Wednesday 28 September 2016

As a child, grown men thought it was OK to touch me - I thought it was part of being a girl

Barbara Scully

Published 10/06/2016 | 02:30

We continue to live in a culture where men view women as sexual objects over whom they have a degree of entitlement (Stock image)
We continue to live in a culture where men view women as sexual objects over whom they have a degree of entitlement (Stock image)

Recently, blogger, freelance journalist and social media influencer (yes, that's a thing) Rosemary McCabe posted a series of tweets about the sexual harassment and abuse she has endured in her life - thus far.

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As I read her tweets, I realised that I had experienced similar events. Not in the recent past, for I am old enough to be Rosemary's mother, but when I was in my school uniform.

When I was a child, probably from the ages of 13 to about 15, I was occasionally sexually harassed by grown men who seemed to think they had a right to touch me. This sudden realisation, prompted by Rosemary's tweets, really angered me.

One time, when I was about 13, a workman on the street thrust his hand right up between my legs as I walked past him on my way home from school.

Another time, again coming from school, I was stopped by a middle-aged man in a very swanky car supposedly asking for directions. When I approached the car, I could see he was masturbating.

And when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I was briefly pinned against the wall of the swimming pool, again by a middle-aged man - a neighbour - who thought it was funny to trap me and rub against me.

At the time, my teenage self never talked to anyone about any of these events. I think, even then, I was aware that they were just a normal part of being a girl. I can't say I had nightmares as a result, although I am fairly certain they coloured my attitude to men, and not in a good way.

As I thought about these experiences, I realised that this kind of sexual harassment stopped as I got older. Many of the women who also shared their experiences online following Rosemary's tweets were referring to events they experienced as adult women, in the workplace, on public transport and in nightclubs.

Either this kind of abuse has become more widespread, or the fact that I ended up being six feet tall meant men weren't quite so quick to sexually harass or attempt to intimidate me. One can only conclude that men indulge in this kind of abusive behaviour because they can. Not all men, but enough men.

What is also very interesting is how widespread this kind of experience is for women. And how we don't call it out publicly. This is not surprising, especially when one checks Rosemary's timeline 24 hours after her original tweets, which was full of horrible abuse.

This week, we have also been reading the harrowing victim impact statement of the rape victim of Brock Allen Turner, a graduate of Stanford University in the US. It is time that we as a society joined the dots.

Both of these stories - women's lived experience of men's sexual harassment and that of a rape, which Turner's father dismissed as "20 minutes of action" for which a paltry six-month sentence is deemed appropriate - are linked. We continue to live in a culture where men (not all men, but enough men) view women as sexual objects over whom they have a degree of entitlement.

Are you still sceptical? Take a look at the Everyday Sexism Project (www.everydaysexism.com), where women have been logging their experiences since 2012.

Recently in the UK, the Women and Equalities Committee heard from experts that online pornography has led to increased acceptance of sexual harassment towards women and that it often starts in school. So much so that some girls have reported they are now wearing shorts under their school uniform to avoid having their underwear exposed by boys in the playground.

The really dangerous thing about this very depressing scenario is that too often women are advised to change their behaviour to avoid abuse or danger instead of men being challenged or called out on their unacceptable harassment. Girls in school are being told to wear trousers and young women are being told not to dress provocatively and not to get drunk in order to stay safe.

What about telling men to keep their paws and their filthy remarks to themselves?

I am aware that there are lots of men who are equally appalled by sexist behaviour as many women. And we need these men to play their part too. But even as I sat down to write this, knowing that I would begin with recounting my own childhood experiences, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I worried about the backlash - not only online and in the comments section of this piece but from 'real' people who might accuse me of scraping the barrel in my search for a subject to write on. Because that's how ingrained the acceptance of sexism is.

Irish Independent

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