. It’s right to explain to such men when their behaviour is unwelcome; but I hate to think of them being portrayed as Weinstein-like monsters because (for example) they address someone as “darling”.

    For avoidance of doubt: I wholly agree that such behaviour must change; I just don’t want to destroy any careers in changing it.

  2. Robert says:

    The comment from ‘Anonymous’ has merit, and I’m glad to see it. One might extend the discussion to those who hold doors open, touch the upper arm etc. for/of people irrespective of gender; it is perhaps, for them, a sign of respect, civility or sympathy/empathy towards their fellow human beings.
    However, I write in response to this challenge on twitter: “Thanks all who’ve expressed support for my NY resolution. But I like proposed idea of hearing from men who’ve spoken out in same way against low level misogyny. Comments please from any such”
    Yes, I have challenged such behaviour – and done so for many years, and I hope I shall continue to do so. My earliest memory of doing this openly was as a delegate to a conference for year 11/12 school students. There was a thread of debate which had as an unspoken assumption the model of childcare being the sole preserve of women, with consequential effects on the primacy of men’s careers. Despite my nerves I raised my arm to signal I wished to speak: I stood in my place in the audience, roving microphone in hand, to highlight the false assumption. It didn’t go down well with the (all-male) panel …

  3. Monique says:

    I have to agree with Robert that not all arm-patting is patronising. Since I got quite succesful and visible as a scientist (winning a major prestiguous grant, etc.), upper arm patting has started to occur. To me it signals a sign of respect, a sign of belonging to the same academic family. I do think many people using this gesture mean it that way. I’m frankly quite happy with it. I do not think we need to go overboard policing all kinds of small gestures.
    And when people do something to you that you don’t like, say it. Always. It doesn’t have to make things heavy. Athena, had you said something during dinner to your neighbour, it might have gone down easier. Like when he did it. “Hey, can you stop doing that, I don’t like it,” and then continue conversation as before (on the topic you were already talking for example), thus not even expecting a reply from your neighbour, could work very well. Addressing such things afterwards – especially by email, with no body language to go along to show that you are really not disproving of the person, just of the behaviour, probably overcomplicates things.
    When do we women have started to make things so complex, that we can’t just simply say when we don’t like something and just simply expect not to be treated that way? I think we as women should expect more of ourselves.

    • I think most women can distinguish being patronised from being treated as if belonging to the same academic family. I’m sure I believe I can. I also totally accept that for an older generation arm patting had a different flavour. Either way, I think it is safer in general for men simply not to attempt this any more since it can be misinterpreted. People may regret the passing of an older ‘golden age’ when such things didn’t matter, but I am concerned about how students may feel they are being treated. As such it behoves me to speak up when I see such behaviour, whatever the intention behind it.
      Furthermore, I think challenging a dinner host at his own table is not likely to go down too well. Had occasion arisen to do it privately during the evening I agree that would have been preferable. But on this evening it did not.

      • Monique says:

        Thank you for your reply. I think it goes to the core of the larger issue I’m trying to address. To what extent do intentions matter and the feelings of people involved. We usually think we have good clue about someone’s intentions (I do too), yet the only person knowing for sure is the person with the intention. With regard to the feelings of others, when you are responsible for someone else’s feelings, you basically are responsible for something you have no authority over (only the person with the feelings can actually control them, of course one’s feelings are influenced by others). So how can you be responsible? And it is very subjective too. And of course – obviously – there is behaviour that is unacceptable. But where to draw the line? At how it makes someone feel, or do we follow (or construct) general guidelines of what harassment is? And should we be collectively policing the behaviour of others with regard to how it may make other people (not ourselves) feel? I do find it troubling that something like armpatting – meant patronisingly – or not, is now something we seem to want to collectively police/eradicate on other peoples behalf.
        What I observe increasingly is that people want to stop people from voicing different opinions, (and behaviours if they are a sign of an opposing opinion), based on the claim of how it makes people feel. That is not a hallmark of a free society. Moreover the “accepted” opinions unequivocally put people in catogeries : “men”, “women”, “LGBTQ”, “coloured people”, wiht one group (white, heterosexual men) being the opproser of the other groups. (and if fact a whole hierarchy evolving of which group is oppressing which), being the victim. In fact, the 20th century is full of mass murder and genodice that has started with a group feeling the victim of another group (regardless of whether this was a just assessment or not; examples are under any communist regime, nazism, the last Balkan war, …). And maybe you think that I am exaggerating, talking about genocide. Yet, the people in ex-Yugoslavia didn’t see the last Balkan war and associated genocide coming. And well, all of this happened in the last century, and much of it in the Western world. I believe in a free society, with individual rights and also responsability. Responsability for your own feelings. Discrimination, assault, etc as defined rather objectively in the law should be battled. But human interaction, which includes affection, and flirtation (maybe best not at the workfloor) should not be regulated. Adults should be able to navigate these interactions for themselves, and speak up if they don’t like something. And we should raise our children accordingly. Or how else will they become resilient? You can’t stump out human nature. There will always come someone along trying to take advantage of them (even within the confines if tightly regulated behaviour, people will find a way).
        There is a part of me that no wants to apologise for my rant to you. Though I’m not sure I should. I really am becoming increasingly worried about where our society is going and where our educational system is going. I do hope my fears do not become truth. I too, up until a year ago, thought very similarly like you, and very many others, and most of my friends, coming from a very emphathic point of view. But then my eye shields came off, and I realised how ideological, and irrealistic and potentially dangerous it all is. I am trying to practice to get my arguments more well put, and I hope I will be able to make some other people think critically about this, and not to just dismiss is as a longing for an old age (and mind you I’m only 35).

        • I don’t take that as a rant. Given by the responses I have received over twitter I suspect yours may be a minority position. I suspect I am probably moving in the other direction from you. Not about ‘snowflakes’ but about the fact that, if someone makes me uncomfortable and I am at their level, how much worse for someone 30+ years younger. Hence my concern about students. Arm patting – as I said in my email to the bloke in question – doesn’t much bother me. But if you are a student and you feel there is a power inequality it may be impossible for you to speak up. I do think such things are simply better eradicated in the workplace (and a 30 year age gap is probably not ideal for flirtation either). See my previous post about harassment for why I feel this matters when it is people in authority whose behaviour is under question.