High level of sex; low level of morale: Who was running the office where fornication was as common as paper clips? Rosalind Miles suggests Stephen Davies is not the only loser

The glory of the English law, jurists like to say, lies in its reliance on precedent. This may be true of murder, treason or trespass. But it is hard to see how the case of Stephen Davies, dismissed yesterday by an industrial tribunal, will clarify the legal or any other approach to sexual harassment. On the contrary, it seems calculated to add to the bitterness and confusion which surround this key issue of our times.

For even as sexual harassment cases go, this one is as ugly as it gets. Davies' allegations of the crude advances of his female boss, her jokes about his anatomy, her gift of a pair of skimpy briefs - which she threatened to have him out of in double-quick time - raises issues we can all recognise.

First, he defied the popular myth that men who complain of sexual harassment only make fools of themselves. Publicly, every red-blooded male is ready for anything that comes along: only a wimp would moan about a woman throwing herself at him. But most men, from the shy young apprentice to the gorgeous superstar, know enough of the grossness of a determined, unwanted female pass to groan with a man in Davies' alleged position, rather than for his supposed failure to uphold the 'ever-ready, Everard]' standard of masculine behaviour.

Most women, too, know that an open invitation to a man is more likely to send him screaming for the exit rather than falling into her arms: there is nothing most men fear more than the loss of control. And both sexes surely know that sexual harassment is more about power than sex - and in power play, as women from Catherine the Great to Winnie Mandela amply demonstrate, the female of the species can play just as dirty as the male.

Recent cases from America have established legal precedents of women sexually harassing men under their command. Most notably 33-year-old Sabino Guttierez won dollars 1m last year from his boss, Maria Martinez, 39, who was found guilty of bullying him into having sex.

This decision, a legal 'first', was welcomed by some feminists, on the grounds that women's advancement must be based not on special pleading, but on simple justice. What is sauce for the gander must be sauce for the goose, too.

Feminists would also insist that women no longer want to be the moral police of society, seen as sexless, pure and good, and above the needs and drive that activate men.

On the contrary, with increasing emancipation, women - for so long harassed not merely sexually but in every way - may be super-poised to strike back, and strike hard, triumphing in the realisation 'we're the masters now]'

Sexual harassment is not simply power behaviour, a function of a dominant, high-achieving type-A character. It is in fact a form of sadistic compensation, a kind of vicious teasing akin to pulling the wings off flies to watch the wriggling victims suffer.

As such it has been classically associated with Shakespeare's 'wanton boys' and with their grown-up counterparts rather than with women. The sexual element, too, has led to an erroneous identification with masculine sexuality and its much-vaunted 'urges', the irresistible force of nature that must not be denied. Only a post-Victorian piety has led us to deny that women may have these urges just as much as men - and that lust in women, divorced from love and caring, can be as close to cruelty as it is in any man.

So far, so understandable, if not good. But the 'victim' Stephen Davies turned out to have made advances to female colleagues, had extra-marital affairs, and dropped his trousers at an office party, where all the other staff - or so it seemed - were at it like flies. Like the rape victim who has her previous lovers thrown in her teeth, he was a prisoner of his past. In vain to protest that even a thief may be robbed, or a prostitute sexually assaulted against her will, the law likes an innocent victim, and will dock points accordingly from those less than lily white.

And sexual harassment, as a concept, turns on the notion of unwelcomed, unsought, unexpected and unreciprocated sexual activity. The action must be unilateral by one party and oppressive to the other. It was difficult to accept that any sexual activity would be unexpected or unwelcome in an office where fornication and adultery seemed to be as common as paper clips and rubber bands.

In all the extensive, lubriciously detailed press coverage, no one has pointed out that a high level of sex at work means one of two things: either an unbearable level of stress from which the workers seek relief, as in wartime or on the trading floors of the city, or else as the mark of an under-occupied, demoralised criminally badly run outfit desperately distracting itself from the hollow at its heart. The second seems to to be true of the Child Support Agency office where all this went on. As my father used to say of anyone detected in any irregular activity: 'Haven't they got a job to go to?'

Such a total failure of morale in an understretched workforce can only come from the top. Someone should have been managing these people who were making such a mockery of managing each other.

Davies has lost his case, and also suffered the censure of the tribunal who had some harsh things to say about the quality of his claim. But - not for the first time in English law - it is hard to escape the feeling that the wrong person was in the dock. And that, as a result, there could be no winner, only two losers.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz