After The New York Times published an explosive report detailing decades of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein dozens of women came forward with their own accusations against the Hollywood mogul. Following on from this, a slew of high profile names within the international public eye have been accused of numerous counts of sexual harassment and abuse. The scandal appeared to launch something of an avalanche, with victims speaking out and joining movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. Over the last few months we have heard reports of Olympic trainer Larry Nassar abusing over 150 women, underage sexual conduct from a senate candidate and sexual harassment at influential charity dinners in London.
So how has this movement affected Ireland? Or has it at all? Is it true to say that Ireland, like many other countries, is re-examining itself? Or are we left relatively unaffected by recent revelations, treating them as occurrences generally un-related to our own lives?
Ireland has a complex history with regards discussing sexuality of any kind. The Catholic Church’s hold over Irish society spanned many generations and it was their belief that individuals should not be surrounded by the dangers of immortality that they felt came from modernity. Discussion of sexuality was to be kept strictly private. Repressive legislation governed contraception, homosexuality and the publication and screening of material deemed too explicit by a political and religious establishment. As a result of this, for a long time sexual issues were often deemed taboo and not something to be discussed openly within the public sphere. Sexual assault and sexual harassment fell directly within this category of taboo discussion topics. These rigid attitudes took many years to soften and for new attitudes to develop. It is only in recent decades that Ireland has become more accepting of open discussions regarding sexuality and issues of sexual abuse and harassment. Despite these developments, are we as a country ready to embrace the global movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp?
Throughout Ireland’s history, the number of reports made regarding instances of sexual assault and harassment has increased. The 2002 report on Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre stated that the number of convictions for sexual crimes was approximately 200 per year in the 1950s and by 1997 had reached approximately 1,000 per year. As shown, it is only in recent years that we see more people coming forward to report these crimes. Despite this, there is always a concern that more cases are going unreported, additionally that there are not enough victims seeking legal redress. Dublin Rape Crisis Centre figures show that only a third of those seeking counselling for adult sexual assault had reported it to the police (36 per cent in 1998/9 and 33 per cent in 1999/2000). This shows that only just over fifteen years ago, many people in Ireland were not inclined to report the sexual crimes they experienced. Has this changed with the introduction of this new global movement?
Fast forward to Ireland now and we are also seeing an explosion of well-known personalities within Irish culture facing repercussions for their own behaviour regarding instances of sexual harassment and assault. In September 2017, radio presenter George Hook came under fire regarding comments made on his show High Noon resulting in official complaints being made to The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). The comments in question were in which he asked why a young woman who had just met a man in a bar would go back to his hotel room, in the context of a case where a 19-year-old woman alleged she was raped by a former member of the British swim team. Listeners were particularly angered by his suggestion that the victim held a level of responsibility, stating “…but is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?”. Hook was made apologize on air regarding his ‘inappropriate’ comments. Further repercussions of the comments came when Ireland’s largest hotel group Dalata cancelled its sponsorship of High Noon in protest at the broadcasters’ comments. Newstalk found that they had no choice but to suspend Hook for a prolonged period. This is one example of a high- profile figure within Irish culture who was held accountable for his comments regarding sexual assault. Would this have happened so swiftly and vehemently prior to these discussions taking place? I’m not so sure but what I can say it that the attitude within Irish culture has altered, the untouchables amongst us are no longer so.
In another serious example, Al Porter, the television host of Take Me Out and radio presenter on Today FM, has also been accused by four fellow performers of numerous incidents of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour. Since the allegations were made on social media, the comedian resigned from his lunchtime slot on Today FM and also stepped aside from his role in the Olympia Panto.
In even more recent news, in the last week, the court case has taken place of Ulster and Irish rugby players Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson. The two men are accused of raping the same woman in June 2016 at a South Belfast property. Both men deny the charges.
Whatsapp messages sent between the men along with a graphic description of the alleged rape was heard aloud in court. Olding stated that the event was like ‘a merry-go-round at a carnival’ and that ‘we are all top shaggers’. The woman accusing the rugby players of rape stated that “rape is a game of power and control.” And “They rely on your silence”. She further went on to state that “It’s not okay. No one should have to go through what I went through.” This young woman was initially scared to take on ‘All of Ulster rugby’ but was brave enough to report. In the past many well-known public figures who are alleged to have committed these crimes, their particularly high level of power often kept people quiet. The increase in reports of this nature within Ireland itself is evidence that attitudes are indeed changing.
So, as we have seen Ireland has joined other countries around the world in entering into a new period. A period that has to potential to alter the future of our gender politics. The outlook is certainly promising. Ireland, a country with such a distinct and difficult history with regards sexuality and discussion of sexual abuse is looking forward with a new openness and determination. Creating a safer and more effective space for victims to come forward and speak about their experiences. Well known public figures that were previously seen as untouchable are no longer viewed as so. Traditionally, many of these high-profile personalities would have been vehemently defended, but the power balance is now beginning to shift. We still have a long way to go but progress is certainly being made for the better.
Out of curiosity I decided to create a small anonymous online survey amongst my male and females friends, ranging from the ages of 21 to 26. I asked them the question, ‘What impact did they feel the movements against sexual harassment and assault had on them?’
73% of them stated that they felt the recent media stories provoked anger within them. When asked if they felt any positive effect will come from the movement one female respondent stated, “I think men growing up in this generation will not see sexual harassment as a manly cool thing they’ll remember that it is a crime and that it ruins lives on both sides”. Another answered “It’s given me hope for the future. As a woman in a field dominated by men it’s not uncommon to experience sexual prejudice and harassment… I think it’s changed the power dynamic in the workplace even just a little bit, so that powerful men finally have something to be afraid of, something to make them think before they act.” Additionally, a third participant conveyed that “I went through a similar experience to many of the women who have come out with their stories when I was 20 and I find it quite cathartic to be able to know I’m not alone and that talking about it isn’t shameful.”
When asked if the movements had forced them to change their behaviour in any one, one male friend said “it has prompted me to become more acutely aware of the fact that social acceptability of an action does not always constitute a moral acceptability of the same action. Societal norms need to change for the public mind-set to realign – and the MeToo movement, while it’s not without its flaws, is a step in the right direction.”
The movement is step in the right direction and it is a movement of empowerment but more importantly awareness. We are denouncing figures we would once upon a time have blindly defended. We are demanding better from those once viewed as untouchable within society. Ireland, like many other countries is having its own moment as it re-examines just exactly what it is going to stand for.
If you have been affected by any of the subject matter in this article please do not hesitate to contact some of the following:
UCDSU Welfare Officer: email@example.com
Samaritans: 116 123 (ROI)
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 778 888
Fiona Keaveney – Features Writer