Fin­tan O’Toole

If women are to be safe, boys have to learn good man­ners

The Irish Times - - Front Page - Fin­tan O’Toole

Igot the Luas from Tal­laght to Dublin city cen­tre on Sun­day evening. It was only 5pm but the hour had gone back so it was be­gin­ning to get dark. I got into the front car­riage, which was lightly oc­cu­pied. Near where I sat, on the op­po­site side, there were two young girls, maybe 14 or 15 years old. Just be­fore the tram pulled out, a gang of seven lads got into the car­riage. They were roughly the same ages as the girls, be­tween 14 and 16. They were coun­try boys – their ac­cents sug­gested they were from the mid­lands. They were neatly dressed, well-groomed, spruced-up for a night out.

As the tram pulled out, the lads spot­ted the two girls and moved in on them. They lit­er­ally in­vaded their space. Two of them sat on the avail­able seats be­side them, the rest stood over them. It was all chat – how are ye? Where are ye go­ing? But it was in­tim­i­dat­ing. The girls got up and stood right at the end of the car­riage, next to the driver’s door. The lads fol­lowed them and stood around them in a pack. They started to urge the kid who looked like he was the youngest of their num­ber to kiss one of the girls.

I was about the stand up and shout at the boys and risk what­ever would come next, when the tram pulled into the next sta­tion. The girls got off on to the plat­form. I don’t know whether they waited for the next Luas or just walked down and got into a dif­fer­ent car­riage. The lads made no ef­fort to fol­low them. They sat down on the seats, sprawl­ing, oc­cu­py­ing ter­ri­tory. They spent the rest of the jour­ney play­ing with their phones and oc­ca­sion­ally thump­ing each other. To them, noth­ing had hap­pened.

Scent of rape

I don’t think th­ese were par­tic­u­larly bad lads. In­di­vid­u­ally, they looked sweet and awk­ward, with that male ado­les­cent way of not quite know­ing what to do with their limbs, how to hold them­selves, how to oc­cupy space. I don’t think they gave any thought to the re­al­ity that when the seven of them sur­rounded those girls, it looked like a pack cor­ner­ing its prey, that the threat in the air was the threat of bod­ily dom­i­na­tion, the scent of rape. They were just high on be­ing out in the city, on be­ing to­gether in a gang, on be­ing able to in­vade a pub­lic space and as­sert their dom­i­nance over ev­ery­one in it – and all the bet­ter that this act of as­ser­tion car­ried a sex­ual charge.

This wasn’t Hol­ly­wood, or a theatre, or the fash­ion in­dus­try, or the houses of par­lia­ment or the me­dia world. It was or­di­nary, mun­dane. No crime was com­mit­ted. If the girls com­plained to the po­lice, they would be hard put to say what ex­actly had been done to them. They had not been touched. The ver­bal in­tim­i­da­tion had not yet risen to the level of ex­plicit threat. They had es­caped be­fore the bul­ly­ing had es­ca­lated into di­rect phys­i­cal abuse. But they had been abused nonethe­less. If they did not al­ready know it, they now know that they are vul­ner­a­ble to sex­ual men­ace, even in pub­lic places.

And they will know it for the rest of their lives. We are at a very im­por­tant mo­ment in the his­tory of be­hav­iour, and specif­i­cally in the his­tory of male be­hav­iour to­wards women. Women have be­gun to find a pub­lic voice for deep pri­vate knowl­edge. There is a great call­ing-out go­ing on and many fa­mous and ad­mired men will be named – as they should and must be. But as I watched this hor­ri­ble lit­tle drama on Sun­day evening, I couldn’t help won­der­ing whether any­thing will re­ally change if we are still rais­ing our boys like this.

Those lads have most likely al­ready for­got­ten what they did – and those who for­get are con­demned to re­peat. They had a lit­tle mo­ment of ex­hil­a­rat­ing sex­ual power. If they ever find them­selves with power over girls or women later in life, will some of them not be drawn back to that for­got­ten mo­ment, to that dark thrill?

We have to teach boys man­ners. There is no golden age in the past when men did not ha­rass and be­lit­tle and in­tim­i­date women. But there was, I think, a greater re­straint on this be­hav­iour: the re­straint of good man­ners.

Rules of con­duct

Boys were taught rules of con­duct, es­pe­cially of con­duct to­wards girls: don’t make hurt­ful re­marks, don’t sit or stand too close for the other per­son’s com­fort, don’t sprawl, don’t touch with­out per­mis­sion. The idea of good man­ners has be­come deeply un­fash­ion­able – “man­nered” is now one of the most damn­ing terms of crit­i­cal abuse. But man­ners are re­ally just so­cial soft­ware, the codes that make dig­ni­fied in­ter­ac­tion pos­si­ble. The right has suc­ceeded in re­defin­ing good man­ners as “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness”; pro­gres­sives need to re­claim good man­ners as the nec­es­sary rules of de­cent con­duct.

Good man­ners don’t stop sex­ual preda­tors. But they might stop a lot of boys from turn­ing into the kind of men who don’t un­der­stand or re­spect per­sonal bound­aries. We have to recog­nise that they don’t come nat­u­rally. Boys have to learn how to be good men – and men have to teach them.

We are at a very im­por­tant mo­ment in the his­tory of be­hav­iour, and specif­i­cally in the his­tory of male be­hav­iour to­wards women. Women have be­gun to find a pub­lic voice for deep pri­vate knowl­edge

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