In a blog post, writer, director, performer and activist Grace Dyas has brought to light the shocking extent of sexual harassment in the Irish theatre business. Marnie Holborow writes.
This is one exchange she had with Artistic Director Michael Colgan. It took place at the Dublin Theatre Festival launch last year.
Michael Colgan: “You’ve lost so much weight, I’d almost have sex with you”
Grace Dyas: “Michael! You can’t say that to me!”
Colgan: “What! I didn’t say I would fuck you. You haven’t lost that much weight.”
Such abuse of power is sickening. Grace’s wonderfully brave disclosure has done society a huge favour.
It was in Hollywood, and Harvey Weinstein’s violent predatory behavior, that the outing of this silently accepted violence first started. But it crosses countries and goes well beyond the entertainment business.
Allegations of sexual abuse have been made against a string of British ministers and MP’s. They have gone right to the top of the Tory cabinet. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has been forced to resign. Another MP, Charlie Elphicke, has been suspended after "serious allegations" that have been referred to the police. Labour MPs Clive Lewis and Kelvin Hopkins are being investigated by the party over allegations about their inappropriate behaviour. Labour activist Bex Bailey revealed she was raped as a 19-year-old by a senior colleague at a Labour party event in 2011 but told not to report it by a senior Labour official.
This is the revolting sexist culture pervading the corridors of power. Amid all sorts of other political crises, it is yet another symptom of the decay of a rotten system.
Sexual harassment at the Gate, the prestigious centre of Ireland’s cultural scene, had been going on for over thirty years. As the victim accounts make clear, many in the establishment were aware of it but turned a blind eye.
Colgan was able to get away with it time and time again because, as Grace put it in her blog: ‘he has friends in high places, I have friends in low places’. It may be only a question of time that other sexual harassment cases emerge within the Irish political elite, North and South.
Many of the cases which have emerged so far are about those in powerful positions who have sexually harassed and abused women. And there is no doubt that someone who controls your livelihood holds all the cards.
But violence against women is right across society. In Ireland, 26% of the population in one poll, know of friend or family member that has fallen victim to domestic violence. According to a 2016 survey, sex without consent is acceptable in certain situations to 21% of the people polled, and 11% thought that being drunk justified sex without consent.
Calls from rape victims to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre were up 24% in 2016; over 12,000 calls were made to the centre in that year alone. It is no exaggeration to say that sexual harassment is something most women experience at some point in their lives.
The change we need, however, won’t come from Leo Varadkar. He may make enlightened comments but his party has no record of fighting sexism. In 2013, for example, Fine Gael TD Tom Barry was upbraided for grabbing party colleague Aine Collins onto his lap in the Dáil, (as it was preparing to vote on abortion legislation, as it happens).
The reluctance of FG to support a women’s right to bodily autonomy indicates a backward attitude to women. Fianna Fail is even worse: it has just agreed at its conference that it want to see no change to the constitution regarding women’s rights to control their own bodies.
The Me too campaign has broken the silence on sexual harassment and sexist violence. It is an indication that people power can challenge hateful norms in society. It gives us all the confidence to speak out and organize for change.
Every instance of sexist behaviour should be challenged, and people who make complaints need to be taken seriously and treated with respect.
The Irish actors union Equity has assured members that the union will support them if they have any concerns regarding their treatment in the workplace.
All the trade unions should demand that every workplace becomes a zero tolerance zone for sexual harassment. With the impact of the Me too campaign, this is the moment when this might finally be taken seriously. As a start, local trade union activists should initiate surveys in their workplaces to ask people if they have ever experienced any sexual harassment at work – inappropriate remarks, unwanted touching, groping at a work social gathering, etc.
On the basis of this information, they can put in place fair procedures to allow people on the receiving end of sexual harassment to be fully supported and the harasser dealt with.
Opportunity for change
These revelations are happening when we have a huge opportunity to assert that women will not be treated just as a female body. If the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment is taken out of the constitution and women’s right to bodily autonomy confirmed, then we will all be in a stronger place to take on this kind of rampant sexism and make it unacceptable.
Some sections of the British media are saying that this is all about bad individuals and men not understanding ‘boundaries’ in relationships. It goes deeper than that.
We have seen how the Catholic Church’s abusive and violent abusive behavior can be exposed through people standing up and not taking any more. The same pressure to end sexual harassment must be brought to bear.
This requires a radical transformation of society.
The British Economist magazine argued this week – possibly because it understands that too widespread sexual harassment might make people lose faith in the system - that there is ‘a capitalist case against sexual harassment’. But capitalism is part of the problem.
It exudes sexism everywhere. Advertising, porn, the commodification of women’s bodies, endless enticements to make women make themselves more attractive, targeting women as passive consumers involves demeaning women and creates the conditions for sexual harassment and violence to thrive.
At a structural level, the system fosters sexual inequality. The most effective way that capitalism has found to ensure that a workforce is always available is through its version of the family. The individualized family unit ensures it gets domestic care for free. Because it is mainly women who shoulder this work, they get pushed to one side, in society and in employment, and end up being second class citizens.
That’s what needs changing. We need a social revolution that allows women, finally, to be fully equal members of society. We need many more services to protect and support women – like state-funded Rape Crisis Centres and Refuges to provide safe places for victims of sexual violence. We need properly funded child care services and care for the elderly. These can help to dismantle the stereotypes of women.
For this we need a more socially just way to budget for these vital services by taxing the wealthy. This is why People before Profit demands the kind of fundamental change to our tax system that can redirect resources to women who so badly them.
The #me too campaign has begun to build the kind of solidarity that we need to give women their voice. We must now fight for the changes that take on the kind of society that allows sexual exploitation to continue.