I call it the Scheherazade Effect: my expression for the way girls had to manipulate, charm and edge their way out of sexual harassment at the JC. Yes, the JC! When I started here in my 20s, back in the 1970s, I was the only woman reporter and I could not imagine lasting out the week, so many senior editors were lunging, touching and smooching. If you were not agile enough to manage a pre-emptive escape, life would be a true battlefield.
Why Scheherazade ? For those who don’t know One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade was the last bride in a string of victims of a rapacious and bloodthirsty sultan who had each one murdered after the first night of honeymoon. She saved herself by telling a nightly series of brilliant cliff-hangers, which led to him falling in love with her and sparing her life.
I’m not talking murder at the JC, of course, but the way to stave off these men’s unwelcome advances was to keep talking about other things, reminding them of their wives and children, praising their brilliant articles, charming them, until they slowly — very slowly, if ever — began to see you as a human being and not a sexual plaything.
So endemic was the problem that the victim began to collude with her attacker, believing in some Freudian way, that he was unwell and had to be understood, not confronted. One man would get nasty if confronted. So I tried political analysis, of which I knew nothing at all, which launched him onto the safer territory of furious intellectual rebuttal. But that only reinforced how diminished I felt.
There were lewd remarks, that you somehow deflected and the touchy-feely types you tried to avoid being alone with. One man managed a quick grab while I was in his office. I was dreaming of the hot story I was about to break, rather than worrying about my physical proximity to his wandering hands.
But worst of all, was the day when I walked into one senior executive’s office. His door bore a red light, so I politely knocked. Once inside, I turned to face him — to find he had exposed himself. Shocked and disbelieving, I offered some gibbering excuse about the editor needing to see me, and made a quick getaway. This was something you read about in the papers; half-dressed blokes leaping out of bushes in the park, not something you expect in a newspaper office.
After my first baby was born I tentatively ventured back to that red light district, intent on selling a story idea. Things would be better this time. I was a mother now. I was also heavily into reading Hinduism and Buddhism and the kind of transcendental stuff I thought I could offer those poor misguided souls who saw only the body and not the spirit.
I walked in holding the baby. I might as well have brought the cat. Undeterred, this same man ventured furtively towards me, his watery eyes fixed, extending his groping paws and ignoring my diminutive protector (will she ever forgive me?).
“If you gaze deeply into my eyes,” I said as hypnotically as I could, “you won’t fancy me at all because you will see your mother.” Needless to say, that didn’t work. He pleaded with me to stay. I have to admit I was torn between disgust and sympathy for what I considered — and still believe to be — an untreated psycho-sexual condition on his part. Clutching my baby daughter, once again I beat a hasty retreat. I was angry but also deeply sad.
Working freelance in Fleet Street proved easier, apart from a publication where I tried offering stories to a scarily lascivious, Czech-Jewish editor with a mordant wit. He suggested lunch and the harassment began in the taxi and ended in a restaurant where he had booked a private room. With his hands groping everywhere except the salmon en croute, I managed to free myself and flee in time, lamenting later that I hadn’t sold a single story .
Girls like me at the time, would joke about sexual harassment, with a kind of gallows humour. We lived by our wits. Had I spoken to the JC’s editor — himself eternally aloof, gentlemanly and courteous — he would have been horrified, embarrassed and might have wondered if it was really worthwhile employing a woman reporter. So I said nothing. I am only prepared to speak now, as the culprits are all dead. As I say, Scheherazade was our role model.