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.

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