No excuses: Why we need to talk about sexual harassment and violence
“Three or four years ago, if you raised this, you’d have been immediately shut down.”
Men and women across Ireland are being urged to stop making excuses regarding sexual harassment and sexual violence, and to start a conversation about acceptable behaviour towards others.
A new government campaign called ‘No Excuses’ is looking to bring about a change in people’s attitudes and beliefs with a series of ads that will highlight the problem in Ireland.
Clíona Saidlear is the executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland and, while she acknowledges great strides have been made over the last year in particular, there are still pockets of society where people condone sexual harassment.
While it was gruelling for all involved, Saidlear believes that the Belfast rape trial - in which rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, as well as two friends, were cleared of sexually assaulting a woman at a party – brought the subject of consent and sexual violence into the national consciousness for what felt like the first time.
“What we had after the Belfast rape trial was a very significant portion of the population engaged in conversation about sexual violence in a way they had never done before,” she tells Independent.ie.
“Lots of people, those who thought it was someone else’s business, realised it was their business.”
Research on Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland found that 42pc of women and 28pc of men experienced some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. That shocking statistic reveals the need for more understanding around consent and around what to do if you believe that someone is acting without consent.
The rise of the #MeToo movement
Saidlear feels that, globally, the goalposts regarding rape culture were moved as a result of the #MeToo movement. However, there remains a situation where people don’t feel free to question unacceptable behaviour.
“Things have changed,” she says.
“What happened around the #MeToo movement both globally and in Ireland is that the bar moved, but when we were coming from a place where half the population were living in fear of sexual violence, the goalposts needed to move.
“People questioned the fairness of that but things have moved in the right direction. That being said, it’s not even come close yet to where it needs to be.
“You’re still coming up against the ‘not all men’ defence, though it’s not as prevalent as it was a couple of years ago. It all depends on who you socialise with, where you work, and what kind of culture you’re exposed to in your everyday life.”
A study by Coyne Research in late 2018 found that 37pc of people were aware of someone in their immediate circle of friends and relatives who had experienced sexual violence. The research was commissioned by Cosc, The National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, and it highlights the extent of the problem.
The #MeToo movement also saw actor Terry Crews come forward to reveal that he had been sexually assaulted by a Hollywood executive. As a former NFL player and the star of numerous action films, his revelation reinforced the point that anyone can be a victim of sexual assault.
Saidlear welcomes his decision to go public, pointing out that it helped to challenge some of the gender-based stereotypes surrounding sexual assault – the social stereotype that female victims have been “soiled” and male victims have been “feminised.”
“It really challenges that stereotype that some men can feel strongly that it’s somehow a challenge to your masculinity,” she explained.
“If you’re a man and you were sexually assaulted, you weren’t to blame and you didn’t let yourself down. There wasn’t something that you could have done.”
She points out that people can sometimes find it hard to look at a physically imposing male victim and accept that this can happen to them.
“That’s probably because they’ve misunderstood just how this person was made vulnerable, because even the strongest amongst us can be made vulnerable and that is about the targeting of the predator and it’s not a reflection on the strength of the victim. It’s really about the choices that have been made by the perpetrator.”
Attitudes around sexual violence and abuse
Coyne Research found that more than half of people surveyed, at 51pc, believe that sexual violence is very common against women while 16pc believed it is common against men. According to the CSO’s most recent crime statistics, 82pc of reported sexual crimes were committed against women and 18pc were committed against men.
However, the SAVI (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) study found that only 8pc of women and 1pc of men report their experience of sexual violence to the Gardaí.
“In some pockets of culture, the whole question of ‘Are you comfortable with this?’ is dismissed - people feel they don’t have to pay any attention to that,” Saidlear insists.
“You then get an environment where not only that is tolerable, but even worse things are tolerated. Worse things happen.
“We have a problem in terms of what we tolerate. I do feel in lots of situations, in lots of places, question marks over that sort of behaviour are dismissed and denied.”
Saidlear namechecks the WIN World Survey, in which it was found that Ireland had the highest rate of sexual harassment in all of Europe. The findings offered some insights into the victims that contradicts some common misconceptions.
“We tend to think the higher the social status, as such, the more protected we are from this.
“However, the higher the education and the better the job these women have, the more likely they are to experience sexual harassment.”
Saidlear believes there are still many workplace cultures that are resistant to change, “where it’s not acceptable for her to say ‘no’. Where she’s not supported in speaking up when she’s uncomfortable about something.
“There are cultures within this country where harassment is tolerated.”
She is happy to see the issue pushed on to the government’s agenda with the ‘No Excuses’ ad campaign launched recently by the Department of Justice and Equality and Cosc.
It covers scenarios that include unwanted physical attention in a bar, sexual harassment in the workplace and attempts to expose someone in a locker room. It highlights incidents that can happen to men and women in everyday situations.
“What you need, in terms of leadership, is to offer a space where people can engage,” she says.
“This affects everyone, everyone has an opinion on this, this is a conversation that everyone needs to be having.
“It’s not about lecturing people, it’s about creating a space where people feel safe in coming forward.
“Three or four years ago, if you raised this, you’d have been immediately shut down. We finally have permission to speak about it.”
Enough is enough. Let’s stop excusing sexual harassment and sexual violence. Learn more at the 'No Excuses' campaign website or, in an emergency, call 999.