I try hard to repulse men. I do this through my strident, shrill, aggressive, angry, hysterical women's advocacy, my militant celibacy (thirteen years, with one little mistake), my unwomanly sense of messianic destiny, ceaseless nagging and carping and all the features I was born with. Sometimes, however, I fail. I have failed at the man-repulsing project to which I have dedicated my life. Now it is not a man who is repulsed, but me.
Picture the scene: a debate about women's representation in cultural life. Many women advocates and some male supporters are there, one of whom is Sir Constance Care-A-Lot, a great respecter of women, who respects women, when he isn't busy respecting women, and is Supreme Respectful Commissioner of Women at the renowned Temple of Former Discrimination, now The Palace of Egality. That is to say, he is a literary manager at a major London theatre which champions new work. Sir Constance Care-A-Lot speaks at length, with depth, and wit, and passion. He speaks with eagerness and pleasing self-deprecation. A simple glance at his track record shows that he has supported many women at all stages of their careers. He reads us, references us, celebrates us and publicises us with his sense of fair play, his talent and his civility. He respects us - so much! - and we appreciate him.
"I just went shopping," he says.
"Oh, what did you buy?"
"Just some shorts."
"No. Sitting shorts."
What Wickham-like lightness he has! What ability to laugh at himself! He says he's shortly to travel to the war-torn city of Homs in Syria for a romantic weekend which will involve some good Syrian food, a sports match and all the recreation, style and ease that Homs is famous for. He tells me that he's been with a Syrian "girl" (meaning woman) for a very long time and that he'd been thinking about settling in Homs "when it became time to move our relationship up a stage from set weekends here or there, in Homs and London. But then I was offered the job of Supreme Respectful Commissioner of Women and you can't say no, really."
Earlier in the conversation I'd remarked, "I'm interested in consequences. Even consequences for the worse. I like how everything turns into something else."
He picked up on it:
"Even though my relationship's now in its final throes, you mentioned consequences: one consequence is that I now have this fifteen year old girl, a step-daughter, basically, who walks around with me arm-in-arm and has no intention of saying goodbye to me from her life, and that's just lovely."
Yes, it is lovely. Lovely and decent girls deserve decent and lovely, kind, friendly, warm, honest, trustworthy father figures who know how to treat girls and women as human beings and behave appropriately. And also, I would say that their grown-up Syrian mothers deserve decent treatment by their partners even in the last stages of a long-term relationship. They do not deserve to be betrayed, to be played, to be messed about. They do not deserve a man who makes overtures to others, shores up dates or hedges his bets. And I do not like to be implicated in that man's romantic explorations or drawn into exchanges which I have not invited, instigated or encouraged.
Women of Syria, know that I am not the ally of any man like that. I do not act with protective discretion in regard to his sleaziness.
At the end of the day the group said goodbye and went home. It was Friday. Several of us had exchanged business cards. I gave about six of mine out, including to and from Sir Constance, whom I had never met before that day.
That night at 10.33pm, I received the following text:
Loved your company today. Not sure how to go about this but I'm wondering about inviting you stwE5Z?rbYtre [this part of the message was garbled and I have reproduced the garble as closely as possible] sometime soon. Constance X.I responded to this creeping. slimy, disgustingly over-familiar and fake coy message just 80-odd hours later, on Tuesday at 2:05pm, with
Hello, this is Bidisha. The second half of your text was comically garbled. You want to invite me to what? Are you inviting me to submit work? If so, I would absolutely love to.The response a few minutes later was,
I was wondering whether you'd like to come to a show some time. With me, I mean.I replied,
No thanks, there's no need! The Beeb send me to loads of stuff so I keep up to date with what's on the theatre scene, but I'll tell our mutual friend Tamarin Talentissima you've been in touch and send her your best. Hope you had an excellent weekend enjoying biking, sport, food and romance in Homs in Syria. Have a great year.Thankfully, he replied,
You too.As the day has worn on, I have found myself unable to concentrate on my work - I've been trying to organise a series of panel discussions about war reportage around the publication of Beyond the Wall in May and cast some debates about film history for a festival in June and July. I have not done anything to 'invite' attention from Sir Constance and I am not flattered but revolted and outraged on my own behalf and that of his partner and step-daughter. I always communicate with people by email and do not get involved in intimate little text exchanges, with anyone, about anything.
My skin is crawling as I write this: a man who goes to a feminist conference and pretends to respect women but is actually there to betray his female partner and make unwanted advances to a female stranger without a second's hesitation. A man like that does not respect women but behaves towards them with contempt and hypocrisy. Sir Constance, I am not to be harassed or used or sleazily approached by text at night as if to be grabbed like an object. And your partner is not to be betrayed, deceived, tricked, set up or cheated on as a dupe. That is outright abusive behaviour and I think you would not like it, Sir Constance, if it was done to you. If you have pretended to your colleagues, your step-daughter, the female playwrights you commission and your female friends and relatives that you respect women, you have lied deliberately to cover your infidelity and hypocrisy.
I now have to be cautious whenever I visit the Palace of Egality to review something. I must remember that I am not tolerated there for my mind and will not receive any commissions to develop my art, even though it is highly acclaimed . However, my (totally average and absolutely OK) outward appearance and manner are always there to be reacted to and used whether I want it or not or whether I am aware of it or not. I must be cowed and mistrustful next time I meet a seemingly decent powerful man in the arts and, as Austen and Wharton knew, I must tread carefully and keep custody of all I do and say, how I move and where I cast my eyes, whether I am eager or toyingly quiet, lest the fragility of my reputation be shattered forever. I must shelve my friendliness and confidence or someone will take it, falsify it, misconstrue it, sexualise it, use it as an excuse to behave improperly, justify their own sleaziness by it and then blame me when they are outed.
I contacted my friends and all colleagues from the event, alerted all the organisers, asked if I had behaved in any way that might justify any victim-blaming and sent them transcripts of the texts.
As I have said in so many places at so many times, sleazebags are scum. But a special category of scum is reserved for those who talk publicly, with pious faces, about how much they respect women, only to demonstrate with nauseating speed and facility how ready they are to immediately objectify, trivialise and implicate a woman they have just met while backstabbing another woman whom they have known for a long time, built a life and family with and to whom they have overtly or implicitly pledged love and loyalty.
Sir Constance Care-A-Lot, your behaviour is inappropriate, violating, unwelcome, uninvited, slimy, arrogant, belittling, objectifying, hypocritical and presumptuous. I do not want you, I do not know you, I have not 'flirted' with you and I do not fancy you. I don't play teasing games with people I do not want, as that is unfair and sleazy. I do not fancy people who have partners, as anyone who is ready and willing to cheat is clearly an abusive piece of scum. And anyone ready and willing to cheat after talking freely about their relationship (oh, "in its final throes," of course, I do recall, those throes and their endless finality... how was your cosy weekend?) with a stranger is a sickening, hypocritical piece of scum, squared.
I do not want you and am not your ally, your admirer or your victim, Constance. You are a 50-something man who is as plain as plain can be, to the point where I cannot even picture your face as I write, thank God. I am the ally of all women who must tolerate sexual harassment, sexualised overtures, revoltingly coy unsolicited night-time messages, disgusting hypocrisy, irrelevant hints, sneaky texts and other incorrect and unnecessary behaviours, simply to exist and survive in this industry. I am the ally of women who are betrayed by emotionally abusive partners. We have a right to do our work and speak with new colleagues as human beings, without being turned - against our will, consent, knowledge, inclination, expectation and dignity - into objects of unwanted 'romantic' proposals.
You have misused the information I gave you. I exchanged business cards with several people on the day I met you. You are the only one who has used the details to make an over-familiar, sexualised overture via text at 10.30pm the same day. You will notice, if you think back, that I told you nothing personal about myself at all. This is because I am not interested in being known personally by you.
Sir Constance Care-A-Lot, if you contact me again, I will out you here. Any message you send to me will be made public. Anything you say to me in person will be written down and put here. Anything said about you to me by an industry colleague will be made public. If I ever encounter your partner I will tell her and show her your texts. Anyone who asks me privately who you are will be told and indeed I have already forwarded your texts to everyone involved in the event including the organisers.*
UPDATE: In less than 24 hours this blog post has now been read by thousands of people, most of whom are arts professionals, many of whom have contacted me to find out the identity of the above person. I have told them. There is now a very funny Mumsnet reaction thread here.
And, below, a very flattering and salutary response from a famous playwright. Included not because of its decency towards me, but because of her humour and her analysis of the underlying power games behind the incident:
Oh god. How depressing. It's just so depressing. I don't know what to say. This is just shit.
Sometimes it all just seems so exhausting.Both explaining to men that the difference between 'I am being nice to you/polite to you/socially open with you/professionally interested' and 'I fancy and want to have sex with you' is SO FAR apart you will just have to take my word for it because you will never get to see the second option. if you did, you would realise, I do not want to have sex with you.
But having to explain it is exhausting and depressing.
And also just the idea of unfaithfulness is exhausting. And for some reason men in the arts who cheat are just even more depressing. Maybe it's just because it's basically EVERYWHERE and also ACCEPTED. Everyone does it and everyone turns a blind eye. And it's always the same pattern over and over - successful man, with talented wife (but not as successful as him) cheats with younger woman who is probably (at least unconsciously) only trying to further her career :( Man's career sky rockets while talented wife stays home and looks after children. He repays her by shagging around.
I expect men see you as a 'feisty challenge' they would like to conquer.
It's almost like he felt he had to do something in 'reaction' to the facts of the day. Like, unconsciously he targeted the strongest FIGUREHEAD of the day, and tried to reduce you to a 'sexy thing' who might like to go on a date with him. Because if you go out with him, then maybe that makes him ok?? Do you know what I mean? Maybe I'm over-analyzing. But I don't think it's impossible. You are a powerful presence at those events, and some men find the idea that sexism is a massive problem really really hard to deal with. Especially entitled priveleged men - because they fear things being different. And they fear the idea that they are complicit, because that would mean they don't deserve everything they have. And they have to believe they do deserve it, or how would they continue to exist?
Your response was pretty good though, I mean, you coped very well. I probably would have ended up going to see a show, reluctantly eating a meal, getting pissed to get through the evening, and then having to avoid him for the rest of my life :). Change career. Move country. That sort of thing...
* The exact words in my email to the organisers were this:
I had never met him before and certainly did not behave in any inappropriate way with him. [I then transcribe the texts and timing and say...]
...let me say seriously that I resent being drawn into a little texty exchange and also having to question myself in case I may have given someone the wrong impression in my behaviour. I am also disgusted to be invited anywhere in this covert, 'intimate' way by a stranger who is cheating on his partner, after having spoken at a conference about how much he supports women. I think cheats are scum and pseudo feminist cheats are the biggest scum of all. I thought I'd flag this up. I have a right to do my job, which I do excellently, without this bullshit.