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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
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Opinion 'A welcome compliment to someone isn’t a problem. Lewd jokes are'

The #MeToo hashtag is less than a month old but already there is push back, writes Noeline Blackwell.

IT’S HAPPENING ALREADY. The #MeToo hashtag and the international notoriety of Harvey Weinstein’s and others’ sexual harassment are less than a month old but already, there is push back. People wonder whether we’ve lost the grip – whether anyone will be able to touch anyone or give a compliment any more.

They suggest that people have to learn to lighten up. They wonder at the depth and extent of the outpouring of disclosures over the past week – whether it is possible that all of those people could be telling the truth. They wonder why people didn’t talk about these things before.

People are talking openly

The extent of disclosures made is indeed unprecedented. Mostly women, but some men too, are talking openly about the impact that sexual violence had on them. They are naming those that they say are responsible for the assaults to their bodies, their spirits and their emotions.

This is happening in the media and is reflected too in calls to our national 24-hour helpline where people are disclosing sexual violence and referencing Weinstein, Humphries and others.

Sexual harassment, sexual assault and all kinds of sexual violence normally remains hidden. People can find it hard to admit the violence to themselves let alone to others. People feel alone and estranged. Our official knowledge is based on too little information, which is for the most part too old – although the recent welcome support of the Tánaiste and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for an up to date survey is most welcome.

There’s strength in numbers

However, right now, people have found strength in numbers and courage from those who have previously spoken out. Under #MeToo, people are speaking from recognition that such harassment, abuse and even rape is pervasive and often even systematic.

In addition, those who are disclosing are being believed. Because sexual violence always involves an abuse of power, reporting it involves talking about a perpetrator who has power. It is also normally someone known to the victim. Rape, other sexual abuse, sexual harassment happens at the hands of family members, friends, workmates, members of the community.

When a person names the violence, and the perpetrator, they are disrupting a family, work or social circle as well as upsetting the balance of power. Society does not make that easy and will often even blame the victim rather than accepting the truth of the harm.

Resistance is inevitable

The resistance to this spate of disclosures is inevitable. We have accepted and normalised a high degree of sexual harassment and abuse in our society. We have to re-think some concepts where people with power felt able to comment, to assault or even to rape someone over whom they had some control.

So giving a welcome compliment to someone isn’t a problem. Lewd jokes aimed at a workmate on a regular basis are. Consensual kissing isn’t an issue. A sense of entitlement to touch someone else without their consent is. It’s not that hard, but it’s different.

Our society is moving forward slowly. We are learning to talk about consent and respect rather than submission, coercion or force. We are reminded that it’s not about the intention of the perpetrator. It’s about the impact on the person targeted.

We need to keep that momentum going. Most of us want to live in a decent society. We don’t want to live where people are being damaged, scared and traumatised. Therefore, we won’t tolerate sexual harassment or abuse of any kind. And we will support those who are victims of such violence so that they can say, as and when they’re ready, #MeToo.

Noeline Blackwell is CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The Centre operates a national 24-hour helpline which can be contacted at 1800 77 88 88.

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