COLETTE BROWNE: Enough is enough: Women must fight back against sex abuse and harassment

TWO weeks ago I recounted personal experiences of sexual harassment and assault in this column and have been overwhelmed by the response.

I have been contacted by countless women who described having crude sexual slurs shouted at them in the street, being groped in public and, frequently, more serious sexual assaults.

One woman has stopped cycling in Dublin because of the abuse she routinely gets from men in cars while stopped at traffic lights. They roll down their windows and tell her what they’d like to do to her before speeding off as the lights change.

The final straw came when she was nearly run off the road by a man who swerved towards her to shout some obscenity at her.

Some have felt isolated and afraid on trains, buses or streets as men began to unashamedly masturbate. A few have become so inured to this that they simply turn away and pretend not to notice.

Others have been forced to break into a run, while walking home at night, to escape men who have begun to follow them, angling for conversation and drunkenly clawing at their hair and clothes.

Some sardonically noted that the terms and conditions of entering a bar or a club often seem to include an express clause that means women consent to persistent groping by virtue of just being there.

The throng of large crowds in late night venues is often manipulated to anonymously grope women who are unable to identify whose hands are darting under tops or up skirts. But women don’t have to be out late at night, or dressed provocatively, for this kind of abuse to occur. It happens throughout the day, all over the country, in schools, workplaces and public spaces.

One woman recalled wearing a hoodie, jeans, and runners when she was accosted and threatened by a man on the street at 10am. She also expressed her annoyance that women, who experience this kind of abuse, are routinely asked what they were wearing when it occurred, the implication being that they must have implicitly invited it.

Women spoke of politely telling men, who persisted in chatting to them, that they weren’t interested and receiving a barrage of expletive-laden abuse in response.

One young woman, commuting home after a long day at work, said she put on earphones, to signal to a man on a train that she didn’t want to engage in banal chit chat, only for him to rip them off and berate her for being rude and “up herself”.

A couple of other commuters shifted uncomfortably in their seats but no one intervened. While women’s personal experiences differed, all spoke of feeling anger, frustration, annoyance, trepidation, guilt and shame when they encounter this kind of abuse. Of having a sick feeling in their stomachs, and becoming tense and nervous, as they tried to disengage from unwanted attention and melt back into the anonymity, and safety, of the crowd.

The ubiquity of this harassment, and women’s resignation to having to just put up with it, was the really striking message. It is a huge problem and one that receives scant coverage. While the women who contacted me were unanimously unsurprised at the endemic nature of low-level harassment, a large number of men expressed their shock.

Because men don’t ordinarily have to deal with this kind of abuse, many had no idea that it was so prevalent and expressed their outrage and disgust.

Others became paranoid, wondering if past behaviour that they had considered playful and flirtatious had, unbeknownst to them, crossed a line to unwelcome harassment. Some wondered what all the fuss was about, as if having sexually suggestive language randomly roared at you in public as you trudge home from work is somehow gratifying.

For the record, it isn’t. It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing and an invasion of one’s personal space. If you’re attracted to someone, there are better ways to express it than by grabbing your crotch and screaming some ribald profanity in the middle of the street.

A few were angry, saying that the column denigrated all men as engaging in this kind of behaviour and ignored the issue of sexual violence against men, who can also be the victims of harassment.

This latter reaction rather spectacularly misses the point that the column was a personal account of my own experiences and not some kind of sinister attempt to smear all men. Patently, not every man is a boorish oaf but the problem of street harassment is one that is overwhelmingly experienced by women and perpetrated by men.

Although dismissed by some as a minor, and unimportant, issue, the culture of complacency that facilitates this abuse is one that needs to be tackled.

After all, it is not hard to see how serious sexual assaults and rape can develop from the tacit acceptance of pervasive low-level harassment. When lines become blurred, they are often obliterated.

If men learn that they can grope and fondle women with impunity then how long will it be before that behaviour escalates to something more serious and sinister? But, before a problem can be dealt with it first needs to be recognised and questions need to be asked.

Why is it that every woman reading this will have experienced some degree of harassment during her life? Why do so many stand idly by and watch women being abused in public without opting to step in? Why do so many women simply put up with it without complaint? Why do otherwise decent men, who don’t ordinarily engage in criminality, feel it is acceptable to dehumanise women, stripping away their personality and reducing them to a couple of disembodied body parts, and blithely intimate them? There are no easy answers. Certainly, our patriarchal society and the gross sexualisation of women in media, where they are routinely cast as inconsequential dimwit extras who exist solely to provide titillation, plays a large part.

Whatever the reason, it is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. Demeaning and degrading behaviour is not something women should just learn to meekly accommodate and accept. It is not normal and should not be normalised.

Women need to speak out about this abuse and stand up to the bullies who mete it out. Passersby, who witness it, should intervene, even if it’s just to tell some cretin to shut up. Instead of women feeling humiliated, it is the men who threaten them who should be left feeling embarrassed and ashamed. Young women, particularly girls in school, need to be taught how to cope with it and how best to react because it is something they will all encounter. Young men need to be taught to respect women.

Anyone wondering where to start could visit the Everyday Sexism Project, on Twitter or its website, and read the testimonials from women who are speaking out about this abuse and shouting stop. Instead of feeling powerless, they are taking control and are fighting back, reclaiming their bodies, their dignity and the streets.


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