Louise O’Neill

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Feature -

‘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

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