Can Christian women counter a boorish office culture of lasciviousness and harassment?

Sandi Toksvig says she was groped on air 30 years ago (PA)

Following the publicity about the late Jimmy Savile, more and more women have been coming forward to talk publicly about sexual harassment in general and their mistreatment at the hands of their male colleagues at work. Yesterday on Woman’s Hour a woman called Laura Bates was testifying to the office culture in the decades before the law stepped in to protect women in the office: harassment, lascivious innuendo and inappropriate touching were commonplace, as well as outright assault and even occasionally rape. Her overriding theme was that such behaviour on the part of men was accepted with resignation. There was nothing you could do. You had to grin and bear it. If you complained you might face the sack.

Listening to all this made me ponder the whole question of the feminist struggle for equality with men in every area, such as pay, work, sexual freedom and so on. Recently I blogged about the late Helen Gurley Brown, long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, who invented the “Cosmo” girl: tough, career-minded, using and abusing men and in revolt against babies and the kitchen sink. Her message, along with the wider scenario of the so-called “Swinging Sixties”, the pop culture, the fashion for mini-skirts and the freedom from fear of pregnancy heralded by the newly invented Pill, did not do women any favours in the long run – and they gave ambivalent signals to men. I do not condone any kind of sexual harassment – but, to paraphrase that great phrase-maker, Kipling, “The female of the species is more complex than the male”: where women in the office might see fun and flirtation and enjoy the sense of their sexual power, for men the signals women were giving out could be confusing. Their own subliminal thought was, “If she has lowered the barriers on social and moral decorum so far in her dress and behaviour, what’s wrong with me lowering them a little further?”

Hugo Rifkind in the Times yesterday suggests something similar: he writes, “The whole spate of abuses currently under investigation at the BBC, for example, happened at a very particular time. The teenager had just been invented… Children were sexualised like never before and the morals of a previous age must have looked as though they were going out the window. In the 1960s the feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote that sexual liberation had largely served as a spur to male sexual aggression. Maybe the sexual awaking of teenagers did something similar.”

Where does a Christian view of womanhood come in to all this? In the September 2012 issue of the Newsletter of the Association of Catholic Women, journalist Joanna Bogle reviews a book with an intriguing title: The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years by Emily Stimpson. Joanna writes: “This handbook is written by a young woman who knows what she is talking about. Where and how to find a suitable mate? How to dress modestly without looking dowdy? How to cope on your own with the practicalities of life?…[She] assumes correctly that most young Catholic women do want to marry and have children. She is right to ask why these perfectly good and natural desires are less likely to be fulfilled now than they were 20 years ago.”

Such a perspective is completely at odds with the general outlook and it made me think of the particular pressure young Catholic women are under to conform to the “liberated” sexual behaviour of their secular peers. Also, how can young women today effectively counter the boorish behaviour of men? The law now offers some protection for women, but the confusion of signals, the ambivalence, the death of old-fashioned courtship rituals and the relentless sexualisation of the media make it very hard for such women to retain their own sense of virtuous behaviour.

MercatorNet, the online magazine, carries an inspiring testimony this week by Kate Harvey, entitled “The beauty in waiting”, which is in complete contrast to the dispiriting experiences related by Laura Bates on Woman’s Hour mentioned above. Miss Harvey states: “I am a woman living in the age of the hook-up culture who waited to have sex until her wedding day.” She adds, “There is very little in mainstream culture in the way of encouragement for women like me who have decided to swim against the tide and do things differently.” She is convinced her decision was “empowering”: “You are in control of your own heart, your own femininity, your most intimate being.” Her choice “has given me an inner peace and an esteem for my own worthiness as a woman; it has taught me the real beauty in self-control.”

It hardly needs to be pointed out that this outlook is at odds with the kind of sex education given to girls which goes on in our classrooms, with their messages of “Be safe; always use contraceptives” or “A woman’s right to choose”. To return to Laura Bates: suppose women in the office thought harder about what it means to be a woman; suppose they stopped dressing provocatively; suppose they made it clear they disliked blue jokes; suppose they gave firmer signals about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behaviour from their male colleagues. Would this change the office culture? I would like to think so.