The Guardian this morning reports an ‘epidemic’ of sexual harassment cases in British universities. What defines an ‘epidemic’? More, surely, than the handful that are enumerated in its tables on page 7. To take the three British universities I have been most closely associated with, and just the ‘staff on student’ category: Cambridge (with a very large student body) reports six cases in five years; the University of Hull (medium-sized) two in the same period; and the University of Newcastle another two. I really don’t think these figures qualify as an ‘epidemic’. Of course there will be many cases that remain uncovered; but to set against these there will be at least a few trivial or false accusations. I was the target of one of those once.
In all my years of teaching in several universities, although sexually predatory lecturers were a staple theme of TV dramas (like The History Man), I never heard – officially or through rumour – of a single genuine case of sexual harassment; until the very end of my time at one of them, when I had to deal with it, as Head of the Department that both the teacher and his post-graduate student victim were members of. That turned out to be a subtle and complex case, which took up most of my time in my last year. (It was I who was put in the dock, to determine whether I had handled the case properly when alerted to it by the student. I had; but it was a trying time for all of us. It was one of the factors that decided me to take early retirement shortly afterwards.) But that was unique, in my experience – of forty years.
I did know of a couple of young lecturers who developed romantic attachments to students, both of which culminated in marriage. Very early on I even had an affair with a student myself, who was – believe me (or not, if you like) – the one who ‘came on’ to me, and who threatened to kill herself when I tried to break it off. (I’m not proud of that.) That was considered to be OK then, so long as I didn’t teach her and wasn’t in any way responsible for her grades. Now it wouldn’t be tolerated, and I would studiously avoid it, on the grounds that the simple differences in our ages (I was just five years older than she) and our statuses made the relationship unequal, and so intrinsically abusive. But those were different times (this is the late 1960s), when we were more relaxed about these things. As an older and better man now, and much more aware of the enormous pressures on young women, and the difficulties they used to encounter in getting their charges taken seriously, I’ve come to totally accept the ‘unequal’ argument.
But I am worried about how widely the definition of ‘harassment’ can be taken these days. Sometimes, if a girl or woman has been ultra-helpful to me (generally in sorting out my i-phone problems), I ask if I can give her a kiss on the cheek as a token of my gratitude. (I should make it clear that I’m a wrinkled, grey-haired oldie, and so no possible physical danger to any young woman.) In England they seem to like that. I like it when they do it to me. But I tried it in a Swedish phone shop the other week – just the request – and she treated me as if I was a rapist. Then the same thing – the same reaction – in another shop a few days later. No wonder the Swedes are so stiff and formal (my friends excepted). The sex-police have taken all the innocent pleasure from their lives.
Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of entirely false accusations, many of them ‘historical’, perhaps to wreak revenge on men like me. It does happen. You never know, it could still happen to me. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to blog my innocence from a prison cell?