Sexual harassment of a direct kind, with attempted rape merging into matrimonial intent, has always been with us, as the image of a caveman hauling a cavewoman off by her hair shows. The Greek myths are full of lustful gods pursuing mortal maidens, with a wide variety of results. Wish-fulfilment by the poets who created the tales? Old men in dirty cloaks? Closer to our time and farther from regular liaisons, Samuel Pepys in Charles II’s reign and the anonymous author of My Secret Life in Victoria’s relate episodes of what we would now call ‘pestering’ of women in some sense subject to them—maids, wives of employees, and so on. Since 1914 the mass advent of women onto the labour market as real productive units has, however, made harassment an economic as well as a moral problem. The fact that at first nearly all these women were in subordinate positions to men, and that this has only slowly been changing, has stimulated harassment. In a sense, as Lin Farley has pointed out in Sexual Shakedown, harassment is about power and dominance rather than sex; but male sexual opportunity is included in that power. Making women uncomfortable at work—the wide definition of harassment applicable to modern conditions—keeps their earning power and self-confidence down so that they accept otherwise unacceptable men. The general feminist assumption is, correctly, that harassment is an integral part of the social ritual reflecting and perpetuating the imbalance of power between the sexes. Or, to put it another way, its use helps to stop women from getting ideas about being people instead of surrounded cavities. Most critics of harassment concentrate on the damage inflicted on the woman concerned and on women in general. In fact the consequences of harassment spread right through society and have the most unexpected and disastrous consequences. Like the appendix, it has outlived its biological usefulness and, when infected, endangers the whole body. Women Against Sexual Harassment are taking on more than they think.

Let us take an apparently simple case. I am one of a cleaning firm’s team of machinists and moppers who service a huge hyperstore between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m., six days a week. In theory there are seven of us, one supervisor and six workers. Two machines should cover the floor between them, each machine being pushed by a driver and followed by two moppers. When there are enough workers and the machines are functioning, the hours pass in steady amiable slog. Unfortunately there are rarely enough workers. The low pay discourages applicants, and the hard unsocial night hours ensure the survival of only the fittest. So in fact the job is subject to adaptation, crisis, rushes, etc. For five years the supervisor has been Jim, a Roman Catholic ex-officer and a devoted family man who gave up his previous job in computers to spend his days with his invalid wife. His son is at home at night to look after her while Jim is working. Jim is strict but fair and efficient. He is hampered by the quick turnover of staff—or, to be more accurate, he is supported by a small core of semi-permanent workers and plagued by a bewilderingly rapid succession of transient ones. Some can stand the job, and some can’t.

Marlene has been one of the semi-permanent mainstays. She is a 33year-old West Indian, five feet in height. She came here very young with an illegitimate son. Rendered humble by her status as a woman, a black immigrant and an unmarried mother, she married Malcolm, a white musician/British Rail guard whose greatest ambition has always been to identify with West Indian culture. He poured the money he earned from his ordinary job into building up a recording studio for black music. Year after year, hoping to make it to the top, he postponed settling down. He told Marlene he was doing it ‘for you and Winston’. Hence they bobbed around in council flats instead of saving for a house. Malcolm refused her a child although she had always wanted a daughter. Sexually he was without imagination. She had been the first person he had slept with and he had learned nothing in the course of married life. In a vain attempt to stir his passions she had once bought a frilly nightie and lain down on the rug in front of the fire waiting for him to return home. It did not work. All he said was ‘What’s the matter with you?’ He found his release in looking at pornographic magazines. This infuriated his deprived wife. Her endeavours, not always tactfully made, to persuade him to go to a therapist produced violent rows. Malcolm was also unromantic and, admitting this, claimed that it did not matter as he paid the bills. He exaggerated the importance of this by refusing to let her acquire qualifications or go to work. ‘Your place is here at home.’ The attitudes of his Rasta friends reinforced his own. It was not a happy set-up, though both husband and wife pretended that it was.

Early last year Malcolm left Marlene for three months ‘to find his own way’. He left her to pay the bills, which compelled her to work for a few hours a week. She liked it. But when he came back, she welcomed him. Still, the memory of his unreliability pushed her into taking this cleaning job. On her limited literacy few other solid jobs were possible. He now complained that she had become ‘liberated’. She brushed aside these complaints and took up two more jobs, one as a school cleaner in the evenings and one as a house-watcher during its owner’s absence abroad. It was clear from what she said to her fellow-workers that these jobs were useful not only because they brought her in money but because they enabled her and Malcolm to avoid facing their sexual difficulties. However, she did not let all this get her down. A cheerful, pretty girl, she always had a nice word for the shelf-packers, security men and women, window-cleaners, etc. She would do anyone a good turn. When I first came she brought me in an old jumper and skirt to stop me ruining my clothes at this job. She has often bought cakes for us all to eat as we sit in the van going home.

Early this year Malcolm left again. The Christmas holidays had cooped him and Marlene in together. It was too much. She blacked his eye. He decided to leave and went with the New Year bells ringing in his ears. At first his going left a big gap in Marlene’s life. This was the legacy of his isolation of her. She told the Citizens’ Advice Bureau that she was unwilling to throw a dozen years of marriage away. Then the vultures gathered—men in hopeful search of sex without strings. They were obvious rubbish, which put her off. She learned quickly. Malcolm’s attitude was ambivalent. He missed his home comforts. When he brought round some photos of her he had taken at a friend’s wedding, he said she had a beautiful body. Then he came round with their son’s ten pounds a week maintenance and announced that he was in love with another woman who was twenty-four, beautiful, intelligent and good in bed, that Marlene was short, fat and ugly and that he wanted a divorce as soon as possible. These reproaches came on top of the sexual difficulties he had attributed to her lack of attractiveness. The fat he criticized, and often had before, was imaginary, though it had been a permanent worry to Marlene who had invested in a bicycle-machine to combat it. This, combined with the low quality of her unwanted admirers, shook her self-confidence. She was vulnerable.