His name was Mike. He was one of three senior directors in the marketing department where I worked. He was middle-aged and married with children. I was about 25. On my second day there, he said we’d have to go out to lunch. This was back in the early 2000s, where lunches on expenses still happened, although they weren’t everyday occurrences. Mike was well known for being fast and loose with his corporate credit card – it went with his job of schmoozing clients.
I had been instructed to get to know the team; understanding I was a natural introvert, my manager had tasked me with speaking to all of the other managers and finding out what their roles were and how everything fitted together. I assumed Mike was being proactive in helping me out with this. And who doesn’t like a free lunch? (There is no such thing.)
A few days later, Mike asked me if I was free for lunch that day. I was. We went to a restaurant around the corner. I don’t remember much else about the establishment. We ordered our lunch.
“So,” Mike said, “I understand you do comedy, is that right?”
“Yes,” I said. I’d been dipping my toes in stand-up for a couple of years. I was beginning to get a bit of traction, but it was still mostly a hobby.
“Well, let me tell you this anecdote – and you can use it on stage if you want.” I inwardly rolled my eyes. There is nothing worse than people coming up and telling you a joke, which they haven’t written themselves, and then telling you that you can use it on stage. I put on my best polite face.
But what Mike told me wasn’t a joke, or even an anecdote. It was a long, rambling story about a woman he had met at a conference, who he had slept with, and – so he told me – who had then taken a day off work to masturbate whilst thinking about him. It wasn’t funny. I don’t think he had intended it to be funny. I think he just enjoyed telling it to me, to see if he could shock me, maybe. Perhaps he was gauging my reaction to see if he thought he could try something with me.
I’m not easily shocked, or, rather, my poker face is good. A benefit of being an introvert means I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve and it’s fairly hard to guess what I’m thinking most of the time.
A few weeks later, at team drinks, I mentioned to some of my female colleagues and my manager what had happened, though I no longer remember if I divulged the details of our conversation. “Oh yes, we should have warned you about him,” they pretty much unanimously said. “He likes to take all the new girls out for a drink or two – watch him!”
I can’t with hand on heart say that this was sexual harassment, and it certainly wasn’t sexual assault, but the fact that this happened regularly enough for it to be a standing joke is worrying by itself. It was on company time and company money. Like many of the #metoo tags trending on Facebook and Twitter at the moment, this was about power, pure and simple. He was a senior manager, I was low down the food chain. He invited me for lunch and there was no real way for me to decline. Once he started talking about sex, what could I really do that wouldn’t shoot myself in the foot career wise? And did it really matter? I was no prude, and he hadn’t hurt me. But what about the next person?
His name was Danny. He was a comedian who ran one of the best open-mic nights in London. He was also an alcoholic, but when he was sober, he was a decent enough guy.
At the end of one gig, when I was just starting out as a stand-up, he asked me if I’d like to go for coffee sometime. I didn’t fancy him, but I regularly met friends for coffee and didn’t want to assume it was a date, so I didn’t say no. He also booked the gig, and I needed to maintain a cordial relationship with him. I said vaguely yes, let’s have a coffee. I would not have said yes to a date. I did not give him my number.
As the booker for the gig, he already had my number and he got in touch the next day to arrange a coffee. Unwilling to be unpleasant, as I had sort of said yes, we arranged a time for a coffee one early evening. When I arrived he told me he’d booked tickets for the cinema for us, but the show didn’t start until 8. This surprised me, as it certainly wasn’t coffee, but he’d already done it and my younger self felt it would have been rude to decline. He suggested we grabbed some food in the meantime. I lied and told him I had already eaten. He took me to a small restaurant in Chinatown and ate three courses by himself and picked his teeth with a toothpick for a good ten minutes at the end of the meal.
I went to the cinema with him. He’d already paid for the tickets after all. I said goodbye at the end, maintaining my distance so he didn’t try to kiss me, and declined his offer of walking me back to the tube station.
That weekend I was gigging again at his open-mic night. He was horrendously drunk. At one point he leaned towards me and put his hand on my shoulder, whilst talking to me. I don’t like being touched at the best of times (which is actually irrelevant), and I removed his hand from my shoulder. He lost his temper and absolutely went off at me, shouting and swearing that I thought I was too good for him, he was only touching my fucking shoulder, why the fuck would I take his hand off my shoulder, I was so stuck up, he had a right to put his hands where he wanted, I was a bitch. He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. I don’t remember a single of the other comedians – all male – intervening.
The conversations we have about how we can prevent sexual harassment are mostly meaningless. Telling women to watch how they dress, to watch how much they drink, to use products that can tell them whether their drink has been spiked, to instruct them not to walk alone at night, to only get taxis with friends is missing the fucking point. In scenario A, I would have been wearing likely a trouser suit. I was never stunningly beautiful and most people would describe me as frosty rather than flirty. In scenario B, I would have been wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I was surrounded by other people and was stone-cold sober.
These situations do not happen because of what the women do. They happen, I think, because of a sense of entitlement by some men to women’s attention, company, bodies. Suggesting methods of prevention to women is harmful as it suggests they are complicit in this unwanted behaviour.
I tell these stories because I am willing to share them. For those of us with stories we are still unwilling to share, #metoo is the start for highlighting the scope of the problem. It is not a solution, but an acknowledgement of how widespread these interactions are. I hope things will be different for my daughters. But I doubt it.