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Lisa McInerney: All sexual harassment needs to thrive is for good men to do nothing

A new #shoutingback project on social media reveals lots of decent men are horrified by public harassment of women – none of us, men or women, should put up with it.

Lisa McInerney

FLASHED BY A customer who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to whip out his genitals when there was a lone, nineteen-year-old barmaid on duty.

Felt up by male “friends” who thought the bar was too crowded for their actions to be noticed.

Called “fat” and “ugly” – and worse – by guys who didn’t appreciate that their space invasion hadn’t been welcomed with open arms and heaving cleavage.

Groped by a man on a dancefloor who thought it his right to shove his hands between the thighs of a girl he didn’t know.

Instances of sexual harassment, perpetrated in public. They’re all true, which I can vouch for because they’ve all happened to me. Want to know the really alarming thing? This isn’t even slightly unusual.

Last week, the Everyday Sexism project began the #shoutingback hashtag on Twitter and invited people to share their stories of being sexually harassed. While there were some male voices in the conversation reporting lewd comments and catcalls, those sharing were overwhelmingly female. What was most striking about the reaction to the hashtag was the tweets from male readers who were appalled and troubled by what they had read, with guys describing the outpouring of stories as “sobering” and “simply astonishing”.

“Culture of aggressive entitlement”

But if something is so prevalent a problem, how is it that many good men had no idea of its pervasiveness? Are they blind? Were the women taking part lying? Is all of this public harassment taking place in some parallel universe populated only by frightened females and sexual predators?

I’m not the only woman who was heartened by the amount of decent men who agree that street harassment isn’t acceptable, and that the culture of aggressive entitlement as perpetuated by belligerent antagonists and those who enable them needs to be challenged.

Women aren’t some sort of exotic quarry to be hunted down by straight men driven mad by their own hormones. A woman does not exist only for men to lay claim to her body, attention and the physical space she inhabits. I’m not suggesting that the problem of street harassment can only be solved by the gallantry of passing male heroes; just as women aren’t exotic quarry, men aren’t either dashing Errol Flynn caricatures or moustachioed villains with a penchant for tying distressed damsels to train tracks.

The question is not why these decent men haven’t saved women from street harassment, but why they were unaware of its existence.

It’s not as if decent men are merely paying lip service to the distress shared on #shoutingback.

“Difficult to be tuned into everything that’s going on around you”

I don’t believe that the men (and the few lucky women) who had no idea of the extent of this type of gender-directed violence are complicit. It is very difficult to be tuned into everything that’s going on around you if you’re not directly targeted, whether it’s frostiness between a couple in a restaurant, a person lost on a city street, or an individual being targeted by a group of caterwauling morons in a nightclub.

A major factor is that street harassment has (up to now, at least) been dismissed as a trifling issue and the price one pays for living in a society that occasionally loses the run of its manners. Women have long been advised to accept uninvited comments on their body, dress or comportment as ‘compliments’, no matter how vulgar or hostile.

So a builder wolf whistles at you. That’s what builders do, right? So a drunk presses his erection against you while you’re dancing with friends at a party. That’s what drunk people do, right? So a snarling man follows you down the road, threatening to rape you. Well… they’re only words. How self-conscious, ashamed or frightened the victim feels is irrelevant. The experience, and the right to that experience, belongs instead to the aggressor.

The mistaken belief is that this kind of harassment is a rite of passage, a necessary evil lurking in the supposed gap between the sexes, mere confusion as to what each gender deems appropriate in courtship displays. Speaking up equates to ‘making a fuss’, and attracts negative attention, firstly from the aggressor, and then from those who don’t like to hear shrill women commenting about anything more sophisticated than the art of sandwich-making.

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“People don’t like to get involved”

Which leads neatly to the second reason all of these decent men are conspicuously absent during instances of street harassment: in many cases, people don’t like to get involved in what they hope is others’ business. If a bloke slyly gropes a woman’s breast as she tries to move past him in a crowd, it takes a lot of nerve to stick your head above the parapet and say, “That’s not on”.

Besides, what if you’re wrong? What if they actually know each other? What if she took it as a harmless bit of physical banter and has already forgotten about it? Unless the injured party is perceptibly injured, the safest thing to do is nothing at all.

And that’s not confined to sexual harassment. It is a difficult thing to get involved in any public incident, whether it’s challenging a leering toerag with busy hands, an angry girlfriend slapping her partner, or something as frightening as a mugging. Getting involved opens up the possibility of being attacked ourselves, and there is an unpredictability about street violence that cannot be ignored. I’m as concerned for my male friends walking alone at night as I am for my female friends.

“Too busy keeping their heads down”

Could it be that the many men horrified at the reports on #shoutingback are conditioned by fear of attack, and so are too busy keeping their heads down to notice the guy shouting abuse at a lone woman only a few metres further down the road, or the forty-something leering at the fourteen-year-old schoolgirl as she waits for her bus home?

Which directly contradicts that first point about street harassment being relatively innocuous.

If it’s a case that decent people are afraid of calling out instances of street harassment, doesn’t that mean that these actions are, unarguably, actions of intimidation, violence and control?

Whatever it is, it’s time for it to end. I may have gotten over each of the examples I cited above, but I don’t see why my daughter should have to do the same just because of some archaic belief that coming of age means learning to put up with the snarling come-ons of arrogant brutes.

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney >

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Lisa McInerney

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