Josepha Madigan was brave. But women don’t want more pats on the head for bravery

How many more stories do we need to hear before we take action?

For women in this country, being harassed or groped or grabbed or attacked is so normalised it is almost a grim rite of passage. Your first heartbreak. Your first smear. Your first sexual assault.

If – or, I’m sorry to say, when – it happens to you, after you get over the shock, you may start examining where you went wrong. This is what society has trained you to do. You may chide yourself – wrongly and irrationally you know, but those years of conditioning are incredibly powerful – for walking down that street. Or for taking that seat on the bus. Or for using that app. Or for trusting that man. Or (the ultimate bit of victim blaming – gaslighting) “sending off the wrong signals” or “leading him on”, as though the predators are the real victims here. This is one of society’s most insidious con jobs: normalising sexual violence, and then getting the survivors to blame themselves.

The blaming still happens in women’s heads, but it doesn’t only happen there. It happens in some workplaces, when women are urged not to make a fuss about harassment in case they damage a more powerful man’s career. And some courtrooms where, for example, the jury might be invited to speculate on the meaning of the kind of underwear worn by an alleged victim of rape – as happened in Cork three years ago, when a barrister mused that a woman’s lace thong meant she was “open to meeting someone”. The accused in that trial was acquitted.

It happens still in towns across Ireland, where complainants sometimes find that, instead of support or empathy, they're met with reproach. The legal system's use of archaic character references – in which one towering figure of the community after another offers glowing evidence of an accused individual's perceived respectability – fosters this culture, by treating being a so-called promising young man from a well-respected family as a mitigating factor. I've never understood why it isn't an aggravating one.


Victim blaming happens in all of those places, but it happens inside our own heads too.

This is why Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan’s account to the Dáil of her own experience of sexual assault matters. It reminds us that, as she said, we live in an “unfinished democracy” when it comes to the treatment of women.

Endemic problem

But four years on from #MeToo, women are sick of telling our stories. We’re tired of wincing in recognition at other women’s stories. We don’t want any more pats on the head for our bravery in turning our own skin inside out to prove, again and again, that yes, there is a problem; yes, it is endemic; and yes, we’d like you – by which we mean men – to start taking notice of it. We would also very much like you to stop waiting for us to tell you what to do about a crisis not of our making.

But, you protest, it's not of your making either – as though not being a direct part of the problem absolves you from all responsibility for fixing it. But, you say, protesting louder now, men get assaulted too. You're right. However, men don't routinely get assaulted by women. According to a new report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), one in three women aged over 15 in the European Union has experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Twenty-two per cent have experienced violence by an intimate partner. Eighty per cent of gender-based violence in Europe involves violence against women.

There is no comfort in knowing you’re not alone, that – as Madigan said – “there are very few women my age who have not been subjected to some form of sexual assault”. And that if nothing changes, if we don’t start to tackle this for the epidemic it is, your daughters, and probably your sons, will one day have their own horrifying story to tell.

Maybe they already have. A report is coming out shortly by the Rape Crisis Networks of Ireland entitled Storm and Stress: An Exploration of Sexual Harassment Amongst Adolescents. According to Clíona Saidléar, who wrote about it this week in the Irish Examiner, it provides evidence that children and young people are experiencing sexual abuse at school. If a similar project carried out this year in the UK on social media, called Everyone’s Invited, offers even a glimmer of an indication of what’s to come, it will make for chilling reading. The UK shadow minister for domestic violence Jess Phillips said that if the problem was as widespread as the more than 10,000 accounts to Everyone’s Invited indicate, some parents need to “take their sons to the police station”.


Women such as Madigan standing up and courageously sharing their experience into the public record help to keep the issue alive. But how many more stories do we need to hear before we take action? How much more proof do we want? At the most basic level, support services need proper funding.

The EIGE report, due out in August, calculates the monetary cost of gender-based violence across Europe at €290 billion a year. Funding for services across Europe is less than 0.4 per cent of that figure. In Ireland, where the cost of gender violence is an estimated €4 billion every year, funding was slashed during the austerity years and has not been restored.

As a society, we also need to look at the way we’re raising boys and girls, because the conditioning and power structures that allow a climate of harassment to persist take hold in childhood. We need a national policy on sexual harassment in schools.

Four years after women started really talking about this, why are we still the only ones talking? Gender-based violence is not a women’s issue. It is an everyone issue. And it won’t be solved until everyone gets involved.