Lucy Mangan

"Keep your hands to yourself, Jeremy Irons!"

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Ah, Jeremy Irons. I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since I learned that he not only bought himself a castle (Kilcoe in Cork County, Ireland) but painted it a rusty pink – because WHY NOT ? And my love only increased when he agreed to play Pope Alexander VI in demented Showtime series The Borgias (“I stand in awe, your eminence!” “You killed your father!” “Still, I stand in awe”), thus providing me with more entertainment per minute than I’ve had since Dynasty.

Alas, all great men have their blind spots and Mr Irons’ turns out to be arse-shaped. In an old interview he apparently said, “If a man puts his hand on a woman’s bottom, any woman worth her salt can deal with it. It’s communication.” No, no, claimed Irons this week, he was wildly misquoted. For a start, he wouldn’t have said “bottom” and what he had actually remarked was that, “Basically… any self-respecting woman would tell you to f*ck off.” Hmm. Ha. Mmm. I would like to live in Jeremy Irons’ world. It seems lovely and simple there.

In Ironworld, everyone – clearly – is equal, and free to make advances and to reject or accept those advances according to taste. It is an interesting and valuable insight into his and, by extension, the male worldview.

We all, naturally, see the world through our individual prisms. The more thoughtful of us try occasionally to have a squint through others’ but in essence we each have our own skewed view of things.

The worldview suggested by Irons’ comment is one I suspect is particularly prevalent across older age groups and perhaps even more so amongst privileged and powerful demographics, which alas are the ones who shape our laws and many of our major media outlets. It is a psyche that, because it has had no experience of being anything other than cultural top dog, cannot conceive of a power imbalance existing nor appreciate the ways it might complicate lives if it did.

If you and your ilk have never known what it is to be economically, emotionally or physically vulnerable or dependent on others’ whims – if none of that is actually bred into the way you conceptualise the world – you are obviously going to make mistakes in the way you approach people for whom this is the daily reality.

And when it comes to women and sex, these mistakes are going to be fundamental and far-reaching. If in your mind the person you are approaching is as personally confident and secure in her privilege as you are, you might well think, ‘If she’s not interested, she’s only got to say so.’ You, after all, would. If you have no experience or comprehension of subordination, you won’t give credence to the fact that this can make it virtually impossible to state your desires, however firmly held and fervent they are, unambiguously or at all.

The myth is that women are assaulted only when they don’t say No loud enough.

Eventually, if there are enough of you individually failing to grasp such differences, those individual failures leave a void into which other, grosser failings and prejudices eventually fall, settle and begin to take on a life of their own. If left unchecked for long enough the fruit they eventually bear may be poisonous. One such fruit, for example, might be a cultural myth that women are assaulted only when they don’t say “No” loudly or clearly enough, or because they secretly welcome it.

Such is one potential harvest of unpruned privilege. Two things. One – I am not, of course, suggesting that Irons himself either believes in or is to blame for the evolution of rape myths or anything remotely like them – only that his comments may illuminate a corner of a particular mindset and help us understand what otherwise remains inexplicable and therefore indestructible. And two – I am leaving out the undoubted fact that many sexual harassers are entirely aware of their power imbalance and go after certain women precisely because they know they have power over them. But the motives and the harm caused in individual cases are, in a way, easier to discern and fight.

Sometimes we also need to pull back and ask how there came to be a society that allows them to flourish – and then pick up the nearest suitably sharp instrument and start hacking back.”

Email Lucy at lucy.mangan@stylist. or tweet her @LucyMangan

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