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Deirdre O'Shaughnessy: Joanna Lumley’s sexual assault comments are from a bygone era of Mad Men


Joanna Lumley.

Joanna Lumley.

Joanna Lumley.

IT must be tough, being one of those people who is called upon for a soundbite every time a particular issue raises its head in certain sections of the media.

Since making comments on girls who “dress like trash” earlier this year, Joanna Lumley seems to be the go-to celebrity of choice for comment on sexual assault, sexism and the like.

That particular interview earned her a rap on the knuckles from feminists, who pointed out that that sort of thing is now known as victim-blaming and is completely out of step with modern thinking on sexual assault.


Lumley’s latest comments were headlined “a pat on the bum is not assault”. That sounds fairly reasonable, unless you actually think about it, but her pearls of wisdom also included the gem, learned from a nun, that you shouldn’t “lead men on, because they get to a point when they really can’t stop, and it’s not fair”.

These comments are made by somebody who is a product of their environment.

You see, it’s all about context. “That was what men did” because they could do it with impunity.

Men held all the cards, and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.

That has changed, officially, but tell that to the one in five women who’ve been abused by their partners or the one in eight who’ve been forced to leave a job because of sexual harassment.

I’m a card-carrying Ab Fab fan and respect Joanna Lumley for her work on human rights.

But her comments date her back to the era of Mad Men. The HBO show might have been on our screens recently, but the reason it’s been such a success is that it’s a historical curiosity.

It’s set in a time when there were few women in the workplace, they felt lucky to be there at all and they were paid about half the salary of a man.

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Jane Maas – whose experiences in the New York advertising industry in the 1960s mirror those of the women in the show – has said the rampant sexism and poor pay and treatment is an accurate reflection of how things were then.

Times have changed, but there are plenty of people, not only mouthy celebrities, who didn’t get the memo.

Laws are one thing, attitudes are another, and the Everyday Sexism project in the UK has recorded 10,000 entries of workplace sexual harassment alone.

Leaving a job is a big deal in this economy, particularly for women at the lower end of the pay and conditions scale, who are most likely to be affected.

And affected right here and right now, in 2014.

Your boss pats you on the bottom. You say nothing. Then he does it again. Then it becomes a daily ritual, and you try to find places to hide so he can’t find you in the office.


“Back to the wall” as the schoolboy joke goes.

Then at the Christmas party, he says that your silent acceptance of something you find humiliating, frustrating and belittling means he knows you’re up for it – then won’t take no for an answer, because you’ve “led him on”.

Is it assault then? It’s all about the context, and it’s all about the power.

If unwanted touching is “just a bit of fun”, why do we have laws against it? And why are they still not enforced?

Power is impunity, and in the majority of cases women still do not have the power. That’s why the fight against sexism – every day – goes on.

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