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Mary Kenny: If sexual harassment is as rife as claimed, then maybe I've lived a sheltered life

Touchy subject: former US vice president Joe Biden was accused of being overly tactile
Touchy subject: former US vice president Joe Biden was accused of being overly tactile

By Mary Kenny

Charlie Flanagan, the Justice Minister in the Republic, claims that Ireland has a disturbingly high level of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Perhaps this is true. It would accord with a United Nations study, carried out in 2010, which found that developed countries have higher rates of violence against women than less developed nations.

For example, the percentage of female victims of violence in Austria was over 40%, in Finland, over 46% and in Switzerland, 50%. By contrast, the number of female victims in Afghanistan was 13%, Malawi, just over 12% and Colombia, 8.4%. The percentages don't reflect - at all - the numbers of victims of violence in any given society. There were only 89 homicides in Finland that year - but nearly half the victims were women. In societies where the general homicide level is higher, the majority of victims, by far, are men.

Statistics often have a complicated context. But every violent assault or personal harassment is meaningful to the victim. Everyone's story is different and perhaps everyone's story is remembered differently too. But if sexual violence and sexual harassment are as widespread as the minister claims, then I must conclude I have lived a sheltered life.

Aside from some rather tepid catcalls when visiting Italy in times gone by, or lonely Algerians sidling up to me in a Parisian bar, I cannot recall much in the way of everyday sexual harassment. As for domestic violence, my only experience of it was when I drunkenly lost my temper and started throwing stuff at my husband, causing his head to bleed.

Over the course of a long working life, male colleagues - and male bosses - have been, overwhelmingly, helpful, encouraging, supportive and even indulgent at times. As a young woman, I got away with mistakes and failings that, looking back, perhaps young men might not have done. I got things wrong, was often woefully ignorant, and on more than one occasion, fell down on the story. But most of the time, colleagues were kind, and males bosses were generous mentors who made allowance for the callowness of youth - and were, quite possibly, more sympathetic to young women trying to flourish in a male environment.

I have every sympathy for women who have joined the #MeToo movement because they have been sexually exploited or horribly harassed, but I would find it a stretch to identify with them. And there are individual cases where I remember matters not exactly as the claimant describes. A known beauty, now in her vintage years, has written about her youthful travails arising from male colleagues pestering her sexually: some contemporaries would have said that her looks and sex appeal advanced her career rather than hindered it. Not that anyone would have been critical of that. Ambitious people use whatever advantages they have, and if beauty and sex appeal are advantages - which they are - who wouldn't use them?

A lot of things have changed. I came to adulthood at a time when there remained, perhaps, an element of traditional gallantry among men. We affirmed equality, but it was nice, all the same, if a fellow treated you like a lady - and they often did. Some men treated me like a lady even when I behaved badly. Not all. Some men are born cads and bounders, and drink brings out the worst in these tendencies. If codes of decorum and sexual morals have shifted, the world, as Edna O'Brien has said, "has grown more raucous": everything is more "in your face".

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Maybe a more pornified culture has made some males think they are entitled to behave like louts, at work and in social encounters. Sex has become more commodified and regarded as "no big deal" - so maybe it's no big deal to suggest it.

And there's always an element of the personality in every story. A man who claimed to be a shaman and mystic told me that "aura" was what defined human personality. Everyone has this "aura" around their physical body which transmits instant messages to others: my "aura", as he interpreted it, was "I can look after myself", and this is what has protected me from harassment or assault. This could be a little fanciful, and could come unpleasantly near to blaming the victim - as if those who have been subjected to harassment or violence have "auras" that invite it. But some people are, surely, more vulnerable than others.

And individuals interpret actions differently: I do recall a certain colleague who was a bit of a hugger-and-squeezer, but I thought him a cuddly guy who was just a bit tactile - and I remember him fondly. Whereas nowadays Joe Biden nearly bit the dust, politically, under similar charges.

A recent Behaviour and Attitudes poll in the Republic showed that 45% of men and 38% of women thought that the #MeToo movement had "gone too far" in demonising men (and 69% thought that society had become "too politically correct").

"Gone too far" is a muddled definition, and I don't think I'd assent to it myself. It would seem that consent and respect now need to be taught, and the 'No Excuses' campaign is justified. But every story is different, and every memory is a reinterpretation of a constellation of events.

Belfast Telegraph


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