There’s a story in the media of Donald Trump’s apparent assault on a woman passenger thirty five years ago. Pretty yucky, you might say. Rightly so. But the other point to raise though is that while men and women are shocked by this sort of thing now, why weren’t they then?
Having grown up in the seventies, I, like no doubt countless others, encountered this type of unwelcome physical attention quite frequently. It was never in any way amusing, but the attitude from both men and women, if you ever could overcome the embarrassment and had the guts to share your experience with them, brought two very different reactions, neither of them being shock, shock, horror. ‘How awful for you.’ In short it was mirth. Men shrugged, women laughed. In fact, the female response was possibly the more humiliating. Well, if you were pretty or attractive enough at twenty to be physically set upon by a sixty year old overweight television programme controller on the steps of a studio waiting to record an audition tape for a career changing opportunity, it was fantastically funny.
If your trusted GP had a tendency for unnecessary internal examinations the moment he saw you and you didn’t bloody well question it, then that was hugely hilarious. From then on they would entertain themselves endlessly with pondering on your extraordinary naivety, blame your ‘sheltered, conservative upbringing’, or sympathise with laughing eyes at your guarded innocence, so out of place in such a wonderfully exciting, libertarian, feminist age.
Unfortunately, this attitude was also true of older people, but with possibly different and more justification. These were people who’d survived the vile horrors of a cruel world war where brave brothers and husbands had lost their lives in their millions. So in those days, only physical rape and murder by strangulation were considered crimes in the UK . Nothing lesser was anything other than an inability for you to cope with the realities of adult life or to find the ‘right crowd’ to mix with. There was also an element of not washing your dirty laundry in public about it.
It is wonderful that women today don’t have to tolerate not just sexually abusive behaviour in silence, but also the type of smirking from their own sex I’ve just described if it does happen. Male vulgarity and opportunism is no longer socially acceptable, or even legal. Full independence of women, thanks to the earlier feminists who campaigned for work opportunities and property rights, has equipped us in a way unimaginable to girls of my mother’s generation.
But one problem of historic social issues is fairness to both sexes. We have to accept that in the past we also turned a blind eye to the similar offences of female opportunism, female indifference, and female temper. Arthur Daley’s ‘Er indoors’, and the description of Hilda Rumpole as ‘she who must be obeyed’ referring to wives in charge were also common personifications of women of the time. They often covered something far, far darker. While recent research on why modern women are so aggressive has revealed that two in five victims of domestic abuse in the UK today are men, it is quite likely that they always have been. It is just we didn’t talk about that sort of stuff either back then.
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