Belfast Telegraph

We too were sexually harassed and had to speak up, say brave Northern Ireland authors

By Judith Cole and Stephanie Bell

Two Northern Ireland authors have spoken out about their own distressing experiences of sexual harassment in the wake of the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Lesley Allen (54) from Bangor and Tara West (47) from Newtownabbey were among thousands of women around the world who tweeted the MeToo hashtag to show that they had suffered some kind of abuse or harassment.

And only last week, a report by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants reported that Northern Ireland has the highest rate of sexual harassment in the workplace in the UK, with 17% of people here claiming they had experienced sexual harassment by someone in a superior position.

Ms Allen, whose debut novel, The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir, was published last year, said that she felt "a huge sense of relief, release and empowerment" in tweeting the MeToo hashtag.

"This MeToo campaign is amazing - and the fact that I didn't have to explain, I just had to say it, was good," she said.

"The revelations have been like a tsunami, it's been amazing. We've been waiting on this for such a long time."

Ms Allen told how, in her 20s, when she took up a new job as a manager for a local company, she was harassed on multiple occasions by her boss.

"He harassed me from the start with sexual innuendoes - he was a married man but he was relentless and made it quite clear what he wanted to do to me," she said. "When I persistently evaded his advances he fired me and shoved me down a flight of stairs. I didn't report it to the police, but I spoke to my parents, family and friends, and other people in the organisation about it.

"I spoke to the marketing manager in London but nothing was ever done. I looked into the equal opportunities for unfair dismissal but I hadn't been with the company for two years at the time, which I needed to be. So I got nowhere with it. It was a really shocking experience for a young woman just starting out on a career. It was very upsetting."

The experience with this particular boss was to have a profound effect on Ms Allen's life. However she found the strength to secure another job and progress her career.

"You just get on with things," she said. "But it did haunt me for a long time. It was really, really upsetting, but he was by no means the only person of that ilk who I came across in my career.

"On saying that, I've worked for a couple of very unpleasant women as well, but the reason he fired me was because I wouldn't respond to his sexual advances."

Ms Allen also told how, between the ages of eight and her mid-20s, she suffered disturbing sexual harassment in a variety of situations.

"One occasion when I was about eight, I was with a girl from school playing in woods in Bangor and a man came along and performed a solo sex act," she said.

"We had no idea what he was doing. There was another time when I was on a school trip to Paris, when I was about 14 years old, and a man outside the loo did the same thing right in front of us, a group of six girls.

"In my early 20s I was on holiday in Turkey, in a rock pool with my sister, and a man got in and just started performing a sex act right there in the pool.

"On the same holiday, on the trip back to the airport, I was sitting at the back of the bus and a man came and sat beside me and started doing the same thing sitting in the seat beside me.

"And there were a couple of other incidents that I really don't want to talk about.

"These incidents, you can shrug them off even though you feel stained - but it was that experience in the workplace when I was 25 that had a real effect on me and my life and was really difficult for a long period of time.

"I don't know any woman who hasn't had some kind of experience."

Despite this, Ms Allen, who last year received an Arts Council of Northern Ireland Artist Career Enhancement (ACE) Award for literature, which she is using to write her second novel, said her experiences did not colour her opinion of men.

"I've known a lot of wonderful men and it makes me sad for men that there are still others out there, and have always been, who treat women in this way," she said. "But women should be believed in situations like this - the channel of communication should be opened up, and people should be called out."

Ms Allen, who works for the Open House Festival Bangor, added: "I work with an amazing team of people, including amazing men - and I think men are fabulous. But perhaps now the world is ready to listen to women. I hope that men will now stop and think, and realise, 'no, this is not how you behave'."

Tara West said she had numerous experiences of sexual harassment up until she turned 30.

"I don't know if it is because we come across as more vulnerable when we are young, but I had a few experiences up until I turned 30 when I started to develop confidence and became less exposed to it," she said.

"The worst was probably in a job I had in my 20s. An old boss of mine would have put me in very awkward position talking in great detail about the sex scenes he would have watched over the weekend. It was excruciating and I had to sit and take it as this person was paying my bills, he was the owner of the company, so there was no one else to go to."

In another shocking experience Tara, who also received an ACE's award from ACNI and whose novel Poets Are Eaten as a Delicacy in Japan won acclaim, was walking along the street with a friend when a random man sexually assaulted her.

"He just came up to me and groped and started shouting abuse. I had no idea who he was or what invited that. I was so shocked at the time and it leaves you with this really awful feeling of powerlessness," she said.

Tara, who is married to David and has a 12-year-old daughter, said she thought long and hard about posting on the MeToo campaign and ultimately decided to do it for other women and her own little girl.

She added: "I know a lot of people who wouldn't post on it because they feel ashamed of what happened to them even though they know they weren't to blame.

"I don't mind people knowing because it wasn't my fault. It wasn't something I invited and I'm not the only one. I think it would come to nothing if people don't speak up and I owe it to myself, my daughter and other women.

"If we don't speak up it will continue."

See Gail Walker page 20

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