‘Christmas Time, Mistletoe and wine’ – so sang Cliff Richard in his 2003 Christmas hit. Mistletoe and wine, the mainstay of that great British Christmas tradition, the Office Christmas Party. A tradition under threat following the recent spate of ‘sexual harassment’ allegations – you know when a creepy guy has taken a minor liberty, like touching your knee 15 years ago, only to be soundly rebuffed.
About a month ago something dropped into the inbox of our company email – how to manage your office party or something like that. Party, huh, what party? No, I don’t advocate photcopying your rude bits or drunken romps in the lift but has it really come to the point where a fellow daren’t drink anything stronger than Sipsmith and has to go on bended knee to ask his colleague if it is OK to put a hand on her shoulder whilst they dance?
Then Cupid’s little helper, mistletoe, came under attack in the press. Is this the end for that end of year moment when you can let your hair down in front of the boss? When the shy office junior gets his chance, with a little Dutch courage inside him, to dance with the girl from accounts he has secretly admired all year. And the now maligned mistletoe – oh yes, the fond memories. There was the time the short, slightly built young man from Yellow Fever production chased our tall, striking, blonde technician down the corridor wielding a bunch of mistletoe almost as big as him, to be taken pity on by one of the middle aged secretaries. (This one has a happy ending, he later met an animal technician more suited in size and married her) Then there was the suspicious young instrument engineer, examining the seat I ushered him to for a hidden whoopee cushion, missing the mistletoe dangling from above.
The beauty of it all, if you got it wrong, if you had a sneaky snog when one or both of you were married to someone else, was that come January 2nd you could brush it off as ‘Christmas spirit’, apologise quietly if you really misjudged things and life would go on. And .. and.. come on, own up some long and happy marriages began with the staff Christmas party. Yes, #MeToo!
The real #MeToo, guilty luvvie fuelled, twitterstorm is something entirely different. Women, and some men, in the wake of revelations about a certain movie mogul’s gross behaviour, protest that they too have been violated – often years ago, spinning beyond Hollywood. Well of course it does, as a biologist I understand that sex is a prime motivator for all of us, the ability to employ good manners to restrain those urges is probably in the two percent of our genes that distinguishes the average healthy male from a bonobo chimp.
In 13 years with a major pharmaceutical company I never experienced workplace sexual harassment; my dysfunctional first boss had other ways of abusing his power. It happened of course, my #MeToo moment came, around Easter in 1976. I had been discussing switching to obesity research with a scientist who worked in that field. We met, of all places, at the weekly lunchtime Christian fellowship group. He invited some of us to participate in a study at the cancer research institute he was about to join. I went one Saturday morning, was weighed, had extensive body measurements and a blood sample taken. ‘Had I ever taken a blood sample?’ he asked. If I could take a sample he could be a male control. I didn’t expect to have to take his measurements too, let alone turn round to find him naked but for his socks! (I had kept my panties on.) My 19-year-old self, stood behind, averted my gaze and took his measurements. Doubtless he got a thrill from all this but the encounter was essentially professional until he dropped me home when he pounced, in a car with the child seat in the back.
I wasn’t traumatised or harmed by the experience. Like Julia Hartley-Brewer my generation knew how to deal with a sex pest. I wouldn’t want an elderly man dragged through the courts; indeed I’ve dined out on the story for decades, originally to gales of laughter. Nowadays younger listeners greet the tale with a stunned, disapproving silence.
I don’t want to play down genuine abuse of power and harassment but elevating a clumsy pass or tasteless remark to the same level belittles the real thing. We live in strange times when a man’s career can be ruined by an historic lewd text yet turn a blind eye to real abuse of vulnerable girls, going on in cities across the country, because of the fear of being labelled racist.