Monday 26 September 2016

Niamh Horan: Women need to face facts about the link between rape and drinking

Some people would prefer to live in the comfort of denial than face up to the realities of the world. But it’s time to start a conversation

Published 12/06/2016 | 19:06

Niamh Horan on last night's Cutting Edge
Niamh Horan on last night's Cutting Edge

We live in a society where people find it more difficult than ever when others express an opinion that goes against their accepted way of thinking.

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Claire Fox, author of I Find That Offensive!, uses the term ‘Generation Snowflake’ to describe the new fragile, thin-skinned breed who believe it’s their right to be protected from anything they might find unpalatable.

She says that in today’s public discourse, people can’t cope with conflicting views, let alone criticism.

It’s no wonder then that I struggled to give a forthright view on a subject as sensitive as rape on Brendan O’Connor’s Cutting Edge last Wednesday.

I was conscious that for years women have been disbelieved, blamed, shamed, shrugged off and silenced in the wake of sexual assault.

And happy that men have been forced to look at their own behaviour when it comes to sexual consent.

So was it really the time to point out the obvious? To address the one thing we still can’t bring ourselves to discuss? Women’s drinking and the role it plays in putting them at risk of rape.

In the run-up to the show, the horrific case of a 23-year-old student of Stanford University had been in the news and gone viral.

She was raped behind a dumpster by a man she had met at a fraternity party. She was very drunk to the point that she was unconscious when her attacker was found on top of her by two passers-by. He subsequently received a mere six-month sentence.

We have a long way to go when it comes to adequate sentencing; there is no doubt she is the victim, and rape — under any circumstance — is inexcusable. But the role of alcohol was unmentionable. In fact we were explicitly told by some commentators to steer clear. Why?

I explained on the show that, given Ireland’s own disturbing figures, it is important to start a conversation.

Alcohol is a factor in eight out of every 10 rapes and sexual assaults in Ireland. As part of the battle, we need to arm women — the most at-risk category — with the facts. If they drink alcohol to the point of oblivion they are putting themselves at risk of an attack — and it makes getting justice afterwards even more difficult.

My comments caused uproar and I was accused of victim-shaming. I would point those people to a major advertisement campaign which has run on Irish television.

It warns pedestrians who are “a little worse for wear” that they are putting themselves “in harm’s way”.

Initiated by the Road Safety Authority (RSA), the ‘Drunken Pedestrian’ commercial aims to reduce the number of pedestrians killed on Irish roads — two-thirds of whom had consumed alcohol.

The RSA explained that when you are drunk “awareness of your surroundings” is impaired, making you “as exposed as you can be” to danger.

And here is the clincher: it only targets men aged between 17 and 24,  and 50-plus. Interestingly, it hasn’t been met with hysteria or decries of sexism.

No one has accused the RSA of saying pedestrians are “asking for it”, and, what’s more, the initiative has proven successful.

Last year, Ireland saw a 19pc drop in deaths of vulnerable road users, which includes pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists. That’s almost two in every 10 families who still have their loved ones thanks to raised awareness.

So why can’t we have the same calm, measured approach when it comes to warning another ‘at-risk’ category about the dangers of alcohol and rape?

Perhaps the reason is that, unlike sexual assault, road deaths and other crimes are not tied up with shame.

But the irony is that by keeping silent on women’s drinking you are inadvertently implying that there is something to be ashamed of if a woman drinks and gets raped.

No one deserves that. No matter what she drinks, what she wears or where she goes at night: rape is rape.

It may be difficult and messy to confront our own role in the prevention of rape, but there is strength in it.

When a rape happens, a woman also needs the best chance if she wants justice. In Ireland, of those who report rape, there is a 1-2pc conviction rate. If you drink to excess, it can hinder your ability to remember the attack and give evidence in court. The justice system want you to know this.

Director of Public Prosecutions Claire Loftus came out in 2014 to address the problem of such a low conviction rate in rape cases. She said that there were usually no other witnesses to the event, and memories may be impaired due to alcohol consumption and other factors. “Thus, it is often one person’s word against another’s,” she said.

The head of the Rape Crisis Centre also wants you to know about the risk of alcohol and rape.

Following the debate on Brendan O’Connor’s show — while reiterating that we must not blame the victim — Cliona Sadlier, of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, said: “Our position would be — because of the prevalence of sexual violence —we have to talk about alcohol’s role. It is unavoidable.”

And the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin wants you to know how big a role alcohol plays.

In 2012, more than seven in 10 alleged victims of sexual assault who attended the unit had consumed the equivalent of six pints of beer, or 12 units of alcohol, in the 12 hours before the attack.

The Department of Health says that women should not drink more than 11 units of alcohol over the course of a week.

On the international front, America’s top criminal profiler John Douglas has said the number one thing that will keep you safe from harm — more than any weapon, martial arts expertise or physical strength — is an awareness of your surroundings.

Even Jeff Cooper, the creator of the modern technique of handgun shooting, was wise enough to know that “safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands”.

You can listen to the online hysteria, or you can listen to the people on the front line who are dealing every day with the reality of the fallout of rape.

Being aware of your drinking habits won’t give you any guarantees that you won’t become another statistic. But it sure as hell will give you a better fighting chance.

Online Editors

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