Only last week, Hope Solo, the goalkeeper of the US women’s soccer team, claimed Sepp Blatter groped her just before she went on stage at Fifa’s Ballon d’Or awards ceremony in January 2013.
And earlier this month, Sir Michael Fallon, the former UK defence minister, resigned after being accused by journalist Jane Merrick of lunging at her and attempting to kiss her on the lips in 2003.
At dinner, I was seated next to a highly accomplished, no-nonsense female lawyer who happens to be a good friend of mine. She expressed irritation at certain of these revelations by women, of men behaving badly. My friend is South African and has the frontierswoman ‘get-on-with-it’ attitude that perhaps is lacking elsewhere.
‘But you can’t write about it,’ she warned me. ‘Especially being a man.’
I understood exactly what she meant. For a man to express a contrarian view to a topic that has gained such attention, he risks placing himself on the other side, the wrong side, of public outrage. So I decided to write this from a freshly dug bunker at the bottom of the garden, with my cycling helmet strapped firmly to my head, and for added protection, a circular metal dustbin cover that looks remarkably like a battle scarred shield.
I think that when condensed to a headline or a 30 second news article, some of these reports of sexual harassment can appear somewhat trivial. I asked myself whether Sir Michael Fallon trying to land a clumsy, unwanted kiss on a woman is the same as Harvey Weinstein’s alleged rape of actress Paz de la Huerta in New York. Clearly there is a difference of scale between the two. But sexual harassment doesn’t fit into a neat algorithm with clearly defined classifications on either side of some arbitrary threshold.
When I was sixteen, I was plucked out of college in Ghana and thrust into an all boys English pubic school. Public schools in England as you may know, aren’t really public at all. They are secluded bastions of privilege and gilded opportunity. I remember my first week at the school, feeling terribly disoriented and homesick. I found myself one afternoon in the lunch line, wedged between a troupe of much younger boys. They were around eleven or twelve years old and were all trussed up as I was in identical blazers, white shirts, striped ties and dark trousers.
The line inched forward slowly then would stop for several minutes before starting up again. It was during one of these stationary periods that I felt someone behind me begin to palpate my arse. (It was the sort of school more likely to say ‘palpate' instead of ‘grope’.)
It started off with a surreptitious brush of the fingers, then advanced to a swift Blatter-like squeeze, before growing rapidly in confidence to a determined, mechanical massage. My astonishment gave way to humiliation and embarrassment and frozen with shock, I could not find it in me to turn around.
Given the trajectory followed by many boys from my old school, this English boy whose name let alone his face, I never knew, will likely today be in a position of power. - even if only by virtue of his upbringing and the passage of time. By doing nothing that September afternoon, I effectively said to him that what he did to me was alright. He might even have thought I liked it. If he has indeed gone on in later years to make unwanted advances to men, or women for that matter, I played a small unwilling part, in shaping and affirming his behaviour.
Do I feel as outraged as the men who have accused actor Kevin Spacey of sexual harassment? No. Should I be? I’m not sure. I don’t think so.
By the third course of a spectacular dinner, the conversation had moved on to South African men and specifically black men whose natural habitat is the polished wood and glass of the corporate boardroom. The women at the table, including my fiancée, were unanimous in their denouncement and held the firm view that the black man is much more predatory than the white.
They spoke of how black male executives hound younger women, demanding their phone numbers as if the need to pass on that information is prescribed in the company’s employee handbook. Show them your wedding ring and they’ll reply, ‘Oh, I bought my wife one of those.’ Or brush you defence aside with a careless, ’That’s just a piece of jewelry.’
Of course not all men, black or white, are like that. But I find the occasional over-simplification of the current debate only poisons relationships between men and women. When men are so terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, that they tiptoe around women in a state of acute political correctness, everybody loses. Take US vice president, Mike Pence. He reportedly will not meet with a woman alone for fear of being accused of impropriety. In this regard, he is little different from a Taliban official who deliberately curtails women’s possibilities for self expression and advancement.
When Boris ‘Boom Boom’ Becker was asked to explain his escapade in the broom closet at Nobu in London, he blamed it all on biology and an unfortunate hard wiring of the male species. That would suggest men are incapable of self restraint anymore than a billy goat, a dog or the bullfrog belching in the bushes next to me, could hold themselves back from pouncing on a passing female. If that were true, then the only thing preventing women from being dragged out of their beds and raped en masse in the street, is the body of societal norms that dissuades bad behaviour. Therefore in places or situations where such deterrents are either non-existent or are temporarily suspended, men will revert to type and lunge across the table with their tongues out and their cocks in tow.
But we aren’t goats or dogs or bull frogs. We’re an oddly put-together species, capable of unspeakable cruelty and acts of towering kindness. Surely we can have more interesting and compassionate conversations with each other than the barely literate, ’Give me your phone number’?
You never know where that might lead.