Ireland’s rape culture must be tackled at both a systemic and ground level
When the Midlands rape trial concluded earlier this month with the sentencing of five men to a combined jail terms of 66 years for the rape of a seventeen-year-old girl in 2016, it was a relieving outcome. After all, Ireland’s track record when it comes to sexual assault cases ending in convictions is woeful, and given the horrifying details that had come to light over the course of coverage of the case, any milder sentence would’ve felt extremely unjust – but by no means unprecedented.
The unfortunate reality is that Irish society tends to fail victims of sexual violence. Of course, it is worth noting that in the past couple of years, there has been an increase in the number of people being prosecuted for rape in Ireland, something which has been long overdue and is much welcomed. But the fact remains that most sexual assaults and rapes are not reported, and when they are, the victim faces an uphill battle.
The path to obtaining a conviction is littered with obstacles. Victims who take on the arduous journey of trying to have their case heard in court are often met with lengthy, oppressive procedures and trial delays that drag on what is already such a deeply upsetting process. And then their case still runs an alarmingly high risk of attrition. This is all before the case ever reaches the courts.
For those few that do make it to court, the battle remains far from over. As if testifying in court and having to relive such traumatic experiences wasn’t enough, we have seen time and time again how sexual assault victims are treated by opposing counsel; their credibility is attacked, their sexual history is weaponised. It’s not even been four years since the Belfast rape trial, in which a woman’s lace thong was cited in court as the supposed ‘evidence’ of her consent.
It would be nice to presume that with each passing year we are moving a little further away from this sort of mentality, from responding to instances of sexual violence with irrelevant questions like “What was she wearing?”, “Is she sexually active?”, “Had she been drinking?” etc. And maybe in some ways we are; the defence lawyers in the Midlands case for example were specifically commended for approaching cross-examination in the least confrontational way for the victim. But it would be naïve to say that victim-blaming isn’t a problem anymore, that it’s going away any time soon, or that it hasn’t already had a profoundly negative impact across our culture.
In her court statement, the victim in the Midlands trial said that she blames herself for the incident, that she “[hates herself] for getting into the car” where the assault took place. She said, “I was so trusting and innocent, I allowed this to happen”.
Growing up as a woman, you are coached on protecting yourself. You are told that even though it’s not right, it’s not fair, the reality is that the world is less safe for you than it is for your male peers. And so, you have to play by a different set of rules. Watch your drink and never walk alone at night. Don’t have a reputation for sexual activeness, it’ll make you a target. Don’t dress provocatively, it’ll make you a target. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but it might just keep you safe.
Of course, the reality is that it doesn’t always keep you safe. Sexual assault is going to happen even if all the possible precautions are taken, because it has everything to do with the perpetrator’s actions and not the victim’s.
But when we have a system that continually fails sexual assault survivors and a culture that loves to tear apart their credibility, you grow up conscious of the fact that you are likely going to be your own best defence. The responsibility falls on you.
And so, if you do fall victim to sexual assault, it may feel like you failed that duty that was imposed on you, that you “allowed this to happen”.
We desperately need to change the way we view sexual assault in Ireland, and the way we deal with it legally. From ignoring and dismissing casual instances of objectification, to the shocking amount of cases that never reach the courts, our attitude when it comes to calling out sexual assault has only served to harm – putting both the responsibility to avoid assault and the culpability for it on the victim.
A lot of work needs to be done when it comes to the legal system, but there is also so much that could be done at a ground level. As a society, we spend so much time telling women how to act, dress, speak etc. to protect ourselves – to the point when we experience assault we feel it’s our fault that we “allowed this to happen”. If only we put that same time and energy into educating the wider public, prioritising comprehensive sex education, and doing what we can to tackle rape culture at its roots. How much more of an impact would that have? How much better off would we be?