Earlier this week I attended what has become ritualised as an annual seasonal dinner organised by and for a group of former work colleagues – all eight of us, bar one, septuagenarian males.
I suppose we enjoy these occasions, although the inevitable regurgitation of ‘war stories’ heard year in and year out grows a little tiresome with each telling, even though refreshed annually with ever more inventive colour.
This year, though, some of the tales of shenanigans at social events took on an added significance in light of the sexual harassment scandals that have rippled out from the sordid Harvey Weinstein revelations to destroy the careers of well-known figures from the worlds of politics and entertainment.
“There but for the grace of God …” was a common response around the table.
Seven of us worked in the 1970s and 1980s for a famous company of great repute and impeccable respectability, which became known, and admired, among its employees, and even some of its clients, for heavy drinking and hard partying. Such occasions as these often led to incidents involving what we would now consider inappropriate behaviour, directed at what we once quaintly referred to as the opposite sex. Nor, one might add in partial mitigation, was all the traffic all one way. Leave of senses was taken by both genders.
Even so, there was a collective sigh of relief at the table that not one of us had received in the post a legal communication calling us to account for some incident that we may have been long forgotten but which some ‘victim’, equally long-forgotten, had not.
“So far, so good, is all I can say,” sighed one of my fellow diners, a man with a well-earned reputation as a Lothario, which at its peak of accomplishment he did nothing to dispel. He added, “Why isn’t there a statute of limitations, especially now that I’ve seen the light.”
The point about the statute of limitations is at least debatable, but it rather misses the point.
It was Weinstein’s discredited defence that times have changed over the last two decades and that his actions, once considered merely inappropriate, might be only now, in this altered social landscape, regarded as criminal.
It is, of course, nonsense.
To state the obvious, rape and sexual assault were never ‘merely inappropriate’. Weinstein was a sexual predator of the worst kind – even without the elements of rape and assault – because he employed bullying tactics that sought to exploit his power and fame for personal gratification with no regard for the possible consequences for his victims.
The same can be said of many like him. But not, of course, to us former hedonistic international playboys around the table. We were just having fun.
What is undeniable, though, is that the times have changed. The kind of flirtatious behaviour that may once have been considered ‘naughty’ at worst – the touching of knees under the table, the pinching of bottoms, the requests for a ‘snog’ – has become despicable, and of course potentially actionable. The Weinstein defence has done for all of us who failed back then to understand, whether because of the climate or not, that what we were doing at drink-sodden parties did not just cause serious offence but might inflict severe mental anguish as well.
If we have learned that lesson, then we are all the better for it. And even nostalgia for lost youth must have its limits.
Even so, “Do you remember that secretary on the seventh floor? After a couple of drinks ….”