Sexual harassment: Why are we still making excuses?

A new government campaign shows that we still try to explain away unacceptable behaviour. It is time for the ‘it’s no big deal’ attitude to change, writes Amanda Cassidy.


“He’s just being friendly. She’s a touchy-feely person. He didn’t mean to be pushy.” Why do we keep excusing everyday sexual harassment? Unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature is known as sexual harassment and it is against the law. But it is no longer ok to do nothing. Not anymore.

The reaction to many scenarios of sexual violence and harassment seems to remain ‘fobbing it off’. But the truth is that sexual harassment damages your dignity. It can take many forms including actions, gestures, words or social media posts. It alienates, it embarrasses and it makes you feel uncomfortable.

Shockingly, Ireland has the highest level of sexual harassment in Europe and the second highest of all 40 countries surveyed. That’s according to a new campaign by Cosc – the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and gender-based violence. Last year almost one third of Irish women between the ages of 18 and 34 experienced some form of sexual harassment. So why is still such an issue and how can we begin to change people’s behaviour?


"When you see an imbalance, when someone’s power is being removed, it is usually time to ask if everything is ok.”

Cian Tormey is the Senior art director at TBWA agency who worked on the new campaign which seeks to highlight some of the common excuses we tend to offer for such harassment. The advertisement shows different situations where sexual harassment is taking place overlaid with some of the excuses we offer. In one scene, a boy is being jeered in the locker room for having his towel on as another boy tries to pull it away. The boy is obviously very uncomfortable. In another, a woman massages the shoulders of a work colleague in a clearly inappropriate way. The focus group points out that 'she's probably just touchy-feely' and that the boys are just having 'team banter.'

“We realised that the definition is extremely broad" explained Cian. "From wolf-whistling to sexual assault, for many, pinpointing what exactly constitutes sexual harassment and violence is the first step. The core thing is to explain that sexual harassment covers a lot of different behaviours. Often it is about power dynamics, you will find that you have a person who finds themselves in a situation where their agency is removed. When you see an imbalance, when someone’s power is being removed, it is usually time to ask if everything is ok.”


Walk a mile

The campaign launched online today and includes a tool that can monitor the comments in real time so that the bigger picture can be explored in terms of reactions. Cian says that after the recent Me Too movement, more people are prepared to understand why this is a problem. “This conversation is happening. It is fertile ground to encourage discussion. I’ve spoken to so many different types of people while working on this campaign. Many don’t want to be policed. They come out quite forceful against it but once you start that conversation, and once you can encourage someone to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, that starts to change. People start to realise that they don’t want their family members, children or spouses to feel uncomfortable. We don’t have to be so defensive.”



"Not a big deal"

Jessica was just 22 when she started working at an insurance company. She says that when the behaviour started, she ‘didn’t want to make a big deal about it.’  But it was a big deal. “For fear of appearing sensitive during my first week on the job, I chose to smile when my boss told me he hired me only for my looks and then laugh it off. The next day, his boss congratulated him on hiring a ‘hot assistant’ right in front of me. I smiled again without saying a word. What do you say to that, thank you? It made me feel like an object instead of a person."

He took my power away

Jessica shared her story to encourage others to speak out if they are in a situation where you are made to feel uncomfortable. “It is a very big deal that my boss made comments about my body and told me to wear heels because flats made my bottom look smaller. He took my power away. It made me feel less than and I should have made it a big deal because that’s exactly what it was.”



Many of us have come across something in the past which has made us feel uneasy and uncomfortable but we did not know what to do. This campaign points out that it is ok to feel like you might have misinterpreted the situation and that it is ok to be scared about doing something about it.

But we need to be more open to hearing and seeing those who are struggling. We need to step up and be allies. We need to hold sexual violence and the actions that lead up to it as totally unacceptable. Then we can create a society where those suffering sexual harassment will be more willing to ask for help, knowing they will be believed and understood.

Check out the No Excuses campaign here. 


Feature image via Unsplash

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