Kathy Sheridan: The man slipped his hand under my top #MeToo

Weinstein scandal could be a watershed moment in the fight against sexual harassment

Harvey Weinstein: Accused of sexual assault in 2015, he mobilised lawyers and publicists to make the case go away. Photograph: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times

Harvey Weinstein: Accused of sexual assault in 2015, he mobilised lawyers and publicists to make the case go away. Photograph: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times


#Me too, I’m afraid. As a moody teenager in the midlands, an escape valve was to take my transistor radio and San Francisco hippy fantasies for walks around a lake a few miles from home. One rainy day, as I sheltered under a tree, a man silently materialised behind my shoulder, smoothly slipped his hand under my top and cupped my breast. And thus we stood, perfectly still, until the rain abated. He then removed his hand and strolled away.

Not long before, I had left a national school where pupils lined up to stand beside the principal’s chair to recite long reams of history, while he groped their most intimate body parts. The trick for his victims was to dissociate his invading fingers from the 1798 Rebellion.

In later years, we learned never to accept lifts into town from certain older men, eternally fearful of giving offence even while blushing and struggling for polite excuses not to get in. Comparing notes with other girls, there seemed to be a lot of those men on the banned list.

Whole evenings fly by as women regale each other with stories like these, memories dredged up again by Harvey Weinstein-like eruptions. We assure one another there was no long-term damage and reflect gratefully on all the fine, decent men in our lives. But how can we not be affected?

Of course I think of that man at the lake and how practised, how confident he seemed. He had clearly done this many times. Think of how many girls like me had stood paralysed, shamed and humiliated, and had never spoken of it.

Of course, the immediate upshot was that I never took that lake walk again and life became a little more circumscribed. Later, there were the lowly job interviews where smirking, testosterone-fuelled greybacks, feet up on the desk, asked how I liked my eggs in the morning.

A few years on, any residue of hitch-hiking, freewheeling youth was stamped out with the news of the rape and murder of two young women by a couple of Englishmen, who had arrived in Ireland with the intention of killing at least one young woman a week.

That was all of 40 years ago.

Life’s fabric

Male entitlement, sexual abuse, misogyny, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace did not begin with Harvey Weinstein. It is woven into the fabric of our lives. Setting your mindset to “wary”and pulling your coat more tightly around you before walking through a bunch of cat-callers, or crossing the street to avoid a lone male at night, is as instinctive as putting on your shoes.

“This is a global problem. Under the guise of artistic endeavour, people get away with a lot,” says Karan O Loughlin, organiser of Irish Equity and Siptu head of equality and campaigning, who ran a survey last year on bullying and harassment in the workplace.

“And as the original precarious workers, who move from job to job, actors put up with a lot. It is very subjective as to whether someone is suitable for a job and that power is very easy to abuse. The one thing they have in common is they didn’t report it – and if women are reluctant to report it, young men are even more reluctant.”

Is there a Weinstein figure in Ireland? “I think there are a number of repeat offenders,” she says carefully. “It is absolutely clear to me that this is an issue for women in Ireland.”

Of course the problem of sexual harassment is not confined to Hollywood visionaries and their mini-me’s. A quarter of workers have been subjected to sexual harassment at some stage, and a further one in 10 has experienced it regularly or very often, according to a recent survey on worker treatment in Galway’s hospitality sector, undertaken by Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Eva Mitchell.

Harmless wink

What does sexual harassment mean? Can winking at a colleague – as Woody Allen suggested – or a bit of “harmless banter” land you in court? In an analysis of a Labour Court case by the law firm A&L Goodbody, the meaning of “harmless workplace banter”versus sexual harassment was teased out.

For clarity, Section 14A(7) of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 defines sexual harassment as: “any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature . . . which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.”

This includes “acts, requests, spoken words, gestures or the production, display or circulation of written words, pictures or other material”.

But what about a harmless oul’ wink?

Let’s return to the Employment Equality Act Order: “The essential characteristic of sexual harassment is that it is unwanted by the recipient, that it is for each individual to determine what behaviour is acceptable to them and what they regard as offensive. Sexual attention becomes sexual harassment if it is persisted in once it has been made clear that it is regarded by the recipient as offensive, although one incident of harassment may constitute sexual harassment if sufficiently serious. It is the unwanted nature of the conduct which distinguishes sexual harassment from friendly behaviour, which is welcome and mutual.”[Italics added.]

In the Labour Court case, a woman accused male co-workers of regularly making sexist comments and directing gossip of a sexual nature at her. One man was particularly persistent, inviting her on a date and to “move in” with him, then spread rumours to the effect that she was having an affair with her assistant manager and began uttering a particular sexual expletive whenever a male employee came into the aisle in which she worked.

When she complained to her manager, she said, she was told that the type of conversation complained of was “okay, as they [the co-workers] were just young lads”. Her manager also gave evidence that on questioning, the male co-workers admitted engaging in sexually explicit conversations, but assured the manager that the conversations were about women in general and were not directed at the complainant personally.

The court ruled that she was sexually harassed and awarded her €15,000, pointing out that the statutory definition of sexual harassment includes conduct that creates an “offensive environment” for the complainant, such that the co-workers’ comments did not necessarily need to be addressed to or directed to the complainant personally. “Most people of normal sensitivity or fortitude,” it ruled, would likely find that conversation of a “sexually explicit nature” creates an offensive working environment.

Which all seems straightforward enough to people of normal sensitivity or fortitude. Less about a twinkly eye for the women and more about shaming and humiliation.

'You are only letting on to be a little Virgin Mary to your mammy, we know what you really are.'

Take another case, reported in The Irish Times four years ago.

A teenage girl, who joined a multinational retail chain at the age of 17, where her mother also worked, accused two of her supervisors of sexual harassment. They asked her things such as whether she performed oral sex and would make inappropriate sexual remarks to her, such as, “You are only letting on to be a little Virgin Mary to your mammy, we know what you really are.”

They also told her mother that her daughter would come home pregnant from her holidays.

At a staff party, one of them attempted to push her legs apart.

After that incident, the teenager said she felt “violated, sick, stressed and scared” and the perpetrator was demoted. At the time of the hearing, he was still working as a customer adviser for the retailer.

She eventually resigned in October 2010 after a prolonged absence from work. The equality officer found that while her employer had investigated the incidents of sexual harassment properly, it should have moved that supervisor to another store. She was awarded €29,756 – two years’ salary, the maximum allowed – for the harassment.

A report conducted jointly by the British Trades Union Congress and Everyday Sexism found that 52 per cent of women had experienced some kind of sexual harassment at work.

It’s hardly any wonder that while the spotlight was on Weinstein and the tanker of testosterone that is Hollywood’s underbelly, millions of people with no connection to entertainment or the arts, or reluctant to wait several years for a case hearing, have used hashtags such as #MeToo as a kind of online therapy, revealing personal experiences of harassment and assault. In Italy, #quellavoltache (“the time that”) has also been trending, though not with the massive momentum or sticky legalities of France’s #balancetonporc (squeal on your pig), which essentially encourages women to name names.

Tipping point

The editor of Causeur, a French right-wing magazine, dismissed #balancetonporc as “the latest faddish ideological gadget” and one that conflated “speaking out” with “denunciation”. That may be so, but there is also a sense that women have reached a tipping point.

“People are starting to actually say ‘I don’t want it’. It’s the #MeToo attitude. We are starting to name it, and that is new to us as a nation,” said Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre this week.

The question is whether we are finally witnessing a watershed, actual cultural change? Is the public roasting and pariah status of an individual perpetrator such as Weinstein enough to change people’s behaviour?

Gretchen Carlson, the woman credited with smashing open the workplace sexual harassment culture in Fox News, with her landmark case against its chairman and chief executive Roger Ailes, has said she is convinced that we are seeing “a watershed moment”. “This is the tipping point I’ve been working so hard for over the last 15 months. People are finally saying ‘enough’.”

Is it possible for example, that France, the land of seduction, the insouciant shrug and several sexual harassment scandals involving politicians in recent years, is undergoing a cultural upheaval? The trial of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn – whose “rough sex” penchant was already an open secret – for the alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid in New York hotel was a kind of primer.

At the time of his arrest six years ago, the New York Times reported that women who had worked for the IMF described it as a place “whose sexual norms and customs are markedly different from those of Washington, leaving its female employees vulnerable to harassment”.

Those who like to think that the likes of DSK, Weinstein and Donald Trump, or the chain store supervisors, are old dinosaurs, a dying breed, have only to look to that shining beacon of the future, Silicon Valley, for confirmation that the world is rife with their hatchlings.

A blogpost by Susan Fowler, accusing Uber of fostering a culture of sexism and harassment, has seen its chief executive Travis Kalanick and 20 others out the door.

David McClure, founder of the venture fund 500 Startups, was forced to step down amid allegations of sexual harassment of female entrepreneurs. Litigation, reputational damage and the growing willingness of women to go on the record may speed up the self-scrutiny.

But will it change a culture notorious for treating women as sex objects – ones “less biologically suited to work in technical fields” in the words of one ex-Google engineer – rather than equals?

Workplace dignity

Equity’s Karan O Loughlin prefers to take the non-accusatory route and is organising a November seminar on dignity in the workplace, aimed at producers and line producers and heads of department involved in the production of film, television and live theatre. In London, the Royal Court theatre is hosting two events called No Grey Area, to confront abuses of power in the industry.

Meanwhile, France’s junior minister for gender equality, Marlene Sciappa, said they were considering ramping up legislation against sexual harassment, including the possibility of fines for those who engage in cat-calling. Significantly, its economy minister swiftly backtracked on an interview where he had said he believed in loyalty and not in ratting out his colleagues, only to affirm via video message that he firmly condemned sexual harassment and urged women to “liberez la parole” (speak out).

So can we take courage from France? Are things really changing? Rachel Donadio, writing in The Atlantic, says maybe. “Today, millennials with Twitter accounts carry more weight, politically and economically, than they have before.

“But it may also be that Weinsteingate will pass. Later this month, the French national cinematheque will hold the French premiere of Based on a True Story, the latest film by Roman Polanski [who gave drugs to a 13-year-old and raped her in 1977]. In the presence of the director. #PlusCaChange?”

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