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Dublin: 4 °C Friday 17 January, 2020

Fears of backlash after 2017's #MeToo movement

Rape Crisis Network Ireland’s Cliona Sadlier talked to us about what’s next in the movement.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

2017 HAS BEEN a big year for speaking out against sexual misconduct and harassment.

It was the year that allegations about movie heavyweight Harvey Weinstein shook Hollywood, and when consequently there was a huge outpouring from people who have experienced sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

It was the year when it seemed that finally, finally, people who spoke out about sexual harassment were being listened to. After decades and decades of saying that there were issues around misbehaviour and sexist treatment, the floodgates opened and allegation after allegation showed that people were tired of not being listened to.

It has been a remarkable year in many ways, with women in particular being able to talk about their experiences in an open fashion. It has been shocking, too, with a long list of well-known men, and some women, accused of horrible crimes.

The stream of allegations included ones against Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Louis CK and Matt Lauer, and saw a total of 97 well-known men being accused of improper behaviour.

It also led to the creation of the hashtag #MeToo, which was popularised by actress Alyssa Milano and followed work by a woman named Tarana Burke. Burke founded the MeToo movement in 2006 in order to support survivors of sexual violence.

With #MeToo, women had a way of sharing their story, and of standing in solidarity with others.

But what does all of this mean for the future, and will it help to improve behaviour as well as survivors’ ability to speak out?

At the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, they are at the coalface of Ireland’s sexual assault and rape crisis. They see and speak to women daily who have been impacted by this sort of behaviour. And they also see how being able to talk about these things benefits people across the country.

Still, their CEO Cliona Sadlier fears that in the wake of an outpouring of long-held frustrations and hurt, there may be a societal backlash against the change that such a landslide wants to bring.


But before we get to the above aspect of #MeToo, there is the impact of disclosure on survivors, especially those who feel unable to speak out. Sadlier pointed out that there are people who, for a variety reasons, don’t want to or can’t speak out.

“What we don’t want to have is that you end up with those survivors who are out and those who are not, feeling like they are different classes of victims,” she told

“What you want is for those who can’t speak out for whatever reason at the moment, that they feel supported by the #MeToo hashtag, even though they themselves remain silent.”

She pointed out that the original founder of the #MeToo hashtag started it to show solidarity. But Sadlier said her concern is that the push to speak out publicly could pit survivors against survivors in an unhealthy way.

What she doesn’t want to see is “pressure on survivors – ‘why didn’t you speak out, why didn’t you say? Why didn’t you speak out earlier?’” The RCNI’s message is that you don’t have to speak out if you can’t.

“While it’s great everyone is speaking out, it’s fine if you don’t want to and if you can’t we still hear you – we still know you’re there,” she assured.

We still count for you, we still advocate for you. You don’t need that visibility for us to work making you visible.

She said that at the RCNI, they are concerned about those who are speaking out, particularly that people might do it “in possibly a kneejerk way”, such as putting their story on social media without thinking of what might happen next.

She praised Grace Dyas for her approach, advising people to read Dyas’s blog about the process she went through in terms of writing and editing her statements, and taking advice, before she went public with her allegations against Michael Colgan, former head of the Gate Theatre.

“She took a lot of steps to protect herself and her loved ones,” said Sadlier. ”She looked at what the impact was, and she was accepting the risk. What we would say is really we would advise anyone to do that risk assessment themselves and every risk assessment would be different. Our concern is a lot of people are not doing their risk assessment and a lot [are] vulnerable.”

“In terms of preparing yourself, proofing yourself – being clear in your impact,” she advised.

She said if there are survivors out there who are feeling exposed, they can ring a rape crisis centre and chat to somebody.

‘The dust will settle’

Sadlier said that the RCNI is concerned about the aftermath of disclosures. “Something will normalise and settle down and the dust will settle, and what are we left with when it settles?” she asked.

She said that “what will also be left behind is the footprint of everyone who has disclosed”, so people don’t have to fear that their work was in vain.

But she said:

“The crowd will disappear and they will be left there in their lives with this disclosure.
And if they haven’t worked through or talked to loved ones, we would be concerned about their safety.”

“It’s just about being really clear about why you’re speaking out and what it will shake up and move around in your life because it will shake up things,” said Sadlier. “You’ve got to choose it – it’s best if you choose it than if it happens to you.”

But even though it is a better climate in terms of hearing what survivors have to say, Sadlier fears there may be a price to pay.

“We are looking out for the backlash. We have had 40 years of this in our sector; we know that all of these great strides come with a price – the patriarchy doesn’t shift that easily.”

She said that “there is a cynical side to us going ‘what’s the downside here’?”

The hope is we are left with a place that is less tolerant of and less minimising of and denying of sexual harassment, where we can make statements and it’s not denied, that we are not shamed for disclosure in the same way we used to be.

She said there has been some backlash already, such as US Vice President Mike Pence excluding women from some gatherings so he is not alone with them.

“Women’s careers are being possibly impacted by so-called good intentions of people who want to protect women from predatory men,” she said. “It’s a short-term patriarchal response”, one that is “limiting women” as opposed to targeting patriarchal structures, said Sadlier.

Will we have a Luas carriage for women? It’s like: no. Let’s not do that.

This type of exclusionary behaviour is “the most obvious negative impact”, said Sadlier.

There is also the concern that “we get an emergence of a new stereotype” around what a victim looks like, said Sadlier.

“Are we really listening to survivors here or are we setting up a new stereotype?”

“Intention unfortunately does not necessarily guarantee outcome and it’s always been so,” she said. “How often have we heard that we’ve gone post-feminism? We’re back in this space now where we hear we need feminism. Five years ago you were in the minority [if you said you were a feminist]. There’s still a lot of treating this stuff as gender neutral going around as if it doesn’t have anything to do with women and men, and feminine and masculine in this world.”

She said that Rape Crisis centres are a movement – they provide services, but they also want to learn from the people they help, and want to “work ourselves out of a job”.

“It’s the connection – the continuum. We keep that alive, we don’t ever allow things that are based on sexual harassment through to violence and that are gendered. One gender is predominantly the perpetrator and one gender is predominantly victimised,” she said.

Fighting the ‘small harms’

It’s also important, said Sadlier, that “we never say the small harms at the bottom of the line aren’t important”.

Those small harms “can have a big impact” and are much easier to change and to address, she said. “We can actually address those. The whole of the community can address those.”

“Never think a small action is not going to have a big impact here because it’s all connected,” she said. “Pay attention to the small stuff.”

“It’s also important that we keep reminding ourselves to focus on the perpetrator and not the victim’s behaviour,” she added.

“Everything in our culture currently steers us back to examining the behaviour of the victim – that is how our culture is set up,” she said. “We have to actively step back and ask have we fallen into the trap of focusing on the victim’s behaviour?”

But she said that the rape crisis movement is over 40 years old, and that its members “have a jaundiced view on things”.

“While we look at this and go ‘this is amazing and a lot has been done, we know we have to wait for the backlash.”

There’s “generations of wisdom in this movement” said Sadlier, which “we have to stay connected to”.

But despite her fears, Sadlier said she believes “there’s a whole generation who have been politicised in ways and that can’t be undone. Things have opened up and can’t be filed in a way that can’t be undone.”

Read: Uma Thurman calls out Harvey Weinstein and his ‘wicked conspirators’>

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