Thursday 29 September 2016

Rapist's sentence reminds us there's no permission ever for sexual violence

Noeline Blackwell

Published 26/07/2016 | 02:30

Reporting sexual violence within an intimate relationship brings its own particular problems. There is the burden which it places on someone harmed by the rape or sexual abuse who is trying to rebuild their lives (Stock photo)
Reporting sexual violence within an intimate relationship brings its own particular problems. There is the burden which it places on someone harmed by the rape or sexual abuse who is trying to rebuild their lives (Stock photo)

'Deciding to make the statement on the rape was so difficult because it meant admitting to myself what had happened." These words are part of the victim impact statement made by the wife in the marital rape case where sentence was handed down in the Central Criminal Court yesterday.

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That statement, as well as the 12-year sentence (with two years suspended) for rape are being widely reported.

It is necessary to remember that this is the first hearing of this case and the convicted defendant may well appeal either his conviction or his sentence. So this article is not an examination of the case.

However, because there are so few convictions of marital rape, the case has opened a discussion around the topic of rape within marriage or intimate relationships.

Sexual violence of any kind is hard to endure. Never more so than in marriage or in another intimate relationship where the violence of rape and sexual assault means that a couple have moved from giving their trust as well as their bodies to a partner to the worst possible scenario where the trust of one is smashed by the violence of the other.

In her judgment handing down the sentence in yesterday's case, Judge Isobel Kennedy said the crime of rape was an attack on "bodily and psychological integrity".

Much of the work of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and our colleague centres around the country aims to restore that psychological integrity, sometimes over a very lengthy period.

Not everyone will go on to report the sexual violence to the police. There is general acceptance that sexual violence is greatly under-reported. The last thorough baseline study in Ireland on the extent of sexual violence, in 2002, reckoned that 13pc of Irish women and 5pc of Irish men have experienced rape or attempted rape over their lifetime.

Yet the Courts Service report shows that, in 2015, there were 379 rape verdicts. In the absence of badly needed up-to-date research, it seems we must conclude that only a tiny fraction of those affected by sexual violence will report it.

Reporting sexual violence within an intimate relationship brings its own particular problems. There is the burden which it places on someone harmed by the rape or sexual abuse who is trying to rebuild their lives. There is the regular delay and complexity of the justice system. In addition, there is also the evidential burden of showing that the sexual activity was not on consent.

Consensual sexual activity is a normal part of an intimate relationship. The absence of consent is what turns it to a crime of sexual violence. Often the proof will be the word of one formerly trusted spouse or partner against the other.

The complainant must show that while consent may have existed on a myriad previous occasions, the relationship had now turned violent. The accused on the other hand may say that there was consent or that the sexual activity never took place at all.

The accounts are then tested in the tough world of the prosecution of criminal offences.

At the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre we have identified the difficulties of manoeuvring through the justice system for victims. We support people by accompanying them - to the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit at the Rotunda, to a garda interview, or to court - in a system where they never wanted nor expected to be.

While highlighting the difficulties of giving evidence, particularly against a spouse or partner, it is at least now possible for a woman to make a criminal complaint of rape against her husband. We are reminded that the advances in equality for women in the middle of the 20th century were less than perfect when we know that it was only in 1990 that what was called the 'marital exemption' to rape was abolished.

Until then, a husband could not be found guilty of the rape of his wife. Relics of all sorts of ancient thinking of the wife as the chattel or property of her husband were finally legally overturned.

It was a fairly cautious over-turning. While abolishing the marital exemption, the law provided that no prosecution of a husband for the alleged rape of his wife can take place without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The cautious approach is also evident in the fact that the first conviction of a husband for rape did not take place until 2002. That conviction was overturned and the man was re-tried and convicted for a second time in 2005.

It seems that there may have been another unreported conviction between then and the case decided this month, but whether there was or not, marital rape convictions are a very rare species indeed.

This conviction marks another notch on the posts of legal history, because it is only the third ever case under the 1990 law.

But it marks something else too. It marks the public reminder that the victim of crimes of rape and sexual abuse within a marriage or other intimate relationship has the right to have these prosecuted as any other crime would be.

It marks also the reminder to everyone who hears of it that there is no permission, ever, for sexual violence, not even in private and not in the home. Never.

Noeline Blackwell is CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

Irish Independent

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