When my kids want to be cruel to each other they taunt by saying something really nice to each other and then say “I really mean that too, in an alternate universe that doesn’t exist”.
Talking to my husband recently about our general life experience, about everyday things like walking alone, or being in an enclosed space with a member of the opposite sex, or even working with an older member of the opposite sex, we realised how different our same, shared universes are. So marked are the differences between the way that my husband goes about his daily business and the way I go about mine, we agreed that we are living in a parallel universe.
The difference? Gender, and the way we behave because of it, or how it affects the way others treat us.
Finally, people are talking about sexual harassment. That’s a good thing, talking about what it’s really like out there in the world for women. Stories are being shared, ones that have been held in for years. Some, previously afraid of being called “uptight” or “too PC” aren’t afraid to share stories any more.
People listening are horrified at the behaviour, as if somehow, they had no idea. How? Is it that we became so used to this behaviour that we accepted it? Look back at movies you loved from your childhood and cringe at the leering over women and the crude jokes, Diet Coke man at least gave some slight equality, even if it was ironic.
These past few weeks I’ve found myself remembering little vignettes, triggered by reading the #metoo hashtag on twitter and reading about Harvey Weinstein, or our own Michael Colgan. The scariest thing for me of all these revelations, is that I found so little of it surprising. The surprising thing for me is that so many did.
Looking back over stories, or recounting them to others I realise that an acceptance of sexual harassment, or a resignation that it would happen has been with me for a very long time. I’m no shrinking violet and have called people out on creepiness, telling countless men to get their hands off me or to just fuck off.. Easier to do that in a crowded pub than on an empty street, or in an office where they’re paying your wages though.
There were the flashers, the men sitting too close on public transport (as I’d move away they’d move with me, hemming me in, making me sweat). There was that time in Paris on a crowded Metro where I felt a hand between my legs but couldn’t identify where it was coming, from so I screeched obscenities in English and got off at the next stop. There was the guy who sat in the same train compartment as me and pleasured himself, making eye contact with me if I looked in his direction. And let’s not forget the time I was grabbed in the breast across the counter of the bar I was working in. And the other time too.
And the countless times I had my ass grabbed. The time I was asked in an interview if I did my own makeup and whether I had a boyfriend (the job wasn’t for makeup application). The “offers” I had “if only he wasn’t on the scene”. There was the time I was scratched on the back by a colleague of my parents’ generation on a night out and asked what my boyfriend would make of the marks.
I’ve stood by as older men, known to us in a work context, were “handsy”. We’ve all worked with an “octopus”. We all warn each other, protect, younger women circling when the “handsy” ones zoned in on their prey, there’s safety in numbers. Tongues in ears. Hands on the small of backs. Strokes of cheeks. All uninvited. In law, we call that assault. Because that’s what it is.
I never went to HR though. Or the guards. What would the point have been? It would have been justified away. “Sure everyone knows what Mick is like on a night out, stay away from him”.
This is reality for women. Not every woman may have experienced it as blatantly, some I’ve spoken to say they never have, but on talking about it more they do have that internal fear, the realisation that there’s menace. The nods, the ogles, the stare dropping down to boob level mid serious-work-related conversation. The jokes and jibes. Banter? Having the craic? Or sheer inappropriate?
I read an article on Facebook recently that I can’t find to credit. It spelled out the difference between being male and female in one question, I can’t find the exact one now, but it was along the lines of “what do you do each day to guard against sexual assault”. Try it yourself, if you’re male you may struggle, bar the initial jokes about prison. If you’re female you might recount phoning someone on your walk home, texting your taxi number to someone, not walking alone, not wearing revealing clothes, carrying your car keys in your hand for attack, not sleeping with the windows open, not driving alone, there are lots once we start thinking. That’s a lot of extra things we need to do, just to keep ourselves safe. All that, on top of everything else. Sure, we’re exhausted with it. Weary. Sick and tired in our parallel universe that we wish didn’t exist.
What now? What next? A Helpful Guide to not behaving inappropriately
I’m hoping that there are many men questioning their behaviour. I’m not so naive as to think that they’re thinking about the affect it has had on others, but I think they’re possibly going into self preservation mode. The last thing they need right now is sexual assault allegations, sure everyone was at it. They might be justifying their calling their colleague “sexy” to their face by thinking it’s a compliment. They might be completely unaware that lewd comments about someone’s ass in the office isn’t appropriate, nor the lingering hand on the small of their back as they pass.
I can help them though. It’s pretty easy to assess what’s acceptable and what isn’t. The test is not whether you’d be OK with that same thing being done to your daughter or your sister (Donald Trump proves this). No, the test is, would you do the same thing to a member of the same sex (or the one you’re not attracted to).
So if you’d say the same thing to the 6ft 4 built-like-a -tank GAA County Player as you would to the 5ft nothing petite blonde with the nice ass who does the same job, then you’re on the right track. If not, step away.
And what if it happens to you?
If you experience this behaviour, or if you see someone else subjected to it you should shout. Shout loud. Call them on it. Stand on the shoulders of all the women who are sharing their stories on #metoo. Tell them my GAA full back story. Tell them to keep their fucking hands to themselves. Tell everyone. Embarrass them at the risk of being “too PC” or “no craic”. Because if we don’t then we’re colluding, and that makes us accessories. They’re wrong.
We got this. Make some noise. Let’s change this, for once and for all.
Excellent post. So well expressed. Love the image of men and women inhabiting parallel universes. Wonder did you see Grace Dyas on Clare Byrne talking about her Colgan experience? She was so good
Hi Enda, thanks for taking the time to comment. I didn’t see her on that programme but saw her on various others, she’s very articulate.
She certainly is — and well able to make and develop her point, even when Clare butted in. Gosh it’s a long road isn’t it to real equality?
A brilliant metaphor for the world(s) we live in. I hope the discussions taking place will give our children louder voices when it comes to abuse.