Jess Casey: Assessing the #MeToo effect in Irish society

Following the Weinstein guilty verdict this week, experts say a lot has changed in Ireland since his case first came to light, but there’s much more to do, write Jess Casey

Jess Casey: Assessing the #MeToo effect in Irish society

Following the Weinstein guilty verdict this week, experts say a lot has changed in Ireland since his case first came to light, but there’s much more to do, write Jess Casey

JUST three years ago, Harvey Weinstein was thanked seemingly more often than God when it came to acceptance award speeches. Now a convicted rapist, the disgraced movie producer faces up to 29 years in prison.

Despite being far from a household name at the time, his pattern of sexual harassment spanning three decades made international headlines when it was first reported by the New York Times in October 2017. Less than a week later, more women went public with their experiences of being harassed by the movie mogul in the New Yorker magazine, including three women who claimed Weinstein raped them.

As further details and revelations emerged in the days that followed, millions of women around the world began to share their experiences of bullying, rape, and coercion, often in the workplace and at the hands of powerful men, using the hashtag #MeToo. In January 2018, Hollywood celebrities launched Time’s Up, a movement against sexual harassment founded in response to the Weinstein effect and #MeToo.

In Ireland, we saw allegations around a number of high-profile men, discussions on acceptable behaviours in the workplace, grassroots movements to address gender balances, and an increase in the number of calls made to rape crisis centres.

Anecdotally, women are more likely to know their company’s sexual harassment policy in the wake of #MeToo and be more comfortable to call it out as such.

Interest in consent classes at universities across the county doubled, and there seems to be renewed interest from the public in terms of how trials of rape and sexual assault are conducted.

But how much has changed for women here in the time since?

“I think in Ireland we probably saw the effects of the movement a bit later,” said Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NCWI).

“A lot has changed since #MeToo. We definitely see more women now coming forward to report in greater numbers.”

The number of sex crimes recorded by gardaí has increased in recent years.

“We don’t know what is exactly behind this, if it’s an increase in the number of crimes or in the number of reports made, but we suspect it’s due to an increase in reporting,” says Ms O’Connor.

“The #MeToo movement could be partially behind that change.

“I think it’s a really important conviction, against Harvey Weinstein. Really important, not only for the women who came forward in this particular case but also for all the women who come forward as a result of #MeToo. We know how difficult it is to report and this conviction sends out an important message in terms of sexual violence.”

However, despite improvements there are still “a lot of gaps”, said Ms O’Connor.

“We know that there has also been an increase in women seeking the services of rape crisis centres but that those centres haven’t received additional resources to help with the demand, which is leading to waiting lists.

“That’s not the fault of the centres, but that’s very difficult for women, they need to be met and responded to quickly when they report that they are a victim of sexual crime.

“We also have high rates of attrition when it comes to the court system, and we don’t know enough about the reasons behind that, or how to support women going through the criminal justice system.”

The publication of a review on how rape trials are conducted here, ordered in the aftermath of the 2018 Belfast rape trial, has also been delayed, says Ms O’Connor.

“That is an important piece of research, looking at victims’ perspective.”

Despite small improvements, there remains a “whole gamut” of harassment women face here, even in the wake of #MeToo, ranging from minor ‘micro-aggressions’ to serious and sinister threats.

That is according to Sarah Durcan, a member of the #WakingtheFeminists movement.

Started in 2015, the campaign was about making a shift towards the equal representation of women in theatre, says Ms Durcan.

“There have been huge increases in terms of where we have come from but we can’t rest on our laurels. We’ve a long way to go when it comes to addressing that representation on TV, radio, and online.”

Addressing gender imbalances across different sectors can help to begin to address the power structures in place that allow sexual harassment to continue, says Ms Durcan.

“It took more than 90 women coming forward to secure two of the five counts against Harvey Weinstein, and the women who came forward were also up against a huge publicity machine,” she says.

“It is still incredibly difficult to prosecute cases like this, and it is very difficult for women to step forward.

“If you look at our online spaces as well, there is a real culture of sheer abuse hurled at women, especially those seeking election, and at our female TDs and senators. That is symptomatic of the abuse that is still permitted towards women in public, in private, and in the workplace.”

Ms Durcan, who stood in the general election for the Social Democrats, shared advice given to her by a woman high up in the Defence Forces when she decided to get involved in politics: “‘If you are not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ Otherwise, we will continue to be disregarded and silenced.”

For Mary Crilly, director of the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork, a vicious backlash to the #MeToo movement has begun to appear in recent times.

“Is there any other crime that people will hear statistics like that and say: ‘Well, prove it so.’?” she says. “I don’t know what more proof people need, when the statistic is that one in five girls will be raped. Nothing has changed with the system since news broke about Weinstein, except maybe there is more awareness. But look at what happened in Leitrim last week.”

Ms Crilly is referring to a victim of rape being verbally harassed in court after a guilty verdict against her two abusers.

“That could happen in any courtroom in the country,” she says. “Overall, we do welcome the conviction against Weinstein but nothing has changed in terms of how a woman here will be questioned on the stand when it comes to these cases. We are the only country in the EU with this archaic system. There are still no guidelines on what questions are permitted in court and there doesn’t seem to be any will to change the system.”

Sexual violence cases should be prioritised and seen within a year, says Ms Crilly.

“Harvey Weinstein himself didn’t think he was going to be convicted,” she says. “Very few rapists show remorse or have remorse, that is maybe something I’d like victims to take away from this — his entitlement, and all rapists’ entitlement. Rape is about power and control. Very often a victim might blame themselves, but it’s not their fault.”

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