Early last Monday morning, I sat upstairs in McDonald’s on Grafton St after a night out with some friends. Directly across from us was a group of three young women, one visibly upset. Given our close proximity, I was able to gather that the girl sobbing had a man – a stranger – put his hand up her skirt and grabbed her in a popular Harcourt St nightclub.
“Why do boys have to be like this?”, she wondered to the two friends comforting her. And that’s really the fundamental question when it comes to sexual assault: why do some men engage in such appalling acts? Why do they feel the need to assert themselves sexually over women they’ve never even met? What do they feel they’ve achieved from invading a woman’s privacy so viciously?
Of course, it is not solely women who experience such incidents. The snowball effect that the allegations against Harvey Weinstein have had has exposed the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in our society.
It is, however, disproportionately a problem that affects women, and a behaviour that is almost exclusively carried out by men.
You can be sure that dozens of other women in Dublin had similar experiences last Sunday night to that girl in McDonald’s
And it is not just powerful men like Weinstein in important industries who engage in such acts, it happens every single day and night – in the workplace, in nightclubs – to women that men know and care about. You can be sure that dozens of other women in Dublin had similar experiences last Sunday night to that girl in McDonald’s.
From Hollywood, to Westminster to the Gate Theatre here in Dublin, the allegations are deeply worrying but not all that surprising. Talk to any female friend about sexual harassment and they will be able to list countless incidents where they have, at the very least, been subjected to unwanted sexual advances.
The recent exposure of the pervasiveness of this problem raises many questions. The most pressing being what can actually be done to improve the situation?
Some positive steps have been taken in recent years to combat sexual abuse. In many universities, for example, consent classes have been established to teach students how to identify the difference between consensual and nonconsensual situations. This is certainly a start but does not go far enough in dealing with the crux of the issue: the general attitudes of many men towards women.
Not by any stretch of the imagination are all men engaged in this type of behaviour. But there is a certain apathy towards calling out a culture that sees women as little more than sexual objects.
On numerous occasions, I’ve been in male-dominated environments such as changing rooms, classrooms and the work place, where repulsive things have been said about women. Even though those making the remarks would never engage in any form of abuse, it allows a culture to perpetuate that sees women as inferior and worthless – giving actual abusers a sense of justification for their actions. As men, we have a collective responsibility to call it out.
It is also a case of men teaching boys and young men about how to properly treat women. Given that attitudes about many things are formulated during the adolescent years, it is vital that younger generations are given proper guidance around issues pertaining to sexual abuse.
Men must stand up and take a leading role in denouncing the perpetrators and the culture that has allowed them to get away with it
It has been said by some that these allegations will lead us down a path to where conventional flirting is even classed as harassment – what nonsense. Intuitively, any decent person knows what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. That should be the bottom line.
Certainly, there is a spectrum when it comes to the severity of sexual assault and harassment. Rape, at the most severe end, should not be dealt with in the same way as catcalling, for example. That said, if sexual abuse is to be eradicated from mainstream society, the culture that fuels it should equally be condemned.
Presumably over the next few weeks, we will see many more women and men tell their stories of assault and harassment. Rather than deriding them as snowflakes, they should be commended for their bravery.
This feels like something of a watershed moment in how we view and deal with sexual abuse. In order for these stories to have some sort of tangible impact, men must stand up and take a leading role in denouncing the perpetrators and the culture that has allowed them to get away with it for so long. Only then will women begin to truly feel safe.