When is indecent assault just 'a bit of fun'?

Last week's court case highlights the confused state of male-female relations in the workplace, reports Decca Aitkenhead

Consider, gentlemen, what the following submissions might have in common: The presentation in court of a "stunning" 20-year-old girlfriend; a wife's testimony to a "normal, happy, loving relationship, both emotionally and physically"; the opinion that the alleged victim looks "like a bulldog chewing a wasp". The answer? They could all help secure your acquittal, should you find yourself up on a sexual assault charge.

Indecent assault cases offer an enthralling insight into modern social and sexual mores. The scenes outside Bradford Crown Court last Tuesday, however, provided two very different versions. Police constable Robert Bridle was descending the steps a free man, acquitted of indecent assault charges against two female colleagues after the judge declared he deserved only a "sound ticking off" for office "horseplay".

For some assembled on the steps, the words signalled an alarming throwback to the darkest days of sexual inequality, when the woman was always Asking For It, and should learn how to take a Bit Of Fun.

For others, they echoed our mounting confusion about how men and women are meant to behave around each other these days. And many onlookers were left pondering the question: precisely when is indecent assault not indecent assault?

"An indecent assault," the law tells us, with rare tautological panache, "is an assault committed in circumstances of indecency". Critically, it must be proven that the accused acted intentionally, in full knowledge of these "indecent circumstances". Few would suggest that a stranger making a violent lunge at a woman's breasts could be ignorant of "indecent circumstances". What made Judge McCallum's comments so controversial, however, was the implication that in the "circumstances" of a workplace characterised by horseplay and bawdy banter, a man might reasonably assume that quite intimate behaviour was not "indecent" at all.

A sexual assault case rests chiefly on the intentions of the accused. If he has a lawful reason - for example, he is a doctor carrying out an examination - his defence is fairly straightforward. If he can prove his actions were accidental (as the gynaecologist accused of groping a waitress failed to do earlier this month), or if the woman gives her consent, he is also vindicated. It is when he argues that his conduct was appropriate in a modern, sexually demonstrative workplace that the offence becomes the fulcrum of contemporary sexual politics.

"If everybody is going around touching each other all the time," says Irena Ray-Crosby, a barrister, "the poor chap could say he felt pretty aggrieved if they called it indecent assault when he did it. Women's groups may say that men always know what is and isn't acceptable - well, they would, wouldn't they? But I don't believe that they do."

Other lawyers disagree. "Of course different behaviour is acceptable in different contexts," says Sarah Maguire, another barrister, and chair of Rights of Women. "But the perpetrator always knows when he is committing an offence. When men banter with each other they don't tweak each other's nipples."

Julie Bindel, of Justice for Women, says: "We all know the difference between banter and abuse - and that's why we don't all end up in court. When men say they are confused, what they really mean is they are confused about why they can't get away with it any more."

A defendant may also claim that the assault could not have been indecent, as he had no sexual purpose or interest toward the complainant. Pc Bridle admitted straddling one WPc, but only in a "jokey way"; his denial of ever touching her colleague was backed up by his belief that she looked like a "bulldog chewing a wasp".

Earlier this year, a fashion store manager charged with sexual assaults on female staff produced, in court, his 20-year-old girlfriend. He told the jury: "When you see my girlfriend then you will realise I don't need to carry out indecent assaults. Some people have described her as stunning - and I'd agree with that."

He was acquitted.

Similarly, a sexual assault charge against a barrister failed last year after his wife testified in court to their "loving relationship, both emotionally and physically", and declared the allegations "ludicrous".

"The jury has to ask itself," explains Miss Ray-Crosby, "did the defendant intend to derive any sexual pleasure from touching the woman? If she is, objectively, frightfully ugly, they might think he probably did not."

Such logic is based on the assumption that sexual assault is motivated by sexual desire. "What?" scoffs Ms Maguire. "The 'irresistible urge?' Quite frankly, I think that's crap. That's a legal term, and you can quote me on it. These offences have nothing to do with sexual attraction, and everything to do with power."

The oldest rape victim last year, says Ms Bindel, was 93: "Nobody has done a study into how many beautiful women have been raped, compared to less attractive women, but I rather doubt it makes any difference."

Away from the workplace, public transport is another prime location for sexual assault. In an effort to crack down on offenders, British Transport Police are currently running Operation Earn, and undercover police regularly patrol London's Underground. But this, says Miss Ray-Crosby, has led to confusion of another kind.

"Some police have spotted men rubbing themselves up against women and hauled them off the train, when the women didn't even know it was happening. I've ended up defending prosecutions where they didn't even have a witness - she'd carried on with her journey, oblivious to the whole thing."

The European Commissioner for Social Affairs, Padraig Flynn, entered the fray last week with proposals to standardise the current "uneven playing field" of sexual harassment cases in member states. His plan has provoked predictable objections. Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors, declared it "ludicrous - a ghastly waste of time", which failed to take account of "cultural differences". But Deborah King, of Women Against Sexual Harassment, takes issue with the suggestion that many, if indeed any, British workplaces, are characterised by the kind of sexual licence which might legitimise a level of indecent behaviour.

"After a case like Pc Bridle, commentators are always quick to say, 'Oh, this is a bit of horseplay, nothing out of the ordinary'. But I would query whether they have ever worked in places where people routinely simulate sex over the photocopier, and where no one really minds. It's a fantasy workplace. The ones I do know have ended up in sexual harassment courts."

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