‘A man pulled up my friend’s skirt in a bar. We were asked to leave, he wasn’t’
Despite #MeToo and the rising popularity of consent classes, groping in public places hasn’t gone away for Irish women
When Kildare student Alice* goes on a night out with her girlfriends, the group has a system to deflect unwanted attention from men.
“We have group signals to each other if we need to get out of a situation, or if someone gropes us or goes in straight for a kiss,” she explains. “The look means ‘get me out of here’. We’re always on the lookout, because most of the time, the interaction turns out to be creepy.
“It’s genuinely annoying when it happens, but you get used to it happening. You’re sort of conditioned as a woman to think it’s kind of normal. When you get upset, it just ruins your night.”
Alice notes that she has had to endure a lot of regular, unsolicited groping from men in public spaces, often from men in their 30s and 40s.
We went upstairs and cried – not about the situation, but because something was actually done
“One night out with a friend in Carlow, this guy smacked both our arses,” she recalls. “Another time, a man grabbed my friend’s skirt and pulled it up to her chest, revealing her knickers to the whole bar. It was the most degrading and embarrassing thing, but no one did anything. In fact, we were asked to leave and he wasn’t.
“I’ve gone up to bouncers to report a guy harassing us, and they literally laugh in our faces,” she continues. “They don’t think it’s an issue. I’ve been asked if it’s a generational thing [happening with younger men] but I’ve had men in their 30s and 40s do it too.”
Yet the one time that Alice did get upset in a groping situation was when a third party did take it seriously. She and a friend were holidaying in Spain, and were 18 at the time.
“It happened in a hotel lift in Barcelona and we essentially shook it off, but the man followed us down to the reception, where we were asked by the staff if we knew him,” recalls Alice. “When we said we didn’t, security instantly grabbed him by the neck and within minutes, two undercover officers were pleading with us to make a statement against him. We went upstairs and cried – not about the situation, but because something was actually done. It made us realise how little is being done here [in Ireland].”
In May, the government launched a major, three-year awareness campaign to tackle Ireland’s “disturbingly high” levels of harassment. Last year, 3,182 sex crimes were recorded by gardaí, a 26 per cent increase on 2017.
No Excuses, part of the National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, focuses on a scenario where a woman endures unwanted physical attention in a bar.
“Even the State recognises it as sexual harassment,” observes Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. “It’s just part of that whole spectrum of violence. If it’s non-consensual, it’s harassment. It may not be the kind of assault you’ll take to court, but nonetheless it is an assault.”
Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychologist at St Patrick’s Hospital, notes that in his 21 years of facing teenage clients, he has seen a “notable difference in the last five years” in the way young women talk about unsolicited advances in public spaces.
“The teenagers I talk to talk a lot about this originating around the teenage disco or around the celebrations after Junior Cert exams,” he reveals. “These have long been rites of passage, but there is a huge escalation in the discomfort young women feel about going out.
“Personally, I don’t remember it being much of an issue in my time, but for these women, preparing for a night out means, ‘I’ve got money for a taxi home, money for a kebab, and I’ll be felt up at some point’.”
Several variables have likely resulted in this grope culture. Often, the approval from others, such as a peer group, is the main reward. “Young people’s understanding of intimacy is really limited,” says Noctor. “And what you notice in culture is that there’s a lot less gender mixing in unsupervised space; things like hanging out with boys on the green and knowing them within context.”
The encroachment of porn and hook-up culture has also played a part: “Oftentimes, kids are watching porn where no means yes, and the issues of consent and aggression are very skewed within those narratives,” says Noctor. “There’s a sense that when girls say no, they really want you to pursue them.
“With the Tinderisation of culture, there’s a feeling among some young people that everyone out there wants [sex] so they’ll pursue it, regardless of what the other person’s body language is saying. We live in a culture of convenience that’s about gratification.
“And, if you see what’s happening through social media imagery, there’s a lot of pouting and sexually provocative poses. That’s not saying in any way at all that a woman is asking for it, but it can sometimes result in a skewed communication where the right conversation isn’t happening.”
In the post #MeToo climate, young women are starting to realise that unwanted physical attention from men in public places amounts to sexual harassment. The movement has encouraged and empowered them to speak up if it happens.
“I feel angry and violated, like an object for their fun,” explains Alice. “We know now it’s not right to put your hands on someone without their consent.
“#MeToo has given some power to women, but I don’t think it’s changed anything within male culture,” she adds. “I think the #MeToo thing, with someone like Harvey Weinstein, seems too far away from their own lives to connect it to their own behaviour.”
Public conversations around consent have certainly helped to raise awareness for young men and women on what constitutes a healthy, consensual sexual encounter. Yet Alice observes that consent education in schools and colleges focus on sexual acts in private spaces.
“The conversation is starting at the end [when people end up in bed] but there’s a whole other lot of encounters before it that we need to talk about,” she says.
Noctor says: “I’m not sure boys make this demand for physical contact deliberately. I’ve noticed in a public setting myself, when someone says no, or that they’re not interested in someone, it’s not adhered to. It’s almost a challenge.”
Why does Alice think certain men behave in this way?
“I’m not sure what they’re trying to achieve, but it’s just part of the culture,” she says. “There’s a sense of entitlement there that if you’re dressed a certain way, they presume you’re automatically up for it.
“I don’t think they think it’s an assault. It’s so conditioned that they think it’s normal. The reason the conversation hasn’t grown legs is because it’s because a ‘man versus woman’ debate, which means there’s no movement to the conversation. But it’s an aspect of culture that’s harmful to men and women.”
Yet according to Noctor, the consequences of being harassed and groped in public can often be far-reaching for young women.
“The knock-on effect is that women become fearful of vulnerability, and conscious of vulnerability,” he says. “Some women can develop a ‘maturity fear’, and that can develop into high anxiety or, in some cases, eating disorders. There is sometimes a desire not to be seen as sexual at all. The ramifications on our self-worth and self-esteem, if you accept it as par for the course, must be pretty significant.”
Both Noctor and Alice agree that those facilitating consent classes in schools and colleges need to take public space interaction into account. A draft report created by the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, part of the Department of Education, will focus on healthy relationships, and how they are taught within second-level education.
Ultimately however, these are conversations that need to begin at home.
“Basically as parents, you want young men to have an understanding and respect of women, and you have to offer a different slant to the technology narrative, the narrative of convenience and gratification and the narrative of entitlement,” says Noctor. “Don’t assume that these are conversations that can be farmed out to schools or colleges – this is a continual conversation.
“In Ireland, we’ve come such a long way in conversations around marriage equality, and we need to be able to say in much the same way, this is not okay. You can’t encroach on someone’s personal space without permission.”
Alice agrees. “There should be more legislation in place to protect people against groping, and it should be taken as seriously as any other sexual assault. Mums should talk to their sons about how this behaviour makes a woman feel. If you wouldn’t like it done to your sister or mother, why do it?”
“It’s very simple,” says Blackwell. “Are you sure [the interaction] is welcome? If not, don’t do it. You wouldn’t do it with a physical assault. You’re not likely to go up to someone in a bar and give them a hard thump in the back.”
*Name has been changed.
To contact the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, visit drcc.ie or call their 24-hour helpline on 1800 778888.