An Cailín Rua
Last week, ‘The Silence Breakers’, the vanguard of a global movement by millions of women to share their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, were announced as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. The movement emerged in the wake of revelations about film mogul Harvey Weinstein, spearheaded by dozens of actors like Ashley Judd who have alleged severe harassment, sexual abuse and even rape. Hidden for decades by shame, the floodgates have opened. Now, the Weinstein name, for so long revered in Hollywood, signals fear, control, violence and the worst kind of behaviour: the abuse of power.
The #MeToo movement that followed gave voice to millions of women the world over who finally shared their own stories of sexism, sexually inappropriate behaviour, abuse and violence.
I know there are people reading – among them some women – who will roll their eyes at the perceived sensitivities. They will bemoan the spread of ‘political correctness’, lambast women that ‘can’t take a joke’. Women should ‘lighten up’ and ‘toughen up’ and ‘get on with it’, they lament. And women are telling them politely – get stuffed. Enough is enough.
Picture this. A woman walks along a busy city centre street. A man driving a van wolf-whistles, shouts something suggestive, crude. She ignores him. He slows, drives alongside. She quickens her pace, eyes down. The obscenities start. You’re a stuck-up bitch. I know what you need. He spits, and misses. Passers-by avert their eyes. Ducking into a shop, heart pounding, she prays he doesn’t stop and follow her in. He speeds off, giving her ‘the finger’. I was that woman, who, ten minutes later took my seat late at a meeting, embarrassed and shaking and wondering what I did to make me a target. Was it what I was wearing, the way I walked? No. #MeToo.
Another woman, a friend, carries three glasses across a packed, sweaty bar. She feels a hand, indistinct from its owner, snake up her thigh and grab her between the legs. She squirms, tries to get by. A leery voice whispers something in her ear: beer-breath warm on her neck. She elbows him off, shoving past. She sees him staring from across the room. We tell a bouncer. He shrugs. We eventually get our coats and leave. What else can we do?
Another woman meets a man. They start dating, fall in love. They move in together. Days and weeks pass. She’s seen less and less. When she emerges, she seems nervous, on edge. He doesn’t like her going out without him, she says. We try. Eventually we move away, fall out of touch. Months later, we attend her funeral. She tried to make a break; he didn’t like it. She paid the price; he will never pay enough.
Three scenarios, different all, but all happened and all had one thing in common. In each situation men saw women as objects, possessions; items to be controlled, treated how they wished. The thin edge of the cultural wedge, where one person’s ‘harmless’ sexist joke is another’s pass to an unwanted sexual advance. The other edge of the wedge is the extreme. But the lived reality of women who, every single day, must be wary of where they walk alone or who they might meet on their way suggests that the culture exists; and the millions of women who said #MeToo are the proof. We deserve better.
In 2017, women around the world stood up, defiant, past the point of patience and told their stories. Supporting each other, they named their tormentors, lighting the shadows. Millions of tales of psychological and sexual abuse ranging from the ‘mild’ to the criminal; of the damage caused. Enough. Many good men listened. They stood by, horrified, and just heard. They did not protest ‘Not all men’. Instead, they said ‘One is too many’, and resolved to be the change; in their homes, in their social groups, in their workplaces. If 2018 is to be the year we turn the corner, we need many more good men.