Tuesday 11 December 2018

Has #MeToo gone too far?

Recent Hollywood scandals have prompted a movement against sexual harassment - and a generation gap in reactions and attitudes. Here, three writers of different ages reflect on what the term means to them

Controversy: Catherine Deneuve
Controversy: Catherine Deneuve

Less than 24 hours after the black dress protest in support of #MeToo at the Golden Globes, Catherine Deneuve and 99 French women published an open letter criticising the "frenzy" of the recent sexual harassment claims. Deneuve has since apologised to victims of sexual assault, but reiterated the dangers of "censorship" and intolerance.

The #MeToo movement, and the backlash against it, has revealed deep generational differences in what constitutes sexual harassment. Here, three Irish Independent journalists describe what it means to them.

MARY KENNY (70s)

We all have to speak from our own experience. As a young girl, far from being subjected to sexual harassment, men took no notice of me at all.

In those far-off days, teenagers would go to dance 'hops' where females would line up against a wall, waiting for guys to amble in and invite them to dance. My recollection is that no one ever asked me to dance, and I ended up mooning around in the cloakroom sharing stories with other rejected wallflowers. A little later, living in Paris, I took to going into bars and ordering a glass of rosé wine: some men, often lonely Algerians and Africans, would try to chat me up and make appreciative noises. I thought it was nice of them to try: if it got too insistent, I'd smile and leave, but although this could fall into the category of being a nuisance, I didn't consider it harassment.

Later on, as a young reporter in Fleet Street, the sexual revolution seemed to have occurred and there was a great deal of bad behaviour all round. When I was being sent on my first foreign assignment, the star reporter - an ace operator but a hard-boiled gal - advised me thus: "Always sleep with the Reuters man, doll." For why? To steal his sources. Sex was a weapon, she said: use it.

The question of sexual harassment is what the sociologists call "multi-factorial". Some women are robust, and can swat aside a sex pest with a withering look, or a knee in the groin. The journalist Ann Leslie has spoken about stubbing out a lighted cigarette on a man's hand when that hand wandered. But some women are vulnerable and sensitive - and predators often know, by some kind of radar, who the vulnerable are. Before the sexual revolution, there were accepted social boundaries and protocols. People broke them, but they were flagged up just the same. There were mottos like, "nice girls don't", or, "if you can't be good, be careful".

Salma Hayek pictured at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Salma Hayek pictured at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Then that post-pill sex revolution introduced a sort of free-for-all. Men who previously had been reprimanded for swearing in mixed company felt free to make the crudest of remarks, such as the Irish theatre boss who told a young actress "you're looking quite attractive today - I could almost f*** you". Some thought this smart, liberated language. But now a more confident generation of women are calling a halt to this anything-goes attitude, re-drawing verbal boundaries and insisting on a formal recognition of 'consent'. Many men are now confused as to the difference between wooing and pestering. In their open letter criticising the #MeToo movement, Catherine Deneuve and her 99 Frenchwomen expressed concerns that the chemistry between the sexes may be repressed altogether: if women are always seen as "victims", they are disempowered - of desire, and of responsibility.

Each generation forms its own rules on manners and morals, and when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it will surely swing back in the opposite extreme. Periods of libertinism are followed by eras of prudery: and vice-versa.

DEE FINNERTY (28)

I'm quite a liberal person and I've always believed in sexual freedom as much as the next person. However, I can see how the sexual liberty of one person may put another in a compromising position and, as such, remove their personal liberties from them. This is what I believe constitutes sexual harassment.

The problem with this 'liberty' is that it doesn't exist. For each freedom one person has, another will suffer the consequences. Instead we exist on a playing field of power balance - one where our position, race, lifestyle and gender put us on an uneven footing. That's why I believe the letter signed by Catherine Deneuve is problematic. All of us want sexual liberty but - and I think most would agree - not at the expense of another.On our playing field of life, if the person with better ground decides to use their advantage to coerce, bully or even physically violate someone into sexual activity, that to me is sexual harassment. I also believe that being called out with vulgarities on a public street constitutes sexual harassment by virtue of the fact that one is being harassed as they try to go about their business. Do I believe that a wink in the boardroom in the office constitutes sexual harassment?

Personally, I think it would take more than one for something sexual to be implied, but once there is that tone of sexual forwardness, I believe it's not appropriate, and if someone is feeling bothered, or even mildly irritated by it, that counts as harassment. The stories coming from Hollywood in the last few months have left me feeling unsurprised yet amazed at the sense of change taking place.

I think the use of the word 'witch-hunt', however, is laughable. The irony seems to have been lost on the writers of Deneuve's letter and Liam Neeson, who described the #MeToo movement in such terms on The Late Late Show. The term stems from the time when women - often those of oppositional or vocal nature - were murdered based on the superstitious misconceptions applied to them. It's interesting to note that now, as women attempt to turn the tables on society - without the murder, I might add - this term has been adopted to protect the privileges some males fear losing. It's notable too that Anjelica Huston denounced the movement in an interview last weekend by saying "for as long as I've known them, men have always bullied women", while unfairly comparing them to untameable "gorillas". She went on to suggest "#MeToo should be changed to #WhyNow?".

I do agree with the writers of the open letter in Le Monde in one sense. Women are not victims and they are not traumatised by every hand that lands on their bottom. Instead we are used to and bored of putting up with this kind of behaviour, which is why we're calling for an end to it with the #MeToo movement. I think it has been influential in turning the tide against the acceptance of sexual harassment. Sadly, I believe it will always be an issue, but it gives me hope that women and men are refusing to accept harassment as just another element of day-to-day life. The more we call out this unacceptable behaviour, the more those harassers will have to make sure they keep their zippers up and their hands to themselves.

SINEAD RYAN (50)

Black dresses are normally worn in mourning, but Golden Globe nominees chose to wear the (still so flattering) shade in protest. They gave up colour on the red carpet in some misguided attempt to make a point. I still don't get it. Salma Hayek said it was "an awakening"; Susan Sarandon, "solidarity and gratitude". Right, so.

Perhaps it's that they finally gave themselves permission to call out the rampant sexism evident for years in their industry? Well, welcome to the party, ladies.

We mightn't be glamorous A-listers, but any of us who have worked in banks, hospitals, offices and factories know exactly what it's like to be smirked or whistled at, cat-called, touched, felt up and groped. We've been told repeatedly we "can't take a joke", aren't "up for a laugh" and "need to get a life". We've been called to meetings after everyone's gone home. We've been offered lifts when we didn't want them and asked to attend corporate lunches only to find out it's a table for two. None of this is new, or even original. But now it has a hashtag, so it must be real.

What is actually happening is that sexual harassment is being redefined. And the definitions have constantly changing nuances which are difficult to keep pace with. What one person (I'm looking at you, Catherine Deneuve) would call "stealing a kiss", another would term assault.

The accompanying tag line of #MeToo should probably be: "If I think what you're doing/saying feels wrong, then it is. But stay awake, because it could change tomorrow." The problem when the warning manual gets longer and bigger is it finally becomes unworkable. It is entirely individual and subjective, so drawing up #NewRules for what constitutes sexual harassment is impossible.

For those of us who began our careers in the 1980s, discrimination and harassment was a given. We just didn't take the same offence at it. Perhaps we didn't know we could - we just put up with it. That's my memory of it anyway. Co-workers would warn, "Look, everyone knows about him, just avoid him", or "Don't say anything; he'll stop your career in a minute".

There were occasions it was deeply uncomfortable; for instance, the time I announced my pregnancy to my then boss, who loudly informed the (entirely male) department that I was "up the pole".

Or the other time I was refused a promotion because men were "just better" at the job. No further explanation needed - move along, sweetheart. There was the 'pat on the back' by someone whose sense of geography was off, or the "lovely girl" comments which were meant to be compliments, but left me feeling unsettled and embarrassed. I like the idea that colleges are now forming 'consent classes' for boys and girls. I like that more women are prepared to say they want, or don't want, particular behaviour. I like that we can actually have public conversations about what's okay. I hope we include all men in these, because I get they can be confused and bewildered. We can too. What's ok today from you may be definitely not ok tomorrow from someone else.

Relationships are hard, and those with a wide power gap are the hardest of all.

Irish Independent

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