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Una Mullally: Breaking the silence around sexual harassment

Women have moved from mutual alert codes to calling out abusers in the public realm

Maybe creepy guys thought silences would protect them forever. But the silence only existed in their orbits. Elsewhere, among women, there was noise. Women talk. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly.

Sexual harassment is now a constant rolling, breaking news story. Every day, every week, the spotlight swings, landing on another perpetrator, victim and industry. We are in the midst of a dramatic and large-scale movement of women calling out men who have assaulted them or others, who have harassed them, who have infringed in some way. There is no standard story, but there is a common experience, individual beads making up an evolving but depressingly predictable kaleidoscope.

Sometimes things just click. Sometimes we absolutely know certain things are happening and exist, yet a shift occurs and blurry information snaps into focus. Working on a Sunday newspaper earlier in my career, the editor used to say that when developing more thematic or issue-based feature articles, it didn’t necessarily matter that we weren’t breaking a massive new part of the story, but that we were taking all the information already out there, and bringing it together, so that when presented to the reader, they would see it positioned in a certain way and it would click. I think of that now when information about men about whom stories abound are positioned in a certain light. When presented in that way, the information lands and gains traction.

Women exist in the modern world, obviously, yet many of our daily struggles are ridiculously old-fashioned

Sexual harassment and sexual violence and generally creepy behaviour happens everywhere. But high-profile people offer a way into a story. Those who are known hold power, but power can also be held to account. There is a feeling now that the floodgates have opened: Fox News; in Hollywood with Weinstein and others; in the music industry as several female musicians continue to come forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment, pestering or inappropriate behaviour; in the theatre world; in media; and so on. The levees have broken.

Visibility as tool

Why is this happening? It’s a combination of so many things; the growth of third-wave feminism, the fact that women developed their own platforms to speak about these things, the understanding of visibility as a tool, and more and more, a growing tiredness and frustration that we simply can’t keep dealing with these things any more. Women exist in the modern world, obviously, yet many of our daily struggles are ridiculously old-fashioned. When it comes to sexual violence being spoken about in the public sphere, I feel the election of an admitted serial sexual predator and assaulter as US president made many women both angry and motivated almost from the defeatism of the whole thing. Can we really keep carrying this stuff with us? What have we got to lose?

Visibility is the foundation of any movement. Women “coming out” about sexual violence, harassment, sleaziness, unwanted sexist remarks, and so on, are providing that visibility. Simultaneously, they are making the perpetrators visible. Men in positions of power will be the first ones to be called out, as they are recognisable and newsworthy, and in exposing them, women themselves can lean on the hope that others will come forward too, and that such solidarity will be protective.

Maybe creepy guys thought silences would protect them forever. I’m not surprised they’d think that

Particularly in Ireland, we’ve also experienced a massive shift in how, where and when we talk. How we speak about our private lives has changed dramatically in just a few years. “Say nothing,” my grandfather used to say. “Say it out,” my grandmother used to say. Our culture of silence is gradually waning. The central actor in – and beneficiary of – that silence, the Catholic Church, is waning in power. Silences can’t shatter fast enough. Along with the emergence of a hyper-confessional culture where social media allows us to share our most intimate private lives and thoughts, several national conversations have moved us from “say nothing” to “say it out”.

Say it out

The marriage equality referendum was a remarkably exposing moment for the nation, with ordinary citizens sharing their private lives. Waking The Feminists saw women in theatre and the arts standing up and detailing personal experiences of sexism. The movement for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment has seen countless women share their stories of abortion, something that even months before stories began to be shared was seen as completely taboo. We are finally opening up about mental health. So now, seeing what others are talking about elsewhere, maybe Irish women are thinking: sexual harassment? Sexual violence? Inappropriate remarks? I’ve experienced that. Let’s say it out.

Maybe creepy guys thought silences would protect them forever. I’m not surprised they’d think that. The enforced silence of the women they acted terribly towards, and the silence of men who didn’t speak up, who didn’t notice, or who were complicit in their behaviour, has been deafening. But the silence only existed in their orbits. Elsewhere, among women, there was noise. Women talk.

We have developed ways with which to convey information to one and other about dangerous men, sleazy men, men you don’t want to be left alone with. We say this explicitly to each other in private and in group situations, we insinuate (“well, you know what he’s like”), we have a shorthand of body language to articulate warnings. We pass on personal stories, stories of others, and, yes, gossip and hearsay. Every woman has these stories, this knowledge. We use it to navigate our industries and workplaces and communities. This storage of information begins as children, when we’re told to avoid the certain neighbour or the certain priest, and continues as teens when we gossip about the behaviour of boys, or as students when we giggle about a teacher’s inappropriateness, and maybe go to college and roll our eyes at a creepy lecturer, and out into the workforce, where new information is disseminated among women again.

Men are not tuned into this frequency. In one way, that protects the information and keeps it safe. But in another it keeps it from the broader public realm, and keeps it hidden. As women find their voice, that long-stored information emerges. Say it out.