Friday 23 August 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Let's not flirt with this: it's harassment'

It if isn't working it's harassment and you need to stop, respect the other person and walk away, writes Dr Ciara Kelly

No consent: Actors Barry John Kinsella and Charlene Craig appear in the ad campaign about sexual violence and harassment. Photo: Fergal Phillips
No consent: Actors Barry John Kinsella and Charlene Craig appear in the ad campaign about sexual violence and harassment. Photo: Fergal Phillips

The Government this week launched the No Excuses campaign raising awareness about sexual harassment in Irish society. It will run for three years across all media and will attempt to highlight different situations where both women and men feel harassed or uncomfortable by unwelcome sexual advances.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has said that it was in response to research that shows that Ireland has disturbingly high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence. And Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Rape Crisis Centre, said the campaign was much needed because while the State may put laws in place, we still need to highlight how our society must change.

So far so good, you might think? This may help change attitudes and decrease the level of abuse and harassment that citizens experience. And presumably nobody is pro-harassment so you'd expect that this might be broadly welcomed?

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Well, not so. We discussed this campaign on the wireless during the week and it was quite incredible the push-back against it, which fell broadly into two camps. The first being that it will ruin flirting and so destroy all relations between men and women, and ultimately result in the destruction of the species. And the second being it demonises men.

Yes. Apparently no one will be able to flirt any more because this 'awareness campaign' has wrecked it for everyone. Now call me crazy - but if your flirting game is so bad that it can be confused with sexual harassment, I think you're doing it wrong.

This campaign isn't against flirting. Flirting is lovely. Flirting makes the world go round. But flirting is a mutually enjoyable thing. The key there is in the word 'mutually'.

I know this may be a challenging concept for some but if you attempt to flirt and get only an uncomfortable look, an attempt to get away, a string of excuses or indeed a simple "No" in response, then you should stop. If you don't stop in those circumstances then it's not flirting - you are harassing.

Men rang in and said 'But that isn't fair'. They could be doing the exact same thing the only difference being in how it's perceived. And they're exactly right. The difference is ALL about how it's perceived and if it isn't appreciated, well, then it clearly isn't mutual. See above.

And I'm sorry but if it isn't mutual, you back off. And perhaps it is hard to accept that someone you clearly fancy gets to decide whether to accept or reject your advances, but that is how it is.

The other thing people said when they rang in was that this campaign - which no one had seen yet - demonises men.

Now, first up, women can sexually harass men - and this campaign highlights that fact because it's trying to highlight situations we might not otherwise pick up on. So there is no demonising of men. But, secondly, men shouldn't get sucked into letting harassers and abusers hide behind that "not all men" deflection.

No one thinks that all men sexually harass women - they don't. But alas, too many men do. So to men I would say, don't close ranks and align yourself with the harassers. Don't let them drag you into this. Good guys need to differentiate themselves from this by supporting the simple position- leave women alone who don't want your advances.

The other people who rang in had a different perspective. They were the people who had been harassed. Women and men who had left situations like bars and jobs to get away from harassment. One woman told me about having to leave a night out when a bunch of men who had been pestering her relentlessly eventually got her in a headlock and wouldn't let go. Texters in response said maybe she should go to different bars. But is that really the solution?

Another spoke about her 16-year-old daughter walking to a local shop to get a sandwich at lunchtime and sexual suggestions being shouted at her by a group of middle-aged men on a construction site. The girl was upset and ran home. The furious mum went down to the site and complained. She was dismissed with: "She's a good looking girl - she should get used to it." The idea that we are raising our daughters to be fair game enrages me and I think most other parents.

A man described how he was sexually harassed by another man and ended up leaving his job over it. He said the memory still brings on acute anxiety. Sexual harassment comes in many forms.

Simply put I don't know even one woman who hasn't been sexually harassed. Comments, looks, gestures, gropes. The earliest time I can remember I was 11. The most recent time was about three months ago.

It never ends. I doubt that's any different to other women. And that's not forgetting there are boys and men on the receiving end too.

So if this campaign doesn't sit well with you, perhaps ask yourself this. Why wouldn't you be against sexual harassment? Would you react the same to an anti-bullying campaign?

Yes, perhaps the relationship between men and women is changing - but it always has been. It used to be the case cavemen could hit us over the head and drag us home.

That's changed along with - over time - marital rape being recognised and consent becoming accepted as important in a way it never was previously.

The plaintiff: "But if I'm not allowed to harass people any more, how will they realise how attractive I am?" is a paradox. Men and women can do better than this and no further generations should have to put up with it.

And lastly let me disabuse you of the notion that it is only feminazis - whoever they are - that object to being sexually harassed.

It isn't. No one likes it. No one. Not one person. It's an insidious form of bullying and if it's how you 'flirt', you really need to up your game.

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