Aoife Moore: My sexual harassment story is not an outlier

Aoife Moore: My sexual harassment story is not an outlier

The culture of silence or worse "calm down it's only a joke" means that women do not feel validated to come forward. File picture: PA

It's been just over a week since academic Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin came forward with her experience of harassment at University College Dublin in The Irish Time

The frightening and disturbing experiences she detailed would have no doubt shocked many men, but for a lot of women, we saw ourselves in Aoibhinn.

Despite a shift in public mood, and one highly documented #MeToo movement, sexual harassment is rife, in workplaces, colleges and political activism, and the figures from our female TDs prove it.

If the Irish women who are strong and confident enough to not only run for election but win, can be sexually harassed, why would we ever believe that there aren't thousands of women like them?

I was in my early 20s when I met my harasser. It was one of my first professional journalism jobs abroad and in a "proper" office. 

He was a senior reporter, about 10 years older than me and newly married. Despite what we're shown in TV dramas, sexual harassment starts off pretty benign and builds up to a point where you take a deep breath before entering the office. 

At first, it was "banter". 

I had never worked in an office environment before, I was surrounded by older men, and there was a lot of laughter. He'd ask about my boyfriend. He'd ask if we lived together. He offered me lifts and made coffee.

He distanced me from my editor, who wasn't easy to talk to, and he'd tell me to come to him with any queries as the editor wasn't to be trusted. 

He started commenting on my clothes, my skirts and blouses, he'd ask if my boyfriend "had let me go out looking like that". 

You laugh it off, tell him to piss off and it's over. Until it starts again.

One day I'd missed the train, he said in front of others: "The boyfriend must've stayed over last night if you're coming in late." 

He'd ask about my sex life and then claim he was "joking".

Then the texting started. 

Journalists text each other a lot, it's part of the job and it's often outside of work hours.

The texts were normal, work-related and boring at first, until they weren't. 

Casual queries about weekend plans turned into offers to collect me from nightclubs on Saturday nights. 

Phonecalls about deadlines became repeated calls while I was with friends at parties, asking if he could come along, because "I'm your friend too".

My boyfriend at the time (now fiancé) was livid. He told me to report everything that had happened.

He could see from the outside what was happening and couldn't understand why I wouldn't. 

Phone calls at all hours would wake us both up and I'd accuse him of blaming me for what was happening.

You don't feel right about it, but you can't report it, because it's not explicit, he's not technically done anything wrong, has he?

Then the doubt starts. Did I bring this on myself? I'm a bit wild by all accounts. I'm outgoing and chatty, I laughed along with all the jokes. Maybe I've led him on. Maybe I shouldn't have accepted the lift or the coffee or the advice. 

Maybe I'm wearing the wrong clothes, my hair's the wrong colour and I've got too much to say for myself.

I couldn't tell him to leave me alone because he was my superior, I reported to him, I was being paid £14,000 a year and I needed this job badly and believed he could have me sacked.

He'd complain about his wife whom he'd married barely two months before, he'd tell me about the people he'd had sex with when he was "young, free and single" and I'd just nod along. 

Laugh at the jokes, do your work and pray Friday would come sooner. I never told anyone. I wasn't even sure what was happening and anyway, a confident girl like me wouldn't let anyone sexually harass me, would I?

Eventually, he left for another job, and if I was ever in doubt about whether he knew what he was doing, I was left certain by the bombardment of calls and texts in the days and nights after, eventually culminating in a begging text message asking me to meet him at a hotel. 

He waited until he couldn't be sacked before he went full-steam ahead.

I blocked his number, I moved on. I haven't seen him since.

Years later, and only with the advantage of time and age, do I now realise my story is incredibly common. 

The isolating, the compliments, the insults, the favours, the texts, it's all part of it and the worst part of it is thinking you're alone.

I have spoken with female TDs of all ages and parties this week, who told me they probably won't ever fully tell their story of sexual harassment because "then you're a victim and they use it against you," as one TD said.

I know female politicians who have reported death and rape threats to the Gardaí and will tell me about it over a cup of coffee, but they're not telling the public.

The way we treat women and their experiences only benefits those who harass and demean us. 

The culture of silence or worse "calm down it's only a joke" means that women do not feel validated to come forward.

My story is not an outlier, and I am not brave. I am certain that had I been harassed while working in media in this country, I would not have told this story.

If we want to be an "Ireland of equals" we need to have a long conversation about how we tackle sexual harassment, sexism and domestic violence. 

All three are spawned from the same view that women are not valid, equal members of society, and if respected public figures are afraid to come forward, what chance do the rest of us have?

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