‘We wonder what their ulterior motives are and we give them close-lipped smiles and wish they would leave us alone
Ijoined the gym at Inchydoney Hotel recently and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I run on the treadmill for half an hour and then I retire to the beautiful relaxation room overlooking the beach where I drink cucumber water and read my book. Fine, I basically became a member for the cucumber water. You have to take your happiness where you find it.
I was using the hotel’s spa recently when a funny thing happened. I had been alone in the sauna until an older man came in. He asked me where I was from, if I came to the hotel often, and I gave him a tight smile, turning away from him and silently berating the arrogance of men who think they have the right to your time and energy, no matter where you are. “Wait,” he said, “are you Louise O’ Neill?” (In case you’re wondering, being recognised while you’re profusely sweating and wearing a swimsuit is .... disconcerting.)
He said he read my column, and we proceeded to have a lovely conversation in which he told me about his children and his love of reading. After swapping book recommendations, I got up to leave. “You won’t write a column about strange men talking to you in saunas,” he asked me, and we both laughed.
The thing is, he wasn’t strange at all. He was a genuinely nice man, and I left feeling uplifted due to the pleasure of having a true connection with another human being. It made me sad to think of how suspicious I was when he first began speaking to me, how easily I could have missed that experience because I was automatically on the defensive. But can you blame me? Could you blame any woman for reacting in such a way?
In light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, in which allegations of rampant and persistent sexual harassment and assault have been levied against the powerful Hollywood producer, and the subsequent #MeToo movement on social media in which women (and some men) shared their stories of sexual violence, it has become increasingly obvious how devastatingly common and pervasive these stories are. I don’t know any woman — not a single one — who hasn’t experienced harassment on some level.
It varies from the relatively ‘minor’ (being catcalled on the street, having a boss or colleague make highly charged comments that leave you feeling uncomfortable) to the creepy (being a 15year-old girl and having men in their late 30s and 40s telling you how ‘sexy’ you look in your school uniform) to the upsetting (someone groping you in a nightclub or being followed home at night) to the incidents that will change your life forever (“I said no,” a friend tells me, and I beg her to believe that it wasn’t her fault. “I said no,” she says again “and it was as if he couldn’t hear me.”).
As a result, many women don’t feel safe. We become suspicious of the men who want to talk to us on the street or on the train, who ask us what music we’re listening to or what book we’re reading. We wonder what their ulterior motives are and we give them close-lipped smiles and wish they would leave us alone. (We don’t say that, though, we’re been raised to be polite, to be nice.)
It’s disheartening, of course, but you can’t teach girls from the time they hit puberty that they must be careful and not expect those same girls to become women who are fearful.
Don’t drink too much, we were told, don’t wear skirts that are too short, watch out for each other, don’t walk home alone, always take a taxi, don’t fall asleep at parties. Women know the statistics, one in four of us will be raped, and we look at each other and we hope that it’s not us, but if it’s not us then it’s a friend or a daughter or a mother or a sister, someone we love with their lives in ruins.
And while we know that most men are good, and most men are kind, we also know that statistics show that 98.9% of those arrested for forcible rape are men. We begin to wonder. If one in four women will be raped, does it follow that it is one in four men who are doing the raping?
And how can we be sure that you — you, the nice man who would never dream of hurting a woman in that way — how can we be sure that you’re not one of them? You can’t tell women to be cautious and say that it’s our responsibility to ensure we don’t get raped and then turn around and castigate us for being wary. “#NotAllMen,” internet trolls shout and they’re right, in a way.
The majority of men are good people. But if you’re one of the good ones, what are you doing to help us? Are you calling out your friends if they make rape ‘jokes’? If one of the lads gropes a woman on a night out, are you telling him that’s completely unacceptable?
If a female friend tells you she was assaulted, do you believe her? Or do you ask her if she’s “sure”? Can you read an article like this without becoming defensive, proclaiming your own innocence and ignoring the insidious sickness of sexual violence?
It’s not all men, no. But it’s still many, many women.
Far too many. Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours and Asking For It