Sunday 15 September 2019

How can we change a culture of sexual abuse?

Sexual violence was brought to the fore again this week by the sentencing of Tom Humphries. Dearbhail McDonald asks why we are not ­funding the kind of ­research that might ­promote a change in ­attitudes on sexual violence

Dearbhail McDonald
Dearbhail McDonald

The pattern is a familiar one by now.

A brave sexual assault victim speaks out or waives her right to anonymity. Her courage prompts other victims to come forward and speak their truth.

The momentum gains and warps into a viral social media sensation: #everydaysexism #yesallwomen and its latest, tragic incarnation - #metoo - which traversed the globe within hours of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein being unmasked as Hollywood's predator-in-chief.

No sooner is the sheer scale and prevalence of gender-based violence against women unmasked, a misogynistic scythe strikes to silence the voices of women and girls subjected to that broad church of sexual violence.

From the 'harmless' wolf whistle to the sexually loaded remark made by a boss or powerful man, the gratuitous grope of her breasts and genitalia on public transport, intimidation in school, work or the home and, in the worst-case scenarios, sexual assault, rape, trafficking and forced prostitution.

Last week the scourge of sexual violence was headline news once again when Tom Humphries, the once acclaimed 'Irish Times' sports journalist, was sentenced to just two-and-a-half years for the defilement of a teenager whom he began to groom when she was just 14.

The scale of the grooming - Humphries exchanged at least 16,000 text messages with the girl over three months leading up to March 2011 as part of the grooming process before sexually abusing her - was sickening.

The now young woman, who suffers from permanent flashbacks, said in her victim impact statement that her experience at the hands of Humphries, three times her age and an icon in the world of the GAA, left her feeling suicidal and suffering from flashbacks and panic attacks.

Equally tragic was the part of the girl's statement in which she said she felt she had allowed Humphries to manipulate her, prompting trial judge Karen O'Connor to remind her that it was Humphries who had manipulated her.

Like almost every woman I know, I have my "me too" memories.

As I have written before, as a young woman I feared for my personal safety on at least three separate occasions.

The first was when I was 17 and travelling on the Tube (for the first time) in London (also for the first time) when a man grabbed my breasts and genitalia with a sustained force and wicked grin before exiting at the next stop.

It can only have lasted for less than a minute, yet in that constricted space and short period of time, he managed to violate me in a vicious way in a public space that will stay with me forever. No, in case you're wondering, I didn't report it: I could scarcely believe or process it.

I didn't know then that what had happened was a sexual assault, even if it was at "the lower end of the scale".

'A rite of passage'

But you don't have the words or comprehension at 17 to articulate what happened or have the capacity to respond. Confused and embarrassed, I tried to shrug it off and convince myself that this was just something that happens to girls: my shame, a rite of passage for men.

When I look back on that incident now, what I remember are my fellow travellers who sympathised but did not intervene, and the tears of a woman who was sitting down who silently mouthed 'it's okay' before we went our separate ways.

The next incident happened some years later in New York when a taxi driver, who presumed I didn't know my route, tried to bring me home in the early hours via a road I knew led to an empty industrial park.

Terrified, and after having repeatedly given him specific directions, we had a ferocious row which resulted in me being ejected from the taxi - I considered that outcome a lucky escape.

The third incident occurred in Carcassonne, the picturesque town in the south of France.

Travelling alone, as I love to do, I was pursued in broad daylight for almost 20 minutes by an Arabic speaking man who launched a sleazy, verbal sexual tirade at me, forcing me to flee.

These were isolated incidents and thankfully I came to no harm - there I go minimising them, as women do.

But it's this type of incident that forms the gauntlet that many women and young girls have to run every day simply because we are women.

There is a reason why international human rights law uses phrases such as gender-based violence (which affects both men and women) or violence against women.

And that is precisely because of the historically unequal power relations between women and men that has discriminated and subdued the former.

We run global campaigns to end violence against women because it is directed against women, simply because we are women and because it affects women disproportionately.

It's why we, as women, have to think about personal safety in a way that many men don't.

The fear of sexual assault, or worse, is ingrained into us from an early age DNA, and we pass this wisdom on to our daughters, nieces and friends.

In the wake of a viral deluge or a high-profile case, many people ask: Why didn't you report it? Why did you not speak up? If things were as bad as you say they were and "everyone knew about it" - à la Harvey Weinstein - why are you only coming forward now? The questions, whilst natural at one level, fail to grasp the complexities of sexual harassment and violence that leads to vast under-reporting and attrition in the criminal law process that creates a culture of impunity for offenders, the vast bulk of who will not be prosecuted for their crimes.

Prejudicial attitudes

Every step along the criminal law journey sees victims, male and female, fall out of the criminal law process, fearing the perpetrator, fearing they will not be supported or believed by gardaí, lawyers and by juries who may hold prejudicial attitudes in such cases.

An unsuccessful prosecution, perhaps due to evidence that is not strong enough or lenient sentences - both real and perceived - can also deter victims from staying the course even though we have strong rates of conviction and sentence when rape trials succeed. What is infuriating, after each peak of rage that follows a high-profile trial or viral debate, is the fact that we wring our hands and ask: how could this happen? And how can we ensure it never happens again?

The infuriating part is that we have a critical tool at our disposal to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence and change the underlying culture and attitudes that enables such impunity.

That tool is Savi - and the Government won't fund it.

I began my journalism career 15 years ago, around the time the groundbreaking Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (Savi) study was published.

Published in the wake of the clerical sex-abuse crisis, Savi provided the first clear and unambiguous profile of the nature and extent of sexual violence in Ireland, shining a light on the prevalence of sexual violence and demolishing many myths in its path.

Savi detailed specific information about the prevalence of sexual violence in relation to age and gender for over 3,000 adults, and identified the barriers to accessing law enforcement, medical and therapeutic services for those abused and their families.

Critically, it shone a light on attitudes, and the cultural and educational obstacles that need to be surpassed to tackle sexual violence.

Savi provided successive Governments with the blueprint to institute meaningful reforms, but it was left to gather dust on a shelf despite routine cries for a follow-up survey.

The financial crisis aside, the refusal by the State to fund a second Savi is inconceivable and inexcusable.

How can we tackle a problem if we don't track it?

We fund endless statistical bodies and longitudinal surveys, such as ageing and cancer and this is only right - these are major public health challenges.

Plight of victims

So why is the plight of victims of sexual and domestic violence - which costs the Irish economy some €2bn a year - not valued sufficiently by the State to fund a permanent Savi that would cost a mere €1m a year to operate?

To put that into context, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has set aside €5m a year to fund his new spin unit.

What does that say about the attitude of the State, which has created a €300m Brexit loan fund, towards victims of sexual crime?

If we really want to tackle sexual violence, if we really want to educate our adult and young population about consent and boundaries, we must create a permanent Savi, a low-cost model that is mere peppercorn rent on one of the most valuable investments we have: the health and welfare of our boys and girls.

Dearbhail McDonald is Group Business Editor and former Legal Editor of the Irish Independent

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