Men need to start identifying their own behaviour as sexual assault

Like millions of women around the world, it is impossible for me to follow the story of Harvey’s Weinstein with the same distance that is afforded to most -but not all-men. It brings up memories of sexual violence and sexual misconduct in the real world and the workplace that is all too commonplace for women.

As a young girl growing up the burden of femininity is slowly impressed upon you. It begins with restrictions being placed upon your freedom and stories told by way of caution. Movies, books and newspapers lay bare the oppression and subjugation committed against women, but like much of the suffering recounted through words on a page it remains at a distance, belonging to the lives of strangers.

But as your body moulds itself closer to the form of femininity, so too do your experiences start to resemble the lives of those once distant women.

Of all the stories you were told growing up, these are the ones that come true.

Is modern society as equal as we like to think?

Irish people like to believe that we live in an egalitarian society, with equal treatment for men and women alike. However the corresponding reality played out on streets, on nightclub dance floors, in offices, on college campuses, behind closed doors, virtually anywhere that men and women congregate together, repeatedly informs Irish women that this is not the case.

To face the staggering numbers – to face the truth – requires an admission that some of the men we know and love are guilty of harassment and sexual violence against women. As a society this is hard to accept, as an individual, even harder. We prefer to believe that most men treat women with respect, the men we know personally at least, even if statistics and experience tell otherwise.

I have experienced countless iterations of catcalling, groping and unsolicited sexual behaviour that I could draw upon as examples from my own life, most of which has occurred within the public domain. To add a filter, I will talk about my experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace and some of the more watered down versions of sexual assault that I have experienced.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

It is one of my first jobs as a teenager and my significantly older manager appears to take pleasure in making my job more miserable in whatever way possible. The ‘light-hearted’ teasing for which I am singled out becomes relentless. A male colleague compares it to the textbook schoolyard tactics of using bullying as a front to conceal one’s true feelings.

Leering at me with a self-gratifying smile on his face he says, ‘You can’t report me because its the pen touching you and not me.’ The sexual overtones are blatant and I feel deeply uncomfortable.

One day while I am standing in the corner of the workplace, my manager approaches and starts poking me with a pen. Leering at me with a self-gratifying smile on his face he says, ‘You can’t report me because its the pen touching you and not me.’ The sexual overtones are blatant and I feel deeply uncomfortable. I know his behaviour is inappropriate, but I am young and lack the confidence to stand up to a figure of authority. The next figure in the chain of command is in the habit of giving unsolicited shoulder massages so I doubt I will be listened to anyway. I try my best to forget it ever happened and stay quiet.

A few years later I am working a job as a waitress. Drunk, the owner tells me that he knew he wanted to sleep with me from the first moment he saw me. His delivery is intended both as a compliment and a proposition. I am a terrible waitress and I strongly suspect this is the only thing that has kept me from being fired. The line between personal and professional is blurred by a matter of course in the running of the establishment, and I know if I were to complain I would be dismissed as ‘too PC’. Again I say nothing, and leave my job soon after.

Fast-forward a few years later. I have graduated from university and it is my first time working in a job that could be described as ‘professional’. The office environment is a novel experience; I marvel at the rows of computers and cubicles, the business attire, the unfamiliar level of formality. One day an older male colleague on my team invites me to go for lunch. It is Friday and virtually everyone leaves the office for lunch, so I agree without reading too much into it. We sit down and he encourages me to order an alcoholic drink, despite not drinking alcohol himself. I decline and order water instead.

As I stutter in reply, he appendixes his question with a sexually suggestive hypothetical situation involving him and I on a bed.

Once we have ordered food, (I order soup, the cheapest thing on the menu), he launches into a peculiar and probing line of questioning. ‘What is the craziest thing you have ever done?’ he begins by asking. Very quickly, I realise the lunch holds more significance for him that it does for me. It is not often that this middle-aged man has lunch alone with a twenty-five year old woman, and his delight as this exclusive ‘access’ granted to him through the corporate world is thinly disguised. The personal questioning continues, culminating with him asking how I would define the nature of our relationship. As I stutter in reply, he appendixes his question with a sexually suggestive hypothetical situation involving him and I on a bed together.

I stop him in his tracks before he can go into any kind of detail. I tell him in no uncertain terms that he has crossed a line and that his behaviour is inappropriate. Half-heartedly he attempts to convince me that I have misunderstood him, but judging by the expression I am wearing he quickly realises the futility.

At age of twenty-five I have finally found my voice against male sexual harassment. I have learnt to use my feelings of discomfort as a barometer for inappropriate behaviour instead of setting the bar so low it requires non-consensual physical contact or even violence to be counted as ‘serious enough’.

When we finally leave he insists on paying for my meal despite my protests, claiming that he ‘earns four times my salary’. My purpose to stroke his male ego has been dispensed with. It disgusts me, yet still I say nothing (initially at least).

A warped sense of bodily autonomy

As a woman in the world, sexual harassment and sexual assault begins early in life. Growing up in Ireland is no exception. At a young age, sexual acts had little to do with mutual lust and desire and everything to do with individual power. Sex was never portrayed as a shared physical pleasure founded on consent and respect, but something to be given, taken, or preferably abstained from. This has dire consequences for its segregated youth, which highly sexualises the opposite gender from a young age while lacking a firm grasp of appropriate boundaries – an incendiary combination.

This bleak disparity between the treatment you deserve but the behaviour you are subjected to, fuels an immense internal conflict.

Although I appreciated the sacrosanctity of bodily autonomy, for years upon years I put up with the actions of boys and men that violated this. As a teenager growing up, the frequency of groping my friends and I were subjected to on nights out was so profuse we grew to accept it as normal (despite always knowing that it was wrong). This inappropriate touching we experienced at the hands of our peers appeared to be a non-issue, never discussed within the education system, by the state or by the media. There was never any encouragement to report such behaviour and so we simply learnt to put up with it.

This bleak disparity between the treatment you deserve but the behaviour you are subjected to, fuels an immense internal conflict. Added to this is the guilt and self-flagellation for staying quiet, which to the inner critic is perceived as silent acquiescence. Many times I wanted to shout stop!, but could never get the words out. I would be leered at, shouted at, or touched without consent, confined to silence by a perverse aversion towards causing offence. But more than anything, my silence was an act of preservation. My gender is a source of danger, and so fear lurks below the discomfort.

The hidden dangers of passive terminology in public discourse

The conversation surrounding sexual violence and harassment in the public sphere has, till now, predominantly been conducted using broad strokes. Nameless, faceless men are responsible for the violence against women. Sometimes men are not even part of the conversation. Sexual violence is described in passive terms such as ‘committed against women’, with the perpetrator omitted from the sentence entirely. Its implications are far from benign; because men are never seen to actively commit sexual assault it enables the shrugging off of responsibility and guilt, the turning of a blind eye.

Borne of unwillingness and ignorance, men fail to identify their own actions, or the actions of their peers, as harassment or assault. The man that grabs the ass will never describe his actions as ‘sexual assault’. This shelters men from viewing their own actions through the same lens as women, and so inappropriate behaviour continues, uncorrected.

There is one night I can recollect that clearly illustrates the unwillingness of men to classify their actions using legal terminology. I am at a music trying to escape a man who is continuing to touch me inappropriately from behind. Despite deliberately moving away to discourage him, he is not to be deterred. Seeing no other choice I am forced to detach myself from the crowd and so I join my group of girlfriends on the outskirts. Upon telling them what happened, the conversation turns to our individual past experiences of sexual violence.

Feminism and bodily autonomy were for him a brand, a form of social currency that might be borrowed to increase his appeal to the opposite sex.

Midway through, the same man whom I had sought to avoid attaches himself to the group. Without a hint of irony, he proffers an educated and seemingly enlightened spiel about the simply awful mistreatment of women at the hands of men. I stand there listening to him, hardly able to believe his gall. I wonder if I am being Punk’d. As I re-enter the crowd, I think to myself, his hypocrisy has at least one silver lining – I will finally be able to listen to the music in peace. But no! Lo and behold, he has taken up his position behind me once again, his roaming hands as active as ever.

It was a classic case of sexual assault unidentified from the male perspective. Lofty feminist declarations are no good on their own, and actively harmful if the contravene one’s own actions. It was painfully clear to me that he did not understand, nor care, about the meaning of his own words. Feminism and bodily autonomy were for him a brand, a form of social currency that might be borrowed to increase his appeal to the opposite sex. Examining his own actions with the measuring stick he produced with such a flourish was not something that served his own purpose. It would entail the curbing of his own behaviour around women, or worse, counting himself amongst the sleazy men he so eagerly rallied against – two things he was unwilling to do. But unless men are prepared to examine their own actions very, very carefully, nothing will change.

The Passive Bystander

In the numerous reports of sexual violence involving public figures, there are often three people involved: the victim, the perpetrator, and the invisible bystander. Regarding Weinstein in particular, a recurring theme in his victims’ accounts was that ‘everyone knew’ what was happening, but nonetheless said and did nothing.

The ubiquity of inappropriate sexual behaviour has led to its normalisation, which is further reinforced through the passivity of bystanders. At best this undermines the severity of the offending action; at worst, if self-defence is classed as an ‘over-reaction’, it censors the victim and hinders their ability to protect themselves.

I would be lying if I said my sense of bodily autonomy remained intact through all of these experiences….

In the early hours one morning I was standing in line of a fast food restaurant when a male behind me in the queue repeatedly cupped my ass cheek. I turn to throw him a dirty look but the cupping does not abate. In frustration I turn to my boyfriend at the time seeking intervention, but I might as well be talking to the wall. He is nonplussed and clearly thinks I am over-reacting. To shut me up more than anything else, he eventually throws a filthy look of his own. Coming from a fellow male, this time it has the desired effect. At long last the touching stops.

I would be lying if I said my sense of bodily autonomy remained intact through all of these experiences, if it had even been whole to begin with, but I am finally beginning to ‘unlearn’ the message that has been repeatedly impressed upon me, that my body is not my own.

One moment clearly illuminates my atrophied sense of physical boundary. I am standing in the queue of a club one night with two men, one a friend of mine, and the other a stranger. We are talking about tattoos, and when I mention I have one on my wrist the stranger grabs my hand and turns my arm over to take a look. My friend comments on this afterwards, describing the non-consensual action as ‘aggressive’. For a moment I am dumbfounded. I consider myself perceptive to breaches of personal dignity but I had not detected the aggression nor the lack of consent in the stranger’s handling of me. It disturbed me that I needed someone else to point it out.

Speaking out is our power!

In contrast to public discourse, when women talk privately about sexual assault the conversation is held in particulars – we ourselves are the objects. In safe spaces we lather salve on one other’s wounds, but we are careful to keep the stories within our inner circles.

In recent months, buoyed in large by the many brave women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful male figures, I have come to realise that as long as women continue have these conversations solely amongst ourselves, nothing will change.

While trauma is intrinsic in the aftermath of a shocking event, many of the fears (accusations of slander, career damage etc.) are man-made and therefore avoidable.

Reporting non-consensual sexual behaviour of any degree feels like a big deal when it shouldn’t. As someone that has stayed quiet on many occasions, but also reported incidences only to have the veracity of my statements challenged, or no charges brought at all, I understand why silence is easier.

Following sexual assault or harassment, a victim’s instinct is to retreat to safety. Reporting is the opposite of this, and the reliving of the incident through the retelling of intimate details to a stranger is often referred to as a ‘second victimisation’. While trauma is intrinsic in the aftermath of a shocking event, many of the fears (accusations of slander, career damage etc.) are man-made and therefore avoidable, but unless a culture of speaking out is actively fostered, in which women are listened to and believed, silence is often the simplest and most logical option.

This is how I felt in work as I continued to sit in close proximity every day to a man whose presence put me on edge. I thought about speaking to HR but mitigating factors stopped me: he was in a more senior and added more value to the firm than I did, and his comments weren’t severe enough to result in his dismissal so reporting the incident would likely do little besides exacerbate my grievance. The company’s stance on sexual harassment was never discussed, so I had no idea what I would potentially trigger by talking to the HR manager. A fear of the unknown and further loss of control over the situation stopped me. My contract was due to end shortly and so I decided to grin and bear it.

That was until a female friend of mine urged me to speak out. She said that similar patterns of lecherous behaviour were rife in her office, but as it was largely unreported the men continued unfettered.

It became obvious that by trying to protect myself I was protecting him too. By staying quiet I was perpetuating the false belief that my office was free from sexual harassment, which potentially put others at risk. For victims of sexual harassment and assault, our strength lies often in numbers rather than truth alone. In case he repeated similar patterns of behaviour with someone else, I was unwilling for it to be treated as an isolated event.

Thinking of all the men and women that had suffered sexual harassment in a workplace but were afraid to speak out, thinking of unknown people in my office who may have suffered harassment, or might in the future, I swallowed my fear and marched myself to HR.

By the time I walked out I felt a million times lighter!

The long reign of decorous silence is finally over.


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