Learning to Deal with Loathsome Men

Jenny Diski

If you lived through the 1960s and 1970s, and are a woman, it's really hard to be shocked or surprised by the tolerated sexism back then that's currently crawling out of the woodwork. It wasn't in the woodwork at the time. It was just there, in the air you breathed, in the world you walked about in. It wasn't just DJs and comedians. It wasn't even only the touching up, the comments, the boss who called you in to deal with a pile of filing that needed putting away in the bottom drawer of the cabinet right opposite his desk (think 1960s miniskirts). The men who felt you up on the Tube at least knew they were doing something wrong, even though they didn't think it was very wrong, or only wrong because it was in public. You could say, in a loud voice, 'Take your hand off my body,' and they would look ashamed. You could strategise to avoid those you knew were trouble, you grew a tough skin walking about the street being shouted at, having your body commented on, being sneered at when you didn't respond. Learning to deal with loathesome men in public and at work was part of being a young woman. But it was more pervasive than that.

When I was 19 I worked in the production department of Granada publishing. One December evening I went out with one of the editors intending to go for a meal. He said he wanted to stop off at a Christmas drinks party for publishers. When we arrived at the club in which it was being held, I wasn't allowed into the room, where I could see a hundred or so men, some of whom I knew, drinking, smoking and talking. My companion said he hadn't realised that it was a men-only party, and that I should wait outside the room while he went in for a quick drink. I said I wouldn't be doing that and walked in with him. There was a sudden hush in the room, then everyone tried to carry on as if nothing had happened and I wasn't there. No one spoke to me, and soon I was asked to leave by some official, not because I hadn't been invited, but because 'women weren't allowed'. I said no. My companion insisted that we leave. He was getting anxious. We went, but I skipped dinner.

The next day I was called in by the head of the department (the one with the filing for the bottom drawer) and told off; shouted at, actually. He had been at the party, too. I had behaved 'very badly and immaturely'. 'People' in the profession had been embarrassed by my childish stunt. I was warned I had better not show up the company again.

Even if the underlying contempt for women has not exactly disappeared (read the tabloids, look at trolling on the internet), it is one of the great social improvements of the 20th century that it must be almost impossible for a young woman now to imagine a time within living memory when the superiority and dominance of men was so completely embedded into the normality of the world that I was faced with a man's seething indignation simply for having walked into a room full of them.


  • 11 October 2012 at 6:35am
    philip proust says:
    This is an unsettling post that deserves a comment, I think. It also raises some important questions.

    The institutionalised and thus taken-for-granted character of sexism in the 1960s and 1970s - and as far back as you want to go - means that a generation of men who are still living can reasonably be described as active perpetrators or complicit bystanders in the 'loathsomeness' that Jenny Diski recalls. It is as though men have acquiesced in or supported a form of gender apartheid, which is now in the process of being dismantled.

    But what can be done about the past? Is it enough to look back with deep regret and anger at the way things were done in those days? What about some mechanism of truth and reconciliation if punishment is out of the question (except in the most flagrant cases)? Or do we draw a line under it all and seek to counter the still-active components of the old order?

    If organised religion had been able to reform itself, purge itself of its absurdities, there is a possibility that it could meaningfully confront what are in some senses theological questions. As it is, there appears to no where to go in confronting the past.

    • 11 October 2012 at 1:03pm
      BBeckett says: @ philip proust
      My first reaction is to direct attention to the review of jester books

      Freaks, Dwarfs and Boors
      Thomas Keymer

      BuyCruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental 18th Century by Simon Dickie
      Chicago, 362 pp, £29.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 226 14618 8

      Not sure that some comedians with their shit-pies, rape-jokes, etc owe more to centuries much earlier than the 21at

      And I am reminded of Mark Twain's discussion of prejudice. My recount will suffer as much from my remembering as my forgetting, but his word were to the effect (at least my solicitor has imprinted that phrase on me):

      Once, no-one noticed prejudice.

      The report in the paper would be, "A terrible steam-boat accident happened on the Mississippi River. Nobody died, but (X) number of blacks were killed"

      But then we took note of prejudice and there was more prejudice because we saw what we had been able to ignore.

      Mark Twain's conclusion (if I remember rightly, and would enjoy being put to rights) was that with prejudice, it gets worse, because we see the problem,and then, with effort, awareness and compassion, it may get better.

      My oldest daughter turned 21 yesterday. I think she understands what we have won. My middle daughter has just turned 17. If it is the likes of her, there is much going to be lost. My youngest daughter turned 8 earlier. Which major multinational needs a CEO in 30 years time - I just saw her climbing the neighbour's tree to retrieve a kite.

      (Neighbour got flagged as an incorrect spelling. Hmm)

      Please keep progressing, my daughters need it.

      PS In compiling my comments, I initially used the word "discrimination" and then I replaced that with "prejudice". Still not sure.

  • 11 October 2012 at 5:30pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Never underestimate the social benefits of enlightened self-interest.

    Born in 1958, I suspect I belonged to one of the first generations of modern British men who finally figured out that you would enjoy a far more active sex life if you were nice to women rather than a total arse. And if that niceness was genuine rather than assumed for the occasion, all the better.

    • 17 October 2012 at 9:47pm
      thewomaninthestripedshirt says: @ Mat Snow
      So where does that leave women one does not want to sleep with, or does not seem likely to sleep with? Presumably not in a modern place.