The first time I was harassed on the street I was 12 years old. At this age, I was short, skinny and flat as a pancake, wearing my school uniform and playing a makeshift game of hopscotch on the pavement as I walked home from the bus stop.
It was about 2pm when a man in a car pulled up beside me and offered me a lift. When I refused, he told me, “I want to rape you.”
At 12 years old I finally realised that my parents were right — the world is not a safe place.
I couldn’t list the full variety of street harassments I have experienced over the years, but here’s a flavour. There have been catcalls and men sidling up behind me to whisper suggestions in my ear. There have been threats, insults and gropes — on the street, on the bus, at the train station. I don’t know how many times I have been followed by someone in his car. On one miserable wet afternoon I was waiting for a bus. On the opposite side of the road, a man held a pink umbrella in one hand, and his dick in the other, jerking off at me in public. The worst part? I knew him — he was a student in my psychology class.
Over the years I have hidden in apartment complexes and strangers’ gardens, run in the opposite direction to the traffic, and asked the police to give me a lift home. I have paid for taxis instead of taking the NiteLink. I take longer routes to avoid empty streets. I am careful, and no matter how breezy my manner, I am always watching, watching, watching…
Despite all this I don’t hate men. I know it is only a handful of men who do these things, and blaming half the world for the bad behaviour of the few is unwarranted and unfair.
Sexual harassment on the street is persistent and demoralising. One moment you’re walking along, listening to your iPod and looking forward to meeting your friends for a gig or a drink, and then the next thing you know, there’s a hand on your arse. As you react, a group of lads begins to laugh. They weren’t trying to hurt you, they were just having a laugh — and harassing women isn’t seen as a big deal. Boys will be boys!
In today’s Irish Times, journalist Una Mullally writes about street harassment. “Men need to call out unacceptable behaviour by their friends,” she argues — a fairly uncontroversial statement I would have thought. If the comments are anything to go by, it seems I was wrong.
Here’s a few: “This illustrates one of the fundamental errors of thought associated with feminism, which is that men form a collective the members of which share responsibility for each other’s actions. Men do not form any kind of collective in this sense. The misdeeds of another man have absolutely nothing to do with me as a man.”
“Holding me responsible for the actions of ‘some other man’ I’ve never even met or probably never will is an absurd proposition. Una. You’re completely deluded when it comes to understanding men.”
In one sense, the writers are correct. Men are not a collective. But as Edmund Burke said: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Let me give you an example. Last year, my neighbour’s 13 year old daughter was groped on the bus. Another neighbour, who recognised both the girl and the man grabbing her shouted at the harasser stop. He let the bus driver know what had happened and the driver called the Gardai, and went off-route to the Garda station. Nobody on the bus minded the delay, and everyone cheered when the groper was taken away by the police. The best thing about this was that was made clear to the 13 year old girl that this was not her fault. According to her mother, the collective outpouring of support by the other passengers means she is not scared to take the bus, even though her harasser was released without charge.
No-one is suggesting that any one man is to blame for the actions of others. Nor does anyone expect you to put yourself in harm’s way — violent altercations happen to men on the street all too often. But calling out your friends’ bad behaviour is not the same thing as being responsible for it, and helping someone being harassed if you can makes the world that little bit better for all of us.
Nor do I think anyone is saying that only men engage in this kind of behaviour either. All my boyfriends and most of my male friends have been the victims of unwanted touching and groping in pubs and nightclubs. I know plenty of men who keep a wide berth of hen parties because large groups of drunken women are just as likely to misbehave as men. This is equally wrong.
So can we make a deal? If your friend grabs a woman or a man, harasses her or him, makes a joke about raping someone as they walk by, let’s agree not to let it slide – even if we seem like a someone who can’t take a joke. Sure, we don’t have to, but it would certainly help if we did.