FERGUS FINLAY: Women’s voices must be heard to stop normalisation of abusive behaviour

Female workers supporting the MeToo movement in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: Ahn Young-joon/AP

I’VE written several times now about sex. About sex abuse, misogyny, the way men feel they can treat women, writes Fergus Finlay.

I’ve talked to women friends and colleagues about all this. It’s a subject that evokes strong feelings — and the more I talk about it, the more I feel that it’s one where women’s voices need to be heard much more than mine.

My daughters Vicky, Emma, and Sarah, are passionate about the subject — based on the past, but also on the future. When I offered them my space — this space — to write what they believe, this is what happened.

VICKY: I remember being 14, alone and intimidated by wolf-whistles from a group of adult men. I remember later, in a temp job, receiving an unsolicited shoulder massage at my desk from a senior male colleague. It’s only recently — and I’m a mother of three — that I found myself being “complimented” in a crowded pub by a leering, drunk stranger with a lecherous grip on my upper thigh. Complain about this kind of thing and you’re greeted with an eye-roll.

It was partly because of things like that that I wrote a Facebook post, after the arrival of Trump, lamenting the election of a person who had so openly spoken about women in the way he does. I wrote about my fear that the normalisation of his behaviour and language would lead to a darker future for women everywhere. Of course, I completely missed the point. It’s
already normal.

EMMA: So many stories in the news recently highlight that — the Belfast rape trial, #metoo, the horrifying story about the sexual assault list in a boys’ toilet in a school in Cork. They all show just how normal misogyny, intimidation, and “locker room” antics are.

SARAH: Strange as this may sound, when the #metoo movement started last year, I felt I was one of the lucky ones. But I remembered one particular moment, when I was about 14 and on the Dart on my way home from school. The man opposite me forced my feet apart with his feet so that my legs were open. My long school skirt meant there was nothing to see but that didn’t matter. I looked at him, shocked to discover he was touching himself. I didn’t know what to do, what I should do, so I just stared out the window. I didn’t push back or close my legs. I looked out over Dublin Bay to Howth.

But I think the saddest thing about this was that I never told anyone. When it came to #metoo, and I thought about this event for the first time in years, I got so angry. Because I also remembered there were people sitting beside us on the Dart. It seems to me now that there was no way they could have been unaware of what was going on. But everyone, me included, preferred to look away rather than acknowledge the awful thing that was going on in our midst.

EMMA: I had a #metoo status on Facebook because of many experiences ranging from the seemingly innocent to the threatening and serious. I have been in situations where I feared being raped. I have too often had to accept that I could be treated like an object and find myself vulnerable, through no fault of my own. My stories also start in childhood.

SARAH: And it’s not just our stories. I have spent long days and tearful nights listening to some of the people I’m closest to in the world as they told me stories far worse than my Dart experience. And their experiences have become a part of my experience now too. Because I understand so clearly how dangerous it is to just exist as a woman in this world.

EMMA: From my experience, most, if not all, women can share similar experiences, and most men have no understanding of how this impacts us daily.

VICKY: Following the Belfast trial I was deeply struck by the gender distribution in the responses. It struck me that many women immediately believed the complainant because of their own lifelong experiences. But many men immediately jumped to the conclusion that she was a liar and that the defendants’ behaviour was within the bounds of normality. (Maybe that was because the only alternative was to turn the lens of examination on their own prior conduct.)

SARAH: That the reaction to #metoo and #ibelieveher has created a raw feeling of men versus women is no surprise to me, because men don’t live every day with fear in the same way that women do. Of course men can be abused and assaulted, but not many men walk home late at night with their keys between their fingers. Most men don’t cross the street to avoid walking alongside a van on a quiet road. Most men don’t text someone the number of the taxi they have just gotten into. I do those things all the time. Because I’m afraid. And to live with that fear has become the most normal thing in the world.

EMMA: Still, though, we’ve been lucky. We have had important male role models in our lives — our father, husbands, teachers, coaches and mentors. I know in my heart that the population of men we fear are in the minority. What makes me nervous is how many powerful male figures out there represent the attitude we fear. Across all walks of life, men who are held up as role models regularly and publicly act to normalise these disrespectful, objectifying and intimidating behaviours under the guise of “boys will be boys”.

VICKY: As long as this behaviour is considered normal, women remain vulnerable and we can’t be expected to stand alone when we speak up, say no, be clear about what’s acceptable. The key to change is men. Men everywhere need to undertake some soul-searching, step-up and stand-up to those who refuse to believe this is the reality for women everywhere.

EMMA: For the sake of my lovely innocent one-year-old son we need the men we admire to counteract the powerful locker room thugs. We need sports heroes, TV stars, musicians, politicians, all of our famous role models, to openly speak with empathy and compassion and to stand with women. Today’s heroes have a power of influence over the next generation of fathers, husbands, brothers, lovers. I believe it is great men that can convince teenage boys in Cork that talking about rape isn’t funny but dangerous and disgusting. It’s great men, with pride in their province and country, that can change the attitudes of the people fighting to get a couple of lads back onto the Ulster and Irish rugby team.

VICKY: This matters. I am doing everything in my power to teach my kids empathy and respect but I can’t do it in isolation. If this isn’t echoed in society we’re fighting a losing battle.

SARAH: We mightn’t lose, because we are starting to have important conversations every day now: About sexual abuse and assault; about sex education and the crucial issue of consent; about women’s rights and women’s health. And I’m still afraid, but I’m also starting to feel hopeful.

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