Nothing makes you feel quite so accutely alive than embarrassing yourself at the office summer party

There’s no moment more revealing about your inner character than the hot wave of shame that engulfs you on first stirring with an epic hangover. The gradual revelation of dawning consciousness can feel like a slow car crash, the fallout of which may not be fully known for many hours or weeks. But it’s there, in the back of your mind, done; and you know it’s bad. What felt like harmless fun at the time – the sexy dancing, that quick snog with the girl downstairs that you hadn’t spoken to before today and most likely won’t again, and the relentless gabbling about how much you like your own vagina to the office manager, whose daughter filled in the sketchy events in lurid, teenage, sober detail with full use of hand gestures. It was, apparently, a night to remember. The problem is you can’t.

Lol, how we laughed, until Monday morning when you notice eyes are averting, and Chinese whispers are circulating. The collective hangover of  a group of disparate individuals magnifying the full horror of what took place only hours before, when everyone felt like best friends. The fact is, normally, in our work clothes, we’re on best behaviour, but suddenly in the boss’s hot tub, we’ve known each other for years, and we’d better tell them exactly what we think of them, because, hey, we might never again get the opportunity to talk to them in swimwear.

The shame will wash away with time, but one’s reputation will remain sadly besmirched, a bit like my white jeans, which will never recover from doing the splits on my boss’s lawn, and falling, a leg hooked outside it, into his hot tub, creating a gash that looks like a wonky stocking seam (so it could be worse) that will hopefully fade in time. It was, at that moment, a cheer-worthy spectacle, but from the other side of Monday morning, it feels like a potential career breaker.

Why, oh why do we do it to ourselves? It’s as if we all need the excuse of too much booze to be more fully ourselves, so we can paste back on the rictus grin of employment, once more in the breach of the rush hour traffic. But by Friday, the horror will have faded as once more we take to the tiles with our desk fellows, and bask in the glory of a few hours, and white wine spritzers, where once more we can be an unfettered,  more human, versions of ourselves.

What happens at the office party stays at the office party – well that’s the official line anyway. But, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the people who have been at the company rather more years than me chose, wisely, to stay well-away. Nothing defines you in the eyes of other people in a competitive environment quite so much as the actions you take when you are 49 sheets to the wind, no matter how on-the-nail you are the rest of the time. But the fact is, when you’re in a pressure cooker, Monday to Friday, we all need to let off steam, and by encouraging us with flowing booze to let our hair and defences down, we are showing that we trust we will not have it held against us by HR. Which is perhaps why we all should all remember the purpose of the office party is to remind ourselves that we are all human, when we are taken out of an environment where some are more equal than others; and that we need something with which to tease one another for (hopefully) many years to come.

Good Friday

A year ago, I was hung out to dry. They waited until after the Easter egg hunt. My boss smiled at me as he told me I needn’t bother looking upstairs. I found my egg near where he was sat in the office reception, feet up on the coffee table in front. Soon, I was sat there myself, feet on the floor, pre-empting my fate, waiting to be called into the meeting room with HR and my line manager, who’d never seemed to like me much.

I wasn’t the only one who went that day, but I was the first. Perhaps they knew I wouldn’t go quietly. I swore as I grabbed my things, asking the HR lady for a fag  – I still smoked back then – which I sucked down nihilisticly. Through a curtain of tears I made the walk of shame out of the office, accompanied by a producer who, a week earlier, I’d bumped into in the toilet, also crying. Now, at least I knew what she was crying about. She took me for a G and T, and without using so many words, told me she felt I’d had a rough ride, that she knew I was being bullied, and that she thought it was unfair. On LinkedIn, a few months later, I saw she had gone as well, though I doubt she was pushed. Good for her. At least she saw what I did. It was a viper’s nest and they had been gunning for me for months. I had gradually, bit by bit been relieved of my duties. I was demoted, ostracised, whispered about, shunned. They hated the fact I had a platform and wasn’t afraid to say what I felt, although I rarely took the opportunity to say what I really thought.  It was, they felt, a threat to the fragile hierarchy they were propping up, that I might one day tell the truth. 

 To be fair, I hadn’t been on my best behaviour, but then no one else there was either. It was in many ways a den of iniquity: gossip, incest, sexism, favoritism, backhanders and back scratching. The powerful and the exploited, all drinking together in the same pub, pretending to be mates. But everyone knew their place. Except me. I’d taken a job there because I was desperate, to be sure, but I was too proud to accept my new found status.

 Like anyone else would in tough times, I had accepted a job from an old friend, who picked up my CV from a pile, and called me because he recognised the name. It turned out that not only was I in the same year at school, I was also on the same street that day, so I met him for a coffee and I explained about the children, to excuse the holes in my CV. Having just had a daughter, he empathised, and then, looking for more common ground, it turned out we lived on the same street, the same block of  apartments. He could look down into my living room. Perhaps he had even seen what went on there on a Saturday night. 

It felt like an auspicious set of coincidences, and I guess I was hoping that he would smooth my path. But as soon as I had started he relocated to the States with his wife and daughter, and I was left to the mercy of his underling who took an instant dislike of having me in his team, without his say so. Despite seeming to do little work, and blaming mistakes he should have checked on his junior, he was quickly promoted, and wielded his status like a vicious rumour. Perhaps that was my first mistake – standing up for his more vulnerable colleague, who left shortly after. It wouldn’t be my last. 

 Don’t get me wrong, my work was good. I’m not the sort of person to ever do a bad job – even though I was learning, catching up on years spent at home with the children, flexing technical muscles that had lain dormant, and discovering that abilities that had once been celebrated had not deserted me. 

My problem stemmed from within. A succession of events had left me vulnerable, and the crisis of confidence had eaten away at my pride.  Full of self doubt in an anything-goes environment that was the out-of-hours dynamic of this young and close knit team, I was on a back foot for being tied down, unable to keep up, making it harder to break in. Once my status was discovered – married, saddled with kids- I was left to my own devices, and with what was going on at home, I felt lonely and isolated. 

When, eventually someone paid me some attention, I was more or less fair game. They were popular, important, and they made it clear that they had me in their sights. At home, my weekends were fraught with tantrums and fights, the fallout from years of struggle. My other half and I were angry with each other, infighting, and taking it out on the other, doing stuff we knew would hurt them because we neither of us knew what to do to help ourselves. 

 The office suddenly begun to feel like a respite, and I began to flourish under the light of attention I’d not felt in so long. I was courted and eventually, slightly against my better judgment, I reciprocated. At the Halloween party, I went dressed as a corpse. Being told I was beautiful felt like a resurrection. But as holding myself together after years of fear and struggle began to bubble to the surface. I was scared that what I was doing would undo everything I had built on, and yet the ground felt so shaky I felt I had no choice but to find shelter  I was left high and dry, too much trouble to bother with. I knew it had been a poisoned chalice, even as I got drunk on it.

 Feathers were ruffled, the rumour mill turned and jealous tongues whispered. More fool me for breaking rank, and when the rug was soon pulled out from under me, I was placed under scrutiny; more fool me for having trusted lies. In the ebb and flow of a constantly shifting, also desperate workforce, newer, younger, less complicated people were drafted in and I was found dispensable. I was sidelined, put on projects beneath my skill level, shut out and isolated. I was embarrassed and sad. Under my gaze, he began another affair with a younger, thinner, more beautiful girl who sat near me, so I could live the humiliation every day. I tried to rise above it, but some days I wept silently at my desk. No one knew quite where to look as I publicly broke down.

 In the end of course I had to go, but where I was vulnerable, with a family to support and, it felt, nowhere left to go, he had friends in higher places to support him, at least, it seemed. As I walked out that day, drifting into the road with little care for whether I reached the pavement in one piece, out in the multiverse, I must have died a thousand times, of shame, defeat, humiliation, fear and self-loathing, and drunk cycling home, startled by the lights. I didn’t want my husband’s comfort. He had let me down as much as I had him. But I had really been running away from myself. He propped me up as much as I would let him and, then we held on for dear life as he was also savagely cut loose, from a job he’d been clinging onto like a raft.

 I will always beat the scars of that day’s despair. But the tide turned for us. A year on, he’s the man I married, going places and I no longer fear being left alone while he goes there, nor do I seek comfort from others when his back is turned. I have my own things to do, and I’m happy doing them. I have found a niche where I am supported, a nest egg to nurture, and I no longer need hollow admiration for trivial things that are, in any case, on the wane. 

From a distance, someone was keeping an eye on me, and when the time was right, would give me the chance I needed to get back on my feet again. When I realised my old boss had been promoted; a new role, a new company, his smug face snarling down at me from my monitor at my new desk at my new job, I felt a glimmer of something – a fire burning, but it was more complicated than hatred. I know soon enough, it will be my face smiling down at him from somewhere more tangible than online static, and mine will be story that gets told.

 

The death of Page 3 signals a return to a more modest world. But is this really progress?

The death knells of one of Britain’s longest standing soft porn publication, Page 3, were sounded quietly, with no formal announcement of the papers’ new found modesty. Whether or not you see the demise of the breast baring beauties at part of the rise and fall of a long standing British tradition of cheeky smut that goes back to Victorian seaside amusement arcades, or see its inception, during the cultural revolution of the 60s as the point where the nation’s stiff upper lip morality started to take a nosedive, until the late noughties when internet porn began to replace top shelf magazines and lads mags started to be soled in wipe clean plastic covers, there is no doubting that the hard fought feminist battle to remove nudity from the pages of mainstream tabloid press has scored a victory. Although bikini shots are still considered fair game, it seems.

But is it really a victory for feminism? Or is it or sign of the times prurience, in the face of moral confusion that objects in pricipal to full face burkas while bulking at bare breasts, that is, unless they are wholesomely feeding infants, in which case, it’s breasts akimbo wherever you happen to be, unless it’s Claridges; a confused national moral compass that that saw a facesitting demonstration at Westminster over porn censorship of wink wink nudge nudge proclivities as spanking which many saw as government interference in the bedroom, yet applauds the removal of post watershed material from the front pages of a, if you can call it such, a family paper. The national mood around boobs have taken something of a U-turn it seems, of late, where function is okay, but form, in all its youthful glory, plainly isn’t.

Whatever your objection to Page 3, and I admit my own distaste and hasty embarrassment if I turn over the lurid headlines to a grinning temptress, complete with nipples and a pithy remark on the latest world events, is it actually feminist to ban it? Though it may be reductive to say the least, this poke of humour at an attractive young women – the joke as always, on her in that whatever she’s saying is always bound to be as irrelevant – is a naked woman really, really always just a bit sexist?

Much though it might not be to my taste (and I an ex-stripper!) I wholly support any young woman’s right to express her sexuality, however garishly, whether it’s from the front pages of tomorrow’s chip paper, or letting it all hang out in Torremolinos, however much the sight of too much flesh much not always be that appealing.

But in many cases it seems in the feminist circles, the more appealing flesh on display the more it rankles. Young women have few powers, attractive breasts often being one of them; so I say, use them well, but use them wisely. Because, and here’s the rub – they don’t last forever; and if you don’t develop other talents in the meantime, your fall from grace as you inevitably wither and age, is spectacular and brutal. And this, I suspect it the maternal sentiment behind most female censure of a young woman exploiting her figure. Jealousy is less to do with it, although it no doubt plays a part.

Although I may envy a younger woman her form, I recognise its powers has its limitations, and she too will feel the bitter sting that comes when a perkier model inevitably takes her place. Being conventionally sexy feels, at times like a young woman’s game – at least that’s how I feel, these days – and it rarely comes with an insurance policy, or long term dividends if making a career out of it doesn’t work out, although many a young woman taking advantage of her looks can secure a home/ footballer/ gossip column, for all the happiness it may bring her.

The aptly named Abi Titmuss is a case in point, garnering a successful career off the back of her perky bosom and, randomly, her relationship with shamed TV presenter John Lesley during the lads mag heyday of the late 90s and early noughties. She recently came out as saying she lost her sense of aelf esteem doing glamour work, and it’ not hard to see why. Nuts and Zoo rained supreme, as the male answer to the cultural phenomenon that was Heat, with Loaded and FHM bringing up the rear so to speak, peppering their pictures of scantily clad women with articles that taught gauche young men the basics of getting dressed and holding a conversation. In fact, it so normalised the sexualisation of young women that its annual High Street Honeys feature encouraged readers girlfriends to show off their frillies in a saucy pic that no doubt largely ended up in the grubby hands of its youthful editorial team, all for the sake of the chance of getting your pic in the magazine. Sadly I was one of them who did. I’m not sure I wanted to prove from the experience. But there was a thrill and a freedom in being found sexually attractive, however publicly, that, for many a young women is never going to go away, whatever feminism has to say about it.

Obviously now, in my mid thirties with a daughter, I’m mildly embarrassed by my youthful shenanigans, but I can still look wistfully at the pictures to a lovely pair of mammaries that are sadly, no longer what they were, even if their publication never bought me anything but a vague sense of shame. But why should I be ashamed? To be fair, I look pretty hot. But society, feminism, in fact, tells me it’s wrong to expose my flesh in a national publication.

And yet, still, I cringe when adverts for Victoria’s Secret, today’s premium answer to the Playboy bunny, comes on telly during the X-Factor, and watch my kids’ expressions at this pre- watershed, out-of-step with the times statuesque parade of be-sequinned beauties. Having a child of of each gender, I can see in their innocent gazes, basic gender stereotypes being formed. The boy, the observer, the girl, the observed. My son can no less help his reaction to nudity, than my daughter, with her tendency to people please, can help understanding that female nudity causes a reaction, for all I help injure them to this fact by not making an issue out of nudity – my own, theirs, Tom’s – at home. But soon, young and pretty, as she is, it is entirely within her scope to want to provoke a reaction when one is given, without necessarily understanding the consequences of society’s general frowning on uninhibited female sexual liberation. Even now, I tut at her flashing her knickers unnecessarily and make her cover her flat little chest on the beach. But why? Because society says that what nice girls should do.

I shan’t mourn the demise of Page 3, but it was at the thin end of the wedge of female objectification in today’s world of instant online gratification, and seems rather innocent, even quaint by comparison. Men’s magazines began to flounder when their darkest fantasy could be accessed at the click of a mouse. But it is a dangerous world indeed that has no middle ground of female sexual imagery for my son as a stepping stone to the cornucopia of delights and depravity that await him on line (although sadly, no spanking or water sports anymore). A world where women are discouraged from embracing their sexuality, but abuse, in dark corners, is rife is a also a very sad place indeed.

In any case, and updating this the day after posting, it sadly looks to be a false alarm.

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Death by a thousand cuts: what the New Year’s Honours List is really saying

Savile rantzen

Image via: mirror.co.uk

The appointment of Esther Rantzen and Fiona Woolf to the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List has disturbed me and not just for the slap in the face it represents to victims of the Establishment Inquiry into historic claims of VIP child abuse and murder.

To me, it represents the heart of darkness at the centre of the Establishment – that those within will be protected at whatever cost to those they may have harmed without. Whether or not you believe claims that Esther Rantzen’s Childline was some kind of front organisation to screen victims of Establishment and BBC abuse as some blogs have suggested, her close professional links to Jimmy Savile cannot be denied; and her expressed shock that former lover, politician Sir Nicholas Fairbairn in the 1960s was a regular visitor to the notorious guest house where children were regularly said to be abused may be genuine enough, but whose familial and professional links place her in an extremely delicate situation regarding the truth about the extent of her knowledge about incidents when they took place. Whether or not you agree that Fiona Woolf, who was recently forced to step down as chair of the Abuse Inquiry for having had dinner parties with Leon Brittan, accused of failing to act on a dossier of evidence, following the resignation of Lady Butler Schloss, whose own familial links to Establishment figures indited in the Inquiry were considered highly questionable, deserves to be included on the list for her work as a lawyer to the City of London, despite the unfortunate clash of public interest and apparently poor timing in publicly honouring her. Interesting too that Kate Lampard, the barrister appointed by the Government to oversee investigations into Jimmy Savile’s behaviour at hospitals where he worked as a volunteer, is also created CBE.

What it all seems to say is that these people, in their positions of privilege and power are inscrutable. That they have been given official, unviolable status that accords them protection against their critics, much like many others who were named peers of the realm, Sir Jimmy Savile included, about whom, eventually the accusations became too numerous to ignore, fudge or otherwise cover up.

It is too much of a coincidence that these high profile individuals flying so close to the centre of the scandals have not been allowed to get burned. The establishment is closing ranks. It is making a point. To outsiders of this rarefied circle it seems to be saying, we are untouchable, so don’t make too much of a fuss.

I don’t know why this particular scandal has affected me personally so deeply. Perhaps it is the gradual revelation that once trusted figures are not what they once they seemed to be, indeed, the opposite. First that Father Christmas of my childhood: the odd, but still sorta cuddly Jim’ll Fix It, has been unmasked as a depraved monster with a penchant for necrophilia, not to mention the pedo-kind. Then institutions that provided a sturdy backdrop to my ostensibly comfortable middle class 80s childhood existence – the BBC, Childline, the Church, the government, the Palace, are being called into question for their role in these most inhumane, hypocritical, corrupt of crimes.

Perhaps it is because I too have been a victim of power inbalance – not in the sense of sexual abuse, though as a child, I did call Childline once when my verbose, powerful pissed stepfather hit me; and my mother, who witnessed the whole thing, indeed took me to hospital with my skull all bleeding and my jaw all wonky, who swore she would divorce him, acted as if nothing had happened, know what it is to have the truth rewritten from under me, to have ranks closed, eyes closed, ears blocked in a monstrous real life hear no, see no, speak no evil parody where no one will believe you because to be honest, they’d simply rather not. Perhaps this is why I feel so angry for the victims of the unspeakable crimes that ultimately must be heard, at whatever cost to our national pride and the pillars of society that seem, from where I’m standing, suddenly to be hollow and wracked with canker – but which will probably just get buried, much like those bodies at Haut La Garenne.

It is death by a thousand cuts. The victim’s stories will be quashed, cast asunder to fringe blogs where they get passed over by serious people as conspiracy; the inquiry obsfucated and drawn out, confusing people into disbelief and or, ultimately, boredom. On it will drag as perpetrators grow old and die, and gradually it will lose relevance and the old guard, in new incarnations, will carry on just as before because ultimately people would rather be entertained into a mindless, passive stupor by the Establishment and their approved court jesters than remember they have it well within their power to silence us forever once they have done with us exactly what they pleased.

Ex wives and lost lives

It’s hard being an ex-wife. I saw it with my mother. She did the dirty, admittedly with my dad’s boss. My parents never spoke to each other again. I’m overdramatising. My dad’s not a bad guy, but he does have a temper. My mum’s not a horrible woman. But she has problems she doesn’t even recognise. Roots go deep and are tangled beyond anyone’s comprehension. I had to do some digging to realise that none of this was my fault, though of anyone, I felt I, along with my sister, just 2 and 3 when she left, suffered the most in the fallout.

Later, Daddy dearest, having brought up my sister and I more or less on his tod, becoming, in a short time, a wealthier man with more of a chip on his shoulder than the one my mother left, ditched the woman who’d been at his side since mama went. She’d been a good sport, coping with us two kids (who like their parents weren’t always simple creatures) and living in my parents’ nice house (she sold one to move in with us), going on our nice holidays and being there, at least physically, through good times and tough. But then he found someone else on a business trip and boom, he blew up his life up once again.

It was an atom bomb to my fragile psyche that left me reeling for years.  He moved the new woman and her family over from where they lived and in a while they had a daughter, the same age as my son. It took years for Dad and I to be understanding of one another, in the mean time, damaging relations between the next generation. It was a mess alright – one of the reasons I ended up in  Mile End, by hook or by crook, where the flotsam of life’s turbulent tide has often drifted in, increasingly where the human detritus cast out by the City and Canary Wharf can be found. It is illuminating that I am now a stone’s throw from where my mother’s 16th century relatives scavenged a living. All our problems and successes have deep roots. At least, I feel I’m probably plague proofed, if nothing else can be said for my genes.

All this early drama made me both long to to avoid it for myself, but also be drawn to it like a moth to a flame – drama had become a way of life for me. I found myself a nice, normal man, who was stronger than I was, to take out my angst on. But because of his stable background – mother and father together until his dad passed away, tragically young, but uncomplicated to the last – Tom by and large props me up. Except nothing’s ever that simple, whatever polemic rhetoric our tabloids sell as normal dialogue. Even Tom.

Tom was married when I met him, floating round strip clubs with a buffoon’s grin on his face and money to burn in his pocket. He was adrift. His workaholic wife had cast him to the spare room. Married in his early twenties, he’d missed out on his youth, as I would go on to miss out on mine, through the babies we made together. Back then, he had the unwise income of an incautious profession. He slept with hookers in Amsterdam. He was squandering his credit limit paying for someone to be nice to him. He wanted someone to look after. And I needed someone who made me feel safe.  It was, perhaps, a relationship based on false promises.

I cut him down to size with good time wit, bedazzled him with sequins and youthful breasts. I tested his patience, pocket and determination. I didn’t find him wanting. He scraped me up, moved in and we hung out a while, while I worked out what to do with the rest of my life. It took a while, but we got there. I needed to know he would never leave. And he promised and promised he wouldn’t.

But that promise is always a pie crust promise. Here is how it works. Relationships have a balance of power. When I was young, some would say, Tom included, I had beauty. Tom had money (at least, he had rather more of it than me). Even stevens, more or less. If you don’t believe me, think: how often in life does this combination achieve a partnership – even if they are rarely, in the end, successful? Relationships – a marriage – are always a bargain of sorts.

Now, I have less beauty (itself a form of power) and more money (power of a more tangible kind, in the form of capital). Tom, who went through a patch when he had less power (losing several jobs in the financial crisis (and despite myself, I nearly left, though it was complicatedly dressed up as something else, like all our undeclared motivations are). The more power he accumulates, the more he might leave. It really is that simple. I hope that he won’t. I hope the investments we have made together, in our family, our friends, our shared history and memories, will keep him glued. But I can’t bank on it. My step mother (who my father tellingly never married) thought that. But when Dad left her, he did it hard and fast and never looked back. Not brutally – he bought her a house. But there was nothing my erstwhile stepmother (in name if not in law) could do about it either. When someone wants to go, they go (by which I probably just mean men). It doesn’t make them a monster. It just means they believe, albeit temporarily, that whatever insecurities they have about their lives (and we all have some) will be eradicated by this new relationship. Perhaps for Tom, when he eventually left his wife, it was that he hadn’t had enough sex with enough people; enough fun, enough control….  I was a way to achieve all that. Perhaps as I get old and deny him these things for whatever reasons, or gain more control of my own, he may decide to dispense with me. For me, Tom was a way to get stability. When he became unstable (losing several jobs, partying too hard) I very nearly dispensed with him. There’s always an ulterior motive. And spurious concepts of love and morality don’t cut it. And that’s how I learned to forgive my parents. It’s how I learned to be disillusioned by free will.

Tom’s ex-wife sometimes gets in touch. We are grown ups and most of the time are respectful of each other, even at times friendly. But as a human being, there was always a hint of Schadenfreude when Tom and I started to go through tough times. It’s never easy to be left for a younger, albeit more vulnerable model. Now she’s going through a tough time, for which I have utmost sympathy. She’s contacted Tom for old times sake – I’ve never had a problem with this; indeed, we have continued to use Tom’s old holiday house they owned together. But she has become increasingly critical of me, in particular my writing, which has always been honest, often to the detriment of myself in more vulnerable circumstances, although, now I’m less so, I can take greater risks, which is ultimately the very nature of power.

And it’s easy to be critical when you don’t have all the facts. Which ultimately none of us every do.

I have to agree with Richard Dawkins. There are degrees of rape.

I got raped, and it didn’t change my life. I hate to court controversy (perhaps some of you will think I courted rape?) but I agree with Richard Dawkins. There are differing degrees of severity in all things, rape included. And you can’t compare one with another. I was raped. Properly, well and truly raped. I was raped by a virtual stranger. Police were involved. I had to get all sorts of tests to make sure I hadn’t contracted anything nasty. It was traumatic.

But in the end, it wasn’t particularly life altering. Like many things I’ve had to deal with, I dusted myself off and moved on. I’m lucky I was able to do so. Many can’t. But perhaps that’s because, compared to other things I’ve had to deal with in my life, it really wasn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

I was a waitress in a bistro in my middle class, middle England town. I had just turned 19, filing a gap between A-levsl and Uni, earning money to go traveling. I had a steady, musician boyfriend who had a tattoo and a spliff addiction.  I thought I was a little bit street wise, but like most 19 year olds, I was still fairly clueless.

The chef at the restaurant where I worked was probably what you might call, a couple of chocolate fingers short of the full packet. But he was friendly enough, and as a polite, middle class sorta girl, I was polite back. We must have worked together for all of two weeks, with the sort of trench mentality that sets in quickly in professional kitchens when, on a quiet night, I joined him and a regular who used to prop up the wine bar on weeknights, for a couple of drinks. It was nearly Christmas, the year of the millenium. I thought, why the hell not? We drank one and then another, the proprietor re-filling our glasses for free – sloe gin, if I remember correctly – potent stuff. After a while, he decided to close up, and a little merry, I invited the chef and the customer back to mine, which was only a few doors up the road to carry on our little party.

We drank another and then, unsteady on my feet I called up my  boyfriend, partly because I wanted the men to leave – aware I was more than a little drunk. He was at band practice and said he’d be over later. Trying to get rid of them, but not really having the skills, I drunkenly said I was going to bed, but told them let themselves out when they had finished their drinks.

I swiftly passed out in my room. I may have even left the light on, certainly I had a face full of makeup on, which was face down in a heap. The next thing I knew, I was being raped. At first, coming into consciousness, I thought it was my boyfriend. I may have even responded – the thought makes me feel sick – positively for a moment, until l realised what was happening. I shoved the chef off me, and raised the alarm with my mother, asleep in the next bedroom. Still somewhat drunk, I was more afraid what my boyfriend would think, than thinking to call the police, but my mum summed it up – you shouldn’t have left them alone in the house. I called the police to prove I’d hadn’t been “asking for it”.

But the police echoed mum’s response. The alcohol on my breath and my disorientation about what had happened seemed to place a fair amount of blame at my door. My door, in my nice middle class home, compared to the housing estate up the road where the chef lived. I knew whereabouts he lived – a couple of doors down from my boyfriend. It was that sort of town. I was advised not to bring a case –  it would wreck the “young man’s life – and he’s probably, you know, not all there” said the policeman, after taking swabs and driving me to the police station at well above the speed limit, without his seat belt done up.

The most traumatic part of it was not the guilt that I accepted was mine and I assimilated, judging other women as I judged myself for my “behaviour” that led up to it for many years later. The most traumatic part of it was the cold, judgmental efficiency of the STD clinic – my first brush with cold steel up my kiber, and not one I’ve particularly grown fond in the intervening years – although these days it’s usually for smears rather than anything  more racy. The most traumatic part, in fact was that my mum chose same restaurant for her millennium eve celebrations. To be fair, there wasn’t many other places to choose from. But still. I even popped in for a drink, but just as quickly left again, feeling the accusing eyes of the proprietor and the regular who had left the chef in my house alone, upon me, to hurry of into my new life of South East Asian travels and uni. I know I was lucky enough to be able to escape.

I remained withdrawn for a few weeks. But really, compared to everything else – my angry, sometimes violent step-dad, my flippant mother, her oddball lodger, my father who’d decided I was too much trouble to live with, my A levels and getting into Oxford – I failed – it really wasn’t that much of a big deal.

It didn’t affect my sex life, although a psychologist might nod and shake their heads at the fact I became a stripper to fund my way through uni – Bristol, in fact; and I do seem to have gone off it quite a lot aged 34, now I’ve got the breeding part of my life pretty much over with. But, I don’t think much of this has to do with this particular incident.

In general, I learned self -respect, if that is what one calls female sexual modesty, or rather, learning to accept the people who are nice to you and reject the ones who are not, perhaps a little later than some, but I’d blame my parents (a convenient psychological punchbag – that in the end is what parents are for) more for any attention seeking I may have done as a young adult than what any bloke could do to me. I taught myself sexual confidence, self-defence and learned to shut down my barriers to anyone who tweaked my weirdometre. Later, as a consenting adult, I awoke to find a man I’d gone to bed with helping himself after I’d fallen asleep. But I warned him in no uncertain terms he could get himself in trouble by doing that. But again, it wasn’t that much of a deal. Although,these days I find myself with little time for anyone except my husband and my kids and work.

But for all the fall out, which, relatively speaking, is minimal – I hold down a full time job, have well adjusted kids, a nice house, and still speak to my family regularly enough,  I am not a six year old school girl in Uttar Pradesh, raped by my teacher: I was not raped by a police man as I stooped to defecate because there are no toilets in my vicinity before being hung by the neck – for all my own experience with the law showed me what utter contempt the police had for it themselves. I am no young boy from a care home, taken advantage of by a politician who has invited me to take cocaine. I am no Broadmoor patient, perved on by a television creep who many viewed as a hero.

There are degrees of rape; degrees in which trust is broken, faith in human nature is eroded, people are taken advantage off; are subsumed by the will of others.

I am a little damaged, no question, but I am not broken. It was be a disrespect to the people who are, to say our experiences are comparable. They are not. So I agree with Dawkins, for all he may speak to truth but lack compassion.  But then, I can see that the people who rape are damaged too, and need our help, but in other ways. Perhaps, in the case of this man, and indeed myself, brushing it off as a stupid error of judgement, on both of our parts, is the best way to make it what it has become – no big deal.

Here’s to the brilliance of “unfuckable lard-arses.” Or how sexual attractiveness hampers women from breaking the glass ceiling

File:Angela Merkel (2008).jpg

Image via: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Angela_Merkel_%282008%29.jpg

We may never know whether or not the shamed Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi described German Chancellor Angela Merkel thus, as quizzed, rather combatitively by the the great Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last week (although, I admit, I viewed it on Gogglebox). But in a sense it doesn’t matter. It’s opened the debate about how women’s looks affect them in the workplace, and for that, it is no bad thing.

There’s a well-stated correlation between attractiveness and success. But it’s occurred to me of late that women who really go places never trade on their looks at all. Oh yes, the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world are impressive by any standard. But certainly the women holding rank with most CEOs today, many of whom make the grade in their late fourties and fifties, (ie. those who blazed a trail before Sandberg and her ilk had made it possible for young women to be contenders for the top spot, helped along by young, innovative, fast growing industries), are, not to put too fine a point on it,  somewhat plainer.

(Although personally, I think Merkel is rather beautiful, but sexually attractive? Perhaps no longer.)

A classic example, Margaret Thatcher looked, whilst in power, rather like a over-coiffered version of someone’s ageing mum. She may have been a sex symbol among a certain type of man. But she was no Marilyn Monroe, who was born just a year later. It’s an apt comparison. Simply fucking the President, it seems, will get you nowhere.

Continuing in politics, the wonderful Ann Widdecombe, MP for Maidstone when I was growing up there, became well-loved despite, it must be said, having a rather toad-like – yet still, for that, entirely charming – demeanour. Her anti-looks stance allowed her to rise above the usual snipes aimed at female politicians of a more conventionally attractive persuasion. A more recent parliamentary candidate, Louise Mensch, noted for her looks – and it has to be said – the frivolity of her previous incarnation as the writer of chick lit – bowed out of the political arena amid accusations of cyber bullying, much of entirely sexist. It’s probably not a fair comparison, but it illustrates the point that when it comes to gaining power, particularly in politics, women’s looks are not their best friend. Except, perhaps, by proxy. ie. when women marry into it, which is itself is entirely precarious when their looks begin to fade.

But it is hardly surprising that women trade on what is often, in youth, their most powerful asset. I am a case in point. A stripper, I married, perhaps unwisely, a customer 8 years older than myself. Partly, it has to be said, and few would be this honest, for the financial security he offered me. As it turns out he is also a really nice bloke, if something of a gentle sociopath. But many in my then-situation would not be so lucky. I made the cardinal error of relying on someone else, when I was perfectly capable of relying on myself. In an imperfect society, it is what women are often conditioned, or perhaps only able, to do.

Time has moved on, the financial crisis has been and gone. I am now the same age my husband was when he met me. The tables have turned and I’m now pretty much the main breadwinner. I have gone from being the somewhat decorative wife of a man with more financial power than me to being a genuinely level player. It feels really, really good.

But as a stripper, I knew more than most the market value of my looks and that they were a  depreciating asset. If the archetype of female sexual attractiveness dictated by pornography is correct (and as the world of porn is dictated by market forces, it must be) then it is a very fragile sort of woman who is deemed the most sexually alluring. Strippers’ unwieldy plastic heels, like concubine’s bound feet before them, are sexually potent because of their literally unstable posture and subservient symbolism.

The ideal of female beauty is all about being tamed. The effort alone maintaining said ‘beauty’ is limiting enough, what with all the hair removal, and highlights. It can become hard to get anything useful done. Add to that the pain of breast enlargements, lip plumpers, a body not damaged by childbirth. In fact, a body, which is probably 22 at most. The fleeting sexual power beauty offers is all too soon over. In an unfair world, where men have more power, women are slaves to their desires, too soon dispensed with if they are unable to gain power of their own.

I was lucky that I had a back-up plan carved in the days when when beauty was the least of my assets, for when the best of my looks had passed. Many don’t. I was a geeky swot in my early teens and probably considered a bit of a fright: a late bloomer, with braces and an ill advised fringe; acne scrawling a signature of misery across my beleaguered face, and glasses (although I only ever needed them for close work) which I insisted on wearing all the time to avoid the pain of being looked at directly. I cowered in books until I was deemed socially acceptable enough to fraternise with. But when it mattered, I was cultivating the basis of my other, more long lived asset – my education.

My lapdancing days – perhaps in some ways overcompensating for having been considered plain in my youth –  paid off – for uni, which I left with a top degree, then later, internships and a foot on the property ladder before I met my husband, which whom I quickly produced two children.  I may have learned early on not to rely on my looks for social success, but I fell, career wise, at the first hurdle of being found attractive. It’s taken an effort of will to get my career back on track. Yet by hook or by crook, I have done it.

I think the way I look has helped me on my way but this won’t always be the case. In this new employment,  looking glossy and smelling nice might have made for a smoother interview, but knuckling down with greasy hair is what’s going to win me promotions, not turning up late with my nails did. At nearly 34, the time to trade on my looks is over  And knowing this is the key to success in later life for women who’s looks can no longer be relied on as a social lubricant –  at least, according to the opposite sex. But for a while, being thought attractive can help more than it hinders.

On Facebook, yesterday, after a glass or two of wine, I got drawn into a debate about this, rather hackneyed piece of content from The Onion, which suggests, albeit humorously, that attractive women have a better chance of getting an internship and thus their foot in the door of a company.

In my experience, I would venture it may well be true. I certainly felt the way I looked helped me into my first job. Pointy of chin, with eyes like a marmoset, I’m not conventionally beautiful, by any means. But with a young looking baby face and the right tools, I can make a good enough approximation of it – even if I do say so myself. Curvy and fair, with longish legs in a shortish dress with a hefty but subtle coating of makeup, I can make the grade as ‘fit’ in a certain types of man’s book.But only if I feel like it. These days, I pass most of my time unnoticed in leggings. I get more done that way. Looks, I believe, are as destructive as they can be constructive.

The study I provided at the beginning of this piece about the correlation between beauty and success also found a link between being thought attractive and negative performance evaluation. This has certainly been my experience too.

The beholder with the power in this particular employment ,where I walked in as an  intern was, naturally enough, a man, and after offering me a fairly spurious role, for which I was entirely overqualified, he continued to make slightly sexist remarks at me for at least the first half of my employment, to the discomfort, and slightly ruffled feathers of all. When it became apparent that I was not the young grad he took me for in my interview – I was in fact, a mother of two, trying, desperately, to break back into the workforce – and that I wouldn’t stand for much nonsense, didn’t always go down well with the powers that be, who wanted me, in effect, to be young, naive, powerless.

Women with a modicum of power within the organisation, (many of them who likely traded on their looks too in the past) did their best to undermine me, and I was subjected to disciplinary procedures for relatively trivial misdemeanours, before being ousted  just shy of two years, having make the schoolgirl error of sleeping with the wrong person. Except I wasn’t a schoolgirl.  I was a 30-something mother of two who should have, but didn’t, know better.

But when I was a school girl, when perhaps it matters most what others think of you, I felt considered largely “unfuckable” by many of my peers. So again, I was probably compensating for something. We all do. For all we must accept that women, like men, have sex for any number of reasons, I certainly bore the brunt of that poor decision.  So much, my own fault, you might think. It didn’t matter that I was good at my job. I had made my bed, so to speak. It’s a mistake I won’t be making twice.

Being pretty may, therefore, help women up the ladder to success. But only to a rather low rung.  And it may actually harm their career once they’ve got their foot in the door. Attractive women have always threatened the status quo. In an unequal society where men hold more power, it is all too easy for men to leave their wives and children for a younger, more attractive model. Like any women who has used her looks as collateral in the past,  I know they can threatening. But only, it seems, to those who have also used their looks to get ahead, as I previously mentioned on this blog about women undermining women in the workplace.

It’s natural for women (particularly in a competitive workplace scenario) to feel threatened by a woman with a higher sexual market value – I hate to use these terms, beloved of men on Tinder and the likes of “prostitute-comparison site” Punter.net, but these things exist.However, it’s generally women who have throw a lot of their eggs, so to speak, in the ‘looks’ basket, who feel most threatened. Women who bank on their looks for success, particularly, success by proxy, or marrying someone richer and more powerful, are playing a very dangerous game, one I know all too well.

The Mary Beards (a TV historian of considerable import, described once by that  pinnacle of public school macho idiocy, AA Gill as “too ugly for TV”)  and Angela Merkels of this world, having never banked on their looks, have long since dispensed with the notion of using their faces and bodies for anything other than talking considerable sense and getting things done. They learn, early on,  to throw off any criticism levelled at their looks, particularly, these days,  where it is freely and liberally expressed, rather cruelly, online. They get their kicks from intimidating others with the force of their wit, not the size of their tits. Good for them. Other women may not so blessed – or at least, don’t need to use their wits until their looks begin to fail them, when it might just be too late.

So if you’re a women who really wants to get ahead,  using your looks to your advantage is a short term strategy that will very likely backfire. Even men, as poor, ageing pretty-boy actor Rob Lowe can testify  are not immune from feeling discriminated against for their good looks. It’s not fair, but  beauty or sexual attractiveness seem to be considered so distracting to being a serious person, I’m finally happy to give it all up a bit, even though I do, on occasions, still like to feel glam. But ultimately, power is more important than sex appeal, as Berlusconi himself would doubtless agree.

Consider this:  had Angela Merkel, known in her home state as “mutti” or ‘mummy,’ been flattered by the lascivious attentions of Berlusconi, who said, in same the Paxman interview, he wanted to be remembered as the father of his country, but is rather more infamous for alleged and deeply inappropriate liaisons with underage prostitutes, then the whole of Europe, if not the world, could have been de-stabilised.

Perhaps it is better for everyone that he, and perhaps many men, regard Merkel as ‘unfuckable,’ so she can get on with the rather more esteemed and dignified work of sorting out the rest of Europe’s troubles; many, perhaps caused by incautious men on the spend, trying very hard to impress young, “fuckable” women.

The problem with being pretty is that you are more likely to  be flattered into submission by men in power, who subsequently have you at their mercy. Which is never a good position to be in.

But you don’t get more powerful than Merkel. I’ll hazard a guess that Berlusconi probably doesn’t like that very much, which like all threatened people, makes him resort to playground bully boy tactics of seeking to undermine women by criticism their looks. I doubt she is insecure enough to be bothered.