LOUISE O'NEILL: Powerful predators are now being punished instead of a slap on the wrist

It’s almost a year since the New York Times and The New Yorker published stories claiming the movie producer Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped dozens of women.

In their toppling of the King, those journalists set into motion one of the most important reckonings about gender, sexuality, and politics that we have seen in the 21st century.

The #MeToo movement, which had been coined by the American activist Tarana Burke as early as 2006, was re-popularised by the actress Alyssa Milano who urged people to share their experiences of sexual violence to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”.

As woman after woman, and many men, spoke up and spoke out, it was as if we could feel the ground shifting beneath us. Powerful predators, people that seemed unassailable, were being punished rather than getting away with a simple slap on the wrist. Change was here, at last, it seemed.

Real change.

The movement has slowed since then, although the conversations cannot be undone. It is interesting to note that while in the US it felt as if every other day brought news of yet another person in a position authority being named as a serial harasser, we never saw the same thing happen at home.

Many brave Irish women and men did use the #MeToo hashtag, of course, but there wasn’t the same collapse of systemic sexism, the same exposing of rampant inequality. It would be naive to assume that it doesn’t happen here, that Ireland is somehow immune to the culture of sexual harassment that has plagued other countries.

Besides the allegations about the comedian Al Porter’s sexual misconduct and Michael Colgan’s reported abuse of power during his time as the Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre, and a few others that cannot be named for legal reasons, it has been all quiet on the Irish front. In late October of 2017,

Newstalk presenter Dr Ciara Kelly tweeted about a prominent media figure she dubbed the “Irish Weinstein”, revealing that she had been harassed by him over a period of months.

Dr Ciara Kelly
Dr Ciara Kelly

Kelly was subsequently told by another woman that this same man had raped her 40 years ago, and that there were “lots of us”. Friends of Dr Kelly warned her that this man was known to be “violent” and that he would offer girls home but “the passenger door handle was broken - they couldn’t get out”.

Dr Kelly said that she was “shaking writing these tweets” but that she hoped doing so would encourage anyone affected to come forward. I would presume that many women contacted Dr Kelly privately but as far as I am aware, nothing concrete came of it publicly. The Irish Weinstein, whoever he might be, is still out there.

What was interesting about the Irish voices in the #MeToo movement was that while many of the tweets did give details of the harassment that occurred; few, if any, names were mentioned. This is totally within the victim’s right.

Indeed it is understandable given how survivors are so often treated when they disclose what happened to them, labelled trouble makers, liars, and fantasists. No one wants a situation where victims are coerced into sharing more than they feel comfortable with.

However, it’s worth examining what it is about Irish culture that has prevented our institutions from being challenged in the same way. Traditionally, there had been secrecy and shame attached to sexual violence in this country.

It’s a small country, practically a village in its own way - has a valley of the squinting windows type mentality played its part? Or perhaps it’s because our rape conviction rates are dismally low.

The myth of the Perfect Victim looms large as well. If you are a migrant woman or a woman of colour, a recreational drug user or a heavy drinker, a sex worker or simply someone with a liking for short skirts and high heels, you fear that your ‘flaws’ will be used against you.

Maybe, ultimately, it’s simply because Ireland is such a litigious country and our defamation laws are stricter. It’s different in America, with their first amendment and right to freedom of speech. Here, unless you have the best (and the most expensive) barristers at your disposal, it’s not so straightforward.

There are some who would argue that this is a good thing, those who have dismissed #MeToo as ‘going too far’ and ‘ruining men’s lives’. Due Process, they shout. Innocent until proven guilty, etc. We have to respect our legal system. It’s the only one we have, after all. But can’t we agree that maybe it needs some adjustment? A few glitches that could be fixed to make it fit for purpose in 2018?

The reason #MeToo took off in the first place was because victims never saw any justice with “due process”. They had been silenced and suddenly, there was space for their voices to be heard. We have seen over the last year the power that there is in that - and what good it can bring about. It’s a pity that, outside of the theatre world and #WakingTheFeminists, the same has not happened here.

Louise says:

READ: The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton. Inventive, dazzling, and with stunning illustrations by Angela Barrett, this feminist reinterpretation of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a joy to read.

BUY: A Blazing Trail, Irish Women Who Changed the World. Written by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Lauren O’Neill, this is a book of true stories for everyone with dreams of changing the world.

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