Mary thinks she's suffering from sexual harassment at work. A colleague has patted her on the bottom as she leaned over a drinking fountain, and made sexy suggestions when they've been at a hotel on business together. He recently gave her a big squeeze in the corridor and she feels dirty. What should she do?

"What should Mary do?" is rather an odd question. Surely the question is: "What should she have done?" Because if, as it sounds, she's put up with this man's advances so far, small wonder he's going round giving her squeezes in the office. He's met with no resistance to his pattings and suggestions, so he's taking things a step further. Sounds like a completely normal man to me, who thinks Mary enjoys this office flirtation, which he doubtless has no intention of taking further. For all one knows he's got himself so far now that he's actually giving her squeezes out of sheer gallantry.

If Mary didn't like her bottom being patted why didn't she whirl round and tell him to get lost at once? If she didn't like his sexual suggestions while they were on business why didn't she set her face in stone and tell him that what he was saying was the most repulsive idea she'd ever heard? Why, when he squeezed her in the corridor, didn't she knee him in the groin? Or, if she's not spunky enough to react that quickly, she should at least have told him in a dignified way that she doesn't relish his behaviour one bit. As for feeling dirty, I think she feels dirty not because of his sexual advances, but because she allows herself to feel dirty. This dirtiness she feels is shame at herself for not standing up for herself, not dirt that a few sexual gropings can make her feel. After all, if a dog puts its nose up their skirt, few except the most paranoid of women would feel "dirty". They might, however, feel dirty if they encouraged it or let it keep sniffing. This man should be treated like an eager dog. "Down, sir! No," Mary should say, as it were, as she pushes him away. "No walkies for you if you go on like this!" And she should then forget the whole incident. This man's activity is fed by Mary's passivity, and while I wouldn't go as far as saying she brings it on herself, she certainly has not behaved like a grown-up woman if she's let him get away with it so far.

Of course she could get him on a sexual harassment rap if she's so weak as to be unable to deal with this by herself. She could get friends and colleagues to keep evidence and diaries of his sexual behaviour, tell his manager, and ask him or her to have a quiet word with him. But I don't think any of that is necessary.

As one of the women who wore one of the world's first miniskirts in the Sixties in an all-male office, it never occurred to me to go to a tribunal. Frankly, the entire staff would have had to have been reprimanded anyway, including, no doubt, half the men on the tribunal. Groans would go round the office if I wore tights instead of stockings and suspenders, and when I first started wearing knee-length black boots (only available at dance shoe shops in those days) perspiration stuck out on the foreheads of editors as well as office boys. It never occurred to me to feel dirty. I quite enjoyed the attention and none of it went further than surreptitious staring, wolf whistles, innuendo and the odd grope which was equally flirtatiously rebuffed.

This colleague of Mary's has somehow got her feeling like a victim. She must take back the initiative and react like a woman in her own right. And remember that no man can make any woman feel dirty.

what readers say

Next time it happens, threaten to tell

The answer to Mary's problem is quite simple. The next time the man concerned touches her or makes lewd comments, she should offer him the choice: "The next time you behave like this, should I report you, and inform your wife, or should I knee you in the balls?" Mary must look him straight in the eye and say: "I mean it, you are not being funny or clever, and I've had enough."

If it upsets Mary to confront the pest in this way, she must not be afraid to show that upset - a little emotion shows the sincerity of what she is saying, and can only result in the isolation of the perpetrator in the workplace. The important thing is for him to realise that Mary means what she says, and for Mary herself to be certain she isn't bluffing - so no idle threats.

James Thompson,

Welwyn Garden City, Herts

Have a quiet word to stop it going any further

Could Mary take her time to think just what to say and find a suitable moment to calmly have a word with him? It could be done with good humour and even a slight smile. Something like, "Now look, we work in the same office and we need to get on, as it were. But at the same time it is difficult for me to deal with your various attentions (and you will know what I mean)." She could perhaps add: "I could, of course, complain officially - but we wouldn't want that, would we?"

Michael Guyer


Keep a log of everything and prepare your case

This is a serious sexual harassment issue and Mary has let things go on for too long - she has to tell her boss now! In order to do this effectively, she should get organised. She should make a log of all the "events", including date, time and anything they each said. She has already talked to other women in the office - now she needs to limit her comments to one or two trustworthy people, making sure that it does not become gossip.

Mary should avoid all contact with this guy, but if she must send written communication, it should be businesslike and she should keep a copy. She really ought to confront him (with another person as witness) and tell him succinctly, "Do not touch me, or speak to me about anything other than business matters. You are out of line and I am taking further action." No apologies, no discussion.

A copy of the file goes to her boss ASAP, with notification that if the boss doesn't take action, he/she will be included in future legal action. Additionally, she really ought to stop calling female co-workers "girls" - they are women.

Alice P Schaaf

Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Try this public humiliation for sex pests

I suggest that Mary follows the example of a quick-thinking friend of mine who, when groped in a tube train, swiftly grasped hold of the offending wrist, held it high and exclaimed loudly: "I found this hand on my bottom - does it belong to anyone?" This public humiliation should be sufficient to make this pest think twice before sexually harassing her again.

Margaret Fox

Tadworth, Surrey

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I am a professional teacher and have worked for several years. I have three children of school age (eight , 10 and 12 years old) and a husband who earns enough to keep us all comfortably. However, lots of people ask me when I'm going back to work. But I find it difficult to justify taking a job when there are others who probably need it more than I do. Our family life is less stressful if I don't work, but I feel that I have had an expensive education and should give something back to society in the form of doing the work I've been trained to do. Should I join the rat race or adapt myself to being an unaccustomed homemaker? Yours sincerely, Eileen

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