'I have far too many stories': 30 Irish women on harassment and assault

Date16 March 2021
Published date16 March 2021
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
'Of all the times . . .'

When I lived in Dublin I had conversations with my female friends about harassment, assault and the pervasive threat of violence all the time. When we brought these incidents up among our male friends they were often shocked that so much of our lives were spent on high alert.

The women I know are not afraid of men or the dark. We just want to travel by foot or taxi or public transport without fear. The women I know don't want to plan their daily walking routines or exercise outdoors based on available daylight – but they do. The women I know are only too aware of how easily learned hypervigilance kicks in when moving around in the world.

The women I know all have a vast catalogue of incidents that might later seem benign but for a moment were terrifying.

Of all the times when a man came up behind you quickly, walking home (in the dark) after work, and you realise he's just rushing to get home too, but not for the same reasons.

When you are on an empty train carriage and a man gets on and sits right beside you and you get off at the next stop and wait 20 minutes for another train. Just in case.

When you have a 10-minute walk to your house and the man behind you crosses the road every time you do and is getting closer and closer as you pick up your pace and get out your keys, ready to call your partner, waiting to turn a corner and run, and try to convince yourself maybe you're being paranoid because you just watched Zodiac.

When it's the middle of the day and you're in a taxi on the way to a big meeting and the driver turns down a weird, grotty lane that seems to go on forever and you know this isn't the best route and your palms start to sweat a bit and your heart suddenly races.

When a car full of 20-something men pulls up beside you in the dark and you almost jump out of your skin, and it turns out they just need directions and you wonder when you turned into a complete weirdo.

When out walking at night, a woman frantically rushes towards you and your partner and asks if you'll pretend to know her while she calls a friend because a man has been following her.

When you and a friend are aggressively groped in a crowded bar and you tell the barman and he says, "What can you do, love, it's really busy in here tonight."

When you go for a walk after work and it's bright and you listen to a podcast and go home the long way, then without you realising it turns dark, you've been walking with headphones for 40 minutes, and if anything happened – you were careless and you feel guilty and then angry.

'I crossed the road, he crossed the road'

I, like every single other woman I know, have been followed on numerous occasions. The scariest time was when I noticed a man follow me off the train in the Dún Laoghaire area for about 15 minutes. It wasn't particularly late: it was 10pm during the summer of 2020. My suspicions that he was following me were confirmed when I walked in a circle around the block and he was still about five metres behind me. I sped up, he sped up. I crossed the road, he crossed the road. He was still behind me, and closer to me, when I reached my road. It wasn't until I happened to run into a neighbour, and told her I was being followed, that I heard him say "s**t" under his breath and turn on his heels in the opposite direction. If my neighbour wasn't there at that time, I doubt I would have made it to my house.

'We are the unlucky gender'

Since the Sarah Everard case I have yet to talk to a female friend, either in Ireland or the UK, who does not have a story. Maybe I have unlucky friends, but I think it's more likely that we are the unlucky gender. I've been followed home to my front door by a man who pestered me while walking home from work, and harassed in the street late in the night – both times in Brussels. In Dublin, I was so uncomfortable with the conversation a taxi man was having with me while travelling home after a work trip that I messaged friends his taxi registration details and then pretend-fumbled with my keys, waiting for him to drive off before walking to my front door.

Another time, I took an early bus to work. My gut instinct was telling me to get off as it emptied on O'Connell Street but my mind was telling me to stop being irrational. I then sat and listened to the sole other passenger as he told me how short my skirt was, why he liked my legs and what type of women he liked – at 7am. "I won't be getting that bus again!" I said as I laughed off the story to colleagues later that morning, despite being deeply uncomfortable while on the bus.

If we wonder what issues transcend borders and cultures, one is the collective consistent fear that women have for their personal safety. The lockdown has been something of a reprieve from this (only for women who do not face domestic violence), but Sarah Everard's murder has been a lightning strike of a reminder. It has sparked chats with friends around those situations where you don't like where the conversation is heading, where you know you are being looked at or touched inappropriately, where your heart begins to beat faster and you start to plan the escape route in your head.

Why have we accepted this for so long? Why is this something we should have to put up with? I was never told to hold my keys in hand as I walk home at night or to not wear earphones or to pick up your pace if there is a man behind you. Like I imagine for many other women, I just started doing them instinctively.

Women's safety from men has been a burden we have held by ourselves for too long. What we need now is men to become part of the conversation. Here are our stories in all their minor and major variations, here is what we have to tolerate from some men and here also is your opportunity to help us. So instead of asking women to regale their stories and where the solution lies, how about we ask men where the solution lies? What can men do to ensure all men treat women with respect, and what can you as a man do to help that cause?

'Women and girls will never be fully safe'

I have far too many stories, from every one of my six decades. This issue will never be resolved, no matter how much legislation is thrown at it. I spent decades believing it's my right to be anywhere I like, at any time, in any place, but I've now resigned myself to the fact that women and girls will never be fully safe, so it's up to us to ensure we don't put ourselves in the way of danger as much as possible.

'Being a woman is exhausting'

I have lived in Ireland for a few years and do not feel particularly safe. I have been cat-called and harassed on public transport, walking home and on nights out. I have even had a man expose himself to me on the Luas one night, when nobody else was there. Generally, I find men are unaware of how encroaching on women's space can make us feel unsafe. Often men will come up too close when you're waiting alone for a bus and try to talk, even if you have headphones on and look visibly uncomfortable. In pubs and clubs, men will often touch you without consent, even just to get by in a crowd.

Even with men I know, I do not feel safe – my ex-flatmate coerced and molested me one night after we had both been drinking. My worst experience here was being sexually assaulted in a taxi by the driver on the way home from a night out. I never feel safe walking alone at night and now I don't feel safe taking taxis alone. As a woman, I feel that my life is restricted by fears of being attacked or harassed.

I'd love to jog in the evening without fear or go out on a blind date without an escape plan and a friend tracking my location in case things turn violent. Being a woman or otherwise marginalised person is exhausting, and the anxiety really wears you down. Every one of my friends who are women or visibly gender-non-conforming have been harassed or assaulted. Men, especially white men, need to take accountability and learn not to be defensive. I am tired of trying to explain my pain and trauma to men only to be shut down and told, "Not all men do that."

Every man I have known, including men I have loved, has participated in misogyny at some level, whether they were aware or not. Men need to hold themselves and the other men in their lives accountable, they need to listen to women and stop interrupting or pushing back, and they need to educate themselves about consent. A world where women and LGBTQ+ people – as well as men of colour or men who are otherwise marginalised – are equal to white men should not be seen as a threat. It is a world where everyone can feel safe and valued.

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