It was almost impossible to miss the furore around the recent ‘Lapgate’ scandal. In case you’ve been living under a rock, or have actually been out and about enjoying the sunshine instead of paying attention to the news, ‘Lapgate’ refers to an incident of inappropriate behaviour by TD Tom Barry during last week’s Dail debate on the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy’ bill. Barry, a Fine Gael politician from Cork, was caught on video pulling his fellow representative and party colleague Aine Collins onto his lap during a recess in the proceedings.
To say the media erupted would be hyperbole. ‘Lapgate’ took second place to the actual passing of the bill, the uprising in Egypt, and Kate Middleton’s due date. It made the papers, of course- Una Mullaley of the Irish Times called it embarrassing and inappropriate, and also condemned the culture of drinking in our parliament. In a column in The Guardian, Eimear O’Toole focused more on the sexism aspect, citing it as “sum[ming] up the farce and lack of empathy inherent in the [abortion] debate.” It ran in the Herald, on RTE News, and then it died down. Collins spoke out on behalf of the beleaguered colleague- the choice to do so appears to have been entirely hers, though a cynical observer might put it down to party politics. Barry received a rebuke from Enda Kenny, made a public apology, and offered to resign. The world moved on, I stopped being outraged enough to make a blog post and resumed putting off writing my piece on sociopaths in popular culture instead.
That was until this Thursday, when I read Sarah Carey’s grotesquely fascinating opinion piece in the Irish Independent, run with the charming headline “I’ve been groped several times but never made a fuss”- http://tinyurl.com/p2obl7m . Carey lambasts the supposed hordes of silly, uppity women who had the temerity to be shocked at one public representative drunkenly assaulting another. The journalist, a regular contributor to the Irish Catholic, attributes her nonchalant attitude at being on the sweaty end of an unwanted wandering hand to “being small and having a sense of humor”- the implication being that all women who are uncomfortable with overt and unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace are oversensitive killjoys. She also cites the advice of Mary O’Rourke and a nebulous “long list of female politicians”- the best way to deal with sexist behaviour in the political sphere is to put one’s head down, do one’s job, and pretend it doesn’t exist. Even if that means you have to work twice as hard to get half the respect. Even if that means that the media is more focused on you haircut than your political stances, a la Hillary Clinton. Even if the word “handbagging”, a derogative term describing a woman expounding on an opinion that could be seen as petty or pedantic, recently had to be added to a list of words banned in the Dail, along with “fascist”, “communist” and “hypocrite” (http://tinyurl.com/n2zu6u3). It’s no wonder that the Boys’ Club has made it to the twenty-first century intact.
Carey, fortunately, does not dismiss discrimination in the workplace as some sort of a radical feminist boogeyman or something that was sorted out way back when women were granted suffrage. But her flagrant dismissal of the harsh reality of workplace sexual harrassment and assault, complete with cheery “sure don’t we all get groped sometimes, the men like a bit of a drink like” overtones reads like something The Onion would publish on a slow day. The kind of behaviour she describes as not “real harassment”, resulting in her running into bathrooms to compose herself, is never appropriate, never warranted, and never excusable. And her strategy for dealing with it- contenting herself with an imagined psychological hold over the perpetrator- sounds like tired old lines spouted by a stereotypical vamp from a nineteen forties film noir.
But the crux of the issue is this- Carey doesn’t seem to be able to separate a certain amount of justified anger at the situation at hand from judgement of the victims. She doesn’t seem to understand that the “outragerati” are more upset at seeing how unwelcoming our parliament is to women than at Collins reaction to the event- which is entirely her affair, after all. We are angry at how sexual harassment (of both men and women) can still, in this day and age be hand-waved away as a joke between colleagues. We will not have our legitimate complaints dismissed as “whinging to HR” or “making a fuss”. Carey is scandalised at what she sees as women “telling [Collins what to do]. She would do well to remember that a victims’s choice on what action to take after an assault cannot be dismissed just because it makes people uncomfortable.