One woman's office fling is another's sexual harassment

No one should have to deal with unwanted advances, and things are doubly complicated in the workplace. Catherine Blyth recalls an office romance

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I had a relationship with a man in my office. Unfortunately, the man was then made my boss. But we were single, there was no harassment, or preferment. Do you disapprove?

Our employer did. My bloke, like troubled Lord Rennard, was considered by his overlords a silly boy, but not a sex pest. As a low-status female, my leaving the company was the easy option.

This episode taught me plenty about confusion over sexual conduct in the workplace. So I'm fascinated by the case of Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem former chief executive accused of "inappropriate behaviour" towards activists. Lord Rennard maintains he is "deeply shocked" by the allegations, which he denies. But this seems as much a sexual tragi-comedy as a morality tale. And raises questions about mutual incomprehension – between men and women, and between generations.

I understand why his alleged victims didn't come forward. They dreaded headlines corralling them in a pathetic harem of "Rennard's Red-hot Babes" as much as they feared harm to their political ambition. No woman has confessed to an affair. If he made any advances, Lord Rennard, the celebrated campaigner, apparently failed to persuade anyone to accept them, despite the aphrodisiac of power. Nobody accuses him of having a "chipolata", as secretary Tracey Temple did John Prescott.

Prescott's humiliation is worth recalling as we assess Lord Rennard's misdemeanours. "Poor Prezza," I thought, not, "exploitative git", because even if he abused his status, the power imbalance seemed amply rectified when Temple mocked him and made herself a packet.

Many would disdain my wobbly moral compass. But my feminism embraces the possibility that women are not automatically victims to fat patriarchal fromages – not if there is scope for negotiation, a shift in the balance of power. Sociologist Catherine Hakim, author of Honey Money, goes further, arguing young women should exploit their "erotic capital" to get ahead.

Is the workplace flirtation a moral issue, or one of etiquette? Etiquette is situational and sex is always a negotiation, full of potential misunderstanding. And many men try it on with women, arguing that it would be rude not to: Gawain, the hero of chivalric legend, bonked his host's wife on the grounds it is discourteous to reject a lady. Maybe Lord Rennard offered junior politicos time and attention. Maybe they were nice back – he was the big cheese. Maybe the clot misread smiles for invitations.

If this was the case, he ought to have known better. He was married, and there is the age factor. Now 52, he would have been the older as well as the senior party. But self-delusion is a characteristic of power. Few head honchos wonder why their wisecracks cause universal mirth. Workplace studies show bosses routinely consider meetings have gone well while miserable yes-grunts feel steamrolled – which could apply, by analogy, to Rennard situations. Maybe he fancies himself.

Power does gild the appeal of older men, if rarely making them wiser. Look at Bill Clinton. Republicans wanted to impeach him for "abuse of office", not for abusing "that woman – Miss Lewinsky". Why? Bill is considered hot, charismatic, despite a face like the inside of a pork pie. And charm appeals. Nobody says Boris Johnson exploited Petronella Wyatt, his deputy on the Spectator. The queues of women felled by the Latin lover are adduced as proof of his allure, not a predatory nature. We imagine he jokes them into bed.

In the aftermath of the Savile scandal, I sympathise with Dave Lee Travis, arrested and bailed last year after complaints by young women. In his BBC heyday, the 1970s, men were men and women were chicks. "In the old days it was called 'putting your arm around somebody and giving them a cuddle'," he bleated, after his arrest for, as he put it, "squeezing boobs".

A man's friendly compliment may be a woman's coercive come-on. Both can be right. To muddle matters further, inappropriate behaviour is erotic, sometimes. Ambiguity is a knife: it shapes desire but injures the likes of Lord Rennard and any alleged victims. But the issues are quite simple. First, abuse of power. Second, sexual confusion. Third, whether Lib Dem powermongers find it difficult to distinguish between the two.

The imagination can present the most damning evidence against Lord Rennard. A beaming booby, one pictures him comically pursuing unfortunate females around hotels at party conferences. Had he resembled George Clooney, we imagine his accusers would have been flattered. It is equally easy to see why senior colleagues dismissed this Benny Hill figure as "silly". Such as Lord Stoneham, who last week berated a woman for speaking out.

Baroness Williams, daughter of feminist pioneer Vera Brittain, complained the story is "hopelessly exaggerated". Was her eye to every keyhole? She didn't say. Rather, she proposed a "very fine man" is being linked in popular imagination with Savile, a vile man who exploited the "temptations of celebrity". By comparison, Lord Rennard's alleged philandering is trivial.

But Lady Williams overlooks what would have made Lord Rennard's alleged behaviour abusive: his power of patronage. He is, after all, in his party role, accountable for the Lib Dems' feeble support of women: only seven of their 56 MPs are female. Five, including Jo Swinson, Minister for Women and Equalities, are in unsafe seats.

Well-connected Williams was never underling to a Rennard. Maybe she believes molestation is a thing of the past. High-status women often do – forgetting they are too powerful, and old, to be ripe for unsolicited pluckings.

Another line on Lord Rennard's accusers is that they don't know how to handle a man. ''I didn't take it too seriously," Sheila Gunn, John Major's one-time press secretary, told the Today programme on Thursday, admitting she had had "to remove" importunate politicos' hands. "I tended to treat those who did those sort of things as naughty little boys." But humour, like sexual etiquette, is situational. You can only laugh, Gunn conceded, at those who cannot harm you or your career.

Lord Rennard's trouble is, perhaps, not that he is ugly but that he is rude and insensitive. He should know that status lends weight to the lightest touch. If the individual reaching for you is hard to refuse, their touch is creepy and frightening.

I've experienced sexual harassment. When a handsome designer kept investigating my bum at a party, I kept moving. The hand followed. I longed to plunge a stiletto in the man's overarching instep, but felt powerless to do so. I was working as a young press officer, and my job was to ensure all guests were happy. I wish I'd had the nous to tell him to naff off. Instead, paralysed by the conflicting demands of my predicament, I felt I had failed, which made my shame harder to stomach.

If a woman can't say no, it is harassment. In morality, and sexual etiquette, choice is everything.

Nick Clegg wants the Rennard affair to be solely a police, not a party, matter. But if the current police investigation comes to nothing, this will not exonerate the Lib Dems. If the accusations are true, the party's misguided tolerance for a powermonger will have further degraded women already placed in an impossible situation.

Happily, workplace flirtations don't have to be so confused. That office boyfriend of mine? Reader, I married him.

Catherine Blyth is the author of 'The Art of Marriage'

Sexism at work: employees' stories

The workplace: a melting pot for complementary skills, or a hotbed of sexual coercion? The latter, judging by the experiences shared by women online. Read what happens to some when they go to earn a living:

I was told if I sued my boss for sexual harassment I would never work again.

Jane

I expressed a differing opinion to my senior manager. He patted my hand and called me "sweetheart".

Lindsey

My male boss talks to clients about what a "hot young item" I am. I do better work than my male colleagues. They are congratulated for success, and I am not. I've never been looked at so much and felt so invisible.

Via Twitter

My boss asked me to sit on his knee. The other man called me a "good girl" for making tea. I am 29.

Sarah

Guy walks up to me and says that he'd grope me but doesn't want to get fired.

Jenny

My boss couldn't remember my name the other day, so whistled at me.

Zie

Put a call through to a male colleague earlier. He told me later, "You've got a really sexy phone voice, I didn't know whether to take the call or have a wank."

Jess

My Econ prof said this in reference to productivity: "A secretary's job entails wearing make-up so everyone likes her."

Tara

Planning a project team for work ... Colleague: "Let's not have too many women, they can't work together."

Via Twitter

I worked at a large technology firm. The trainer drew pictures of me nude.

'Sad Bitch'

I am a chambermaid and every day I am propositioned, just because my job takes me into hotel bedrooms.

Anna

A friend asked a local business for a charity raffle prize. The owner agreed, asked for her email address, and used it to proposition her.

'Super Kat'

Working as a barmaid, I asked man what he'd like to order, and he replied by saying he wanted to "suck on my tits".

Victoria

Last night my boss "joked" about me having to give him head if I wanted to keep my apprenticeship.

Amanda

While I was pregnant and in a team meeting, my boss declared that my "condition" suited me, as it gave me "such great boobs".

Jo

Read more on twitter.com/@EverydaySexism

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