Thursday 22 August 2019

Sarah Carey: 'Fighting back is normal - not having to is the dream'

Enough is enough: A girl holds a placard during the Time’s Up rally against sexual abuse in London last year. Photo: Getty Images
Enough is enough: A girl holds a placard during the Time’s Up rally against sexual abuse in London last year. Photo: Getty Images

Sarah Carey

Journalist and broadcaster Sinead O'Carroll caused a fuss during the week when she objected to being catcalled at 7am from a car by three fellas - one of whom was a recognisable sportsman. Her complaint sparked the usual response. Some women told their stories of everyday sexism while rather predictably others told her to cop herself on. It sparked a discussion on 'Liveline' on the legitimacy of getting ones knickers in a twist over casual sexism.

My reaction centres on two words - journey and normalisation. I've been writing columns for nearly 15 years. Somewhere out there is a column I'm afraid to read that describes how a guy at work lunged at me during an office party. I argued this kind of thing was perfectly normal. I pretended nothing had happened and wouldn't dream of complaining either to him or about him. In fact, I couldn't understand why other women seemed to collapse with the vapours if men made unwanted passes at them. Sure it's normal. What's all the fuss about?

I stand by some of that. Unwanted passes shouldn't be an occasion for mental collapse or tears. When people work together closely and with alcohol involved these things will happen from time to time. I'd like to think that women such as myself are strong enough and assertive enough to deal with these situations clinically and calmly.

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But the huge thing I got completely wrong was my casual assumption that being pawed at by men is perfectly normal and it's up to women to learn how to deal with it in a way that doesn't embarrass them, the man involved or harm their career prospects.

When in the name of all that's good and holy will it stop being normal for men to grope women or shout at them in the street without invitation? Because I'm really over it now and I'm sorry I wrote that column. I'm over the shrill grins as I remove a hand from my body. I'm over laughing off the boorish remarks. Even though I dread the day men stop admiring me, I'm really sick of being leered at. I'm tired of always being on my guard - whether walking down the street or on public transport or out and about. It's not getting better - it's getting worse.

I had a few revelations on my journey from "laugh it off" to "I'll deck the next man that touches me".

A few years ago, my friends and I enjoyed an annual Christmas lunch in Dublin city centre and repaired afterwards to the infamous Doheny and Nesbitts pub. I tried to go to the toilet but walking through the pub, men instinctively reached out and grabbed me. They weren't just saying hello - they were physically pulling at me. I wasn't annoyed - I was frightened. I had to return to my pals and ask my friend Joe (because yes, lots of men are gentlemen) to escort me to the loos, wait outside and protect me on the way back. (Which is the main reason I'm against same-sex toilets. Can you imagine if they were allowed in?)

I recounted the incident to my friend Barbara Scully, who is my rock of common sense. I started with my usual excuses. People know me from the telly so they think they know me. I'm small and grabbable. There was drink taken. But she said: "Sarah. Can you imagine women doing that to men? Just grabbing random men in the pub as they walk by - even with drink taken and even if they know them from the telly?"

Of course, the answer is no. We don't do that. I'll flirt. But I'm not molesting men I don't know (or ones I do). I'm not so aroused by handsome torsos or finely turned ankles that I'm shouting at men in the street.

Well maybe somewhere out there I'm sure a woman has done that - perhaps on a hen night. But as a matter of normal casual practice? No.

But because men doing it is normal (even if most men don't), I simply learned how to deal with it and more importantly, thought it was my job to do so. Worse, I judged other women for lacking my resilience and sense of humour. Being made uncomfortable by men is normal. Get on with it.

But the older I get the more I understand that I wasn't as resilient as I thought. That even though I have tons of male friends and indeed, am often justly accused of preferring the company of men to women, I learned to expect bad behaviour and so accepted being treated badly by men.

This oh-so-rational-grit-your-teeth-and-smile approach isn't something that I parked in a corner of my social world, to be endured in the pub or walking down the street. It's only now, on my "journey", I realise that accepting that men treat women badly lowered my expectations of how I should be treated in general by men. One of the reasons women so frequently decline opportunities for advancement while men charge forward and seize them is because we've accepted for too long they have the right to behave in certain ways. They are aggressive, assertive, confident, gregarious and decisive. Our job is to smile, please, ignore and indulge.

So on this journey, I find I haven't arrived yet. But I'm tired and bad tempered. And I'm done smiling and indulging. Sinead O'Carroll was right to complain. Being shouted at in the street at 7am might be normal, but it shouldn't be. Fighting back - that's the new normal. Not having to - that's the dream.

Irish Independent

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