A recent newspaper interview with television classicist Mary Beard began with the words ‘Mary Beard is exasperated’. No surprise there. All women seem now to have a duty to be exasperated more or less all the time about something or other: glass ceilings, lack of affordable childcare, gender pay gap. It turned out, more surprisingly perhaps, that her exasperation was about a missed hair appointment resulting from a cancelled train. Correction. It was about the flak she got from social media after she had tweeted her annoyance; the vitriolic mob were asking why ‘the poster girl for “I’m-too-brainy-to-care-about-my-looks” was worrying about her notoriously long, grey hair’. It was a reasonable ‘damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t’ lament on the Cambridge professor’s part.
The thing is, I’m exasperated too. Firstly, I’m exasperated and dismayed that she tweets. Seriously. People whose only income is through the media need to be on Twitter. Eminent academics at ancient universities do not. Call me old-fashioned, but wouldn’t it be better if the distinguished scholar stuck to her books and blogs? And of course, her lectures. Why would an academic of her calibre even contemplate giving time and mental space to online abuse, taking on the cyber trolls who sit in their fetid little dens tapping away about the unspeakable things they would like to do to her? So much in modern life seems unfathomable. Professor Beard defends her engagement with them, however, somewhat hollow though her line sounds: ‘It’s less of a waste of your time than feeling cross and disempowered.’ Hmm. Not convinced. I don’t think she sounds it either. Come off Twitter, Professor Beard. Your books need you and we all need the books. Proper writing. Not this 140 character (well, 280 now) nonsense.
My other exasperation with Professor Beard is darker. She discusses with her interviewer the #MeToo movement which encourages women who’ve been sexually harassed to speak out. She tells her of her own #MeToo experience, set out in a London Review of Books piece in 2000. She recounted that as a student travelling alone in 1978 she was raped by an architect she met on a station platform in Milan. He ‘insisted’ on booking her into a shared couchette for her journey south. ‘He bundled me in, took off my clothes and had sex, before departing to an upper bunk,’ Beard wrote. ‘I woke a few hours later just outside Rome to find him on top of me again, humping away.’
She related the story, she claims, to highlight how ‘everyone has a different take on narratives of sexual violence’. She adds that she told her story differently depending on who she was talking to. ‘Sometimes I would make myself the victim, sometimes I would turn this into the perfect zipless f*** on the night train.’ Astonishingly, in the very next sentence she adds, ‘In an appalling way, Trump got away with his inappropriate behaviour to women by calling it locker-room talk and a lot of people, women included, thought it was a fair way of seeing it.’ Sorry, but how did the 45th President of the USA get into this? Who brought Trump in? Was he actually that creep on the Inter-railing night train? If not, the predatory platform criminal might not have been a ‘locker-room talk’ sort of fool at all, but for all we know one who subscribed to Spare Rib. Rapists are found in a number of guises; they don’t all hide in plain sight with crude and dehumanising misogynist banter.
My unease with this rape claim decades later is that it has the ring of a dismal, sorry, entirely unsatisfactory sexual encounter. In short, one that is regretted afterwards. Professor Beard describes no violence, no physical restraint, no injury, no terror, no attempt to struggle and get free, no pleas for her attacker to stop, no suspicion that she had been drugged as a young woman taking the Grand Tour forty years ago. Indeed, she seems clear that the psychological impact on her was minimal. ‘Maybe I’m letting the side down but I wasn’t traumatised. I was cross but I didn’t feel violated particularly. There were no long term effects. The thing I felt angriest about, which seemed really unacceptable, was him doing it twice.’ Well, quite. Was she still asleep? Or was she thinking that maybe the second time might be better than the first, sort of redeem it? She is adamant, though, about what happened. ‘This guy raped me: and it would have been no more wrong if I’d been more traumatised.’
Only Professor Beard (and her erstwhile companion) know whether she was raped or not. If she were the victim of a rape, sex in which she plainly made known her protest, then I am truly sorry for her. I am sorry for her if, in spite of what she declares, she is still coming to terms with a crime. For some feminists, though, whatever a woman says is enough. If she says it was rape, then rape it was. Even if there is no evidence. Even if the account of the ‘victim’ seems to raise questions. It is difficult to know what the point is of raking over all this now, unless Mary Beard feels that other women might be ‘empowered’ to come forward and be protected from this individual. Or unless the point is simply climbing aboard the #MeToo bandwagon.
Professor Beard will forgive those, one hopes, who raise an eyebrow about her not being ‘traumatised’. Because maybe the independent and adventurous young traveller who was one day to become a distinguished classicist felt there was nothing to be traumatised about. It’s possible. One thing, though. If this were just a detached and dismal sexual encounter, bad sex that one might well wish to frame imaginatively soon afterwards in novelist Erica Jong’s more zestful terms, then it is poor form indeed to describe it years later as ‘rape’. That’s because the women who are being let down (and some of these also refuse to allow themselves to feel traumatised, to feel victims) are the ones who really have been victims of serious sexual crime. They would, it is fair to say, recall feeling more than crossness as the crime was happening. And they probably wouldn’t feel like weaving various exciting narratives around it afterwards. If the perpetrator couldn’t be brought to justice, and yet the rape victim wanted to speak out, to unburden herself years later, she might want to offer this advice: be careful when travelling alone and be especially wary of men you’ve just met who insist on sharing a sleeping carriage. Careful who you sleep with, I suppose.