'Your clothes do not excuse a sexual assault'
UCD students marched across campus yesterday in a so-called 'slutwalk' to highlight the thorny issue of victim blaming. Our reporter meets the participants
It was wet, windy and freezing yesterday, so casual visitors to UCD might have been forgiven for raising an eyebrow when 200 students marched past them wearing a colourful variety of clothing styles.
As they chanted, 'Not asking for it!' some wore shorts, low-cut tops and minis, while others sported a classic LBD or jeans and a T-shirt. A touch of star quality was lent by RTÉ's Miriam O'Callaghan, resplendent in a red jacket, and author Louise O'Neill, who sensibly donned a hooded jacket as the group gamely marched across the sprawling Belfield campus.
The students were taking part in the SlutWalk campaign, which is a international movement of protest marches calling for an end to rape culture. Specifically, participants protest against explaining or excusing rape by referring to any aspect of a woman's appearance. Yesterday's walk was organised by the UCD Students' Union as part of its admirable and innovative Consent campaign.
Former UCD student Miriam was there because the organisers approached her last Friday night, when she was picking up an alumni award from the law department. As a woman and the mother of four girls and four boys, she was happy to come along and lend her support to the Slutwalk.
"The wonderful thing about today's protest is that it's full of young women and young men," she says, looking around at the throngs of students surrounding us.
"It's a 50/50 gender split, and I think that makes people more aware that the issue of consent is very important, and I'm delighted to be able to do anything to increase that awareness. As a young lawyer, I worked in FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) and spent quite a lot of my time working with women who were the victims of assault."
Student president Marcus O'Sullivan (22) an agri-business management student from Tipperary, explained that having support from people like Miriam and Louise demonstrates that this issue is not just a student one, but a national one. "It was important that so many males were here to support the walk, because it shows that consent is universal and it demonstrates solidarity," he says. "We'll be doing a survey next semester, and the results we gather will be brought to university management to help ensure that there are effective policies in UCD around victims of sexual assault. We will also be running 'consent' workshops that will be open to all students."
Louise O'Neill is the author of Asking for It, the highly-acclaimed book that deals with the subject of rape in a small town. She was very happy to allow the UCD students to adopt her book's social media hashtag #NotAskingForIt, because the issue of consent is one she feels strongly about.
While researching her book, she was shocked to learn how badly affected the student population is by this particular issue.
"I spoke with Mary Crilly from the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, and she told me that 42pc of all victims who come into the centre are students," she says. "So I think the real battleground is on college campuses, which is why I was so keen on working with UCDSU."
Hazel Beattie (24) who organised the walk and is vice president of the students' union, strongly believes that while UCD is leading the charge in educating students around consent, this process of education needs to start in primary school.
Almost 98pc of perpetrators of sexual violence are male, she explains, and the area of sexual assault is a passion of hers as she hopes to become a social worker.
"It's a huge problem in Ireland and the lack of understanding around consent is a massive issue," she says. "If someone gets felt up on a night out, you often hear people saying, 'Well what did she expect? Did you see what she was wearing?' Even in court cases, victims' clothing and past sexual behaviour are often used against them, but no matter what you're wearing, it's no excuse for anyone to harass or sexually assault you."
Victoria Banach (19) is a first and second-year class rep for veterinary nursing. She's originally from Poland, but now lives with her family in Blanchardstown. She believes that the campaign is important because, in her experience, many people don't believe sexual assault or inappropriate behaviour is an issue unless it results in an actual rape.
"They say 'Well, what's the big deal?'" she says. "And I'm not generalising, but it's mostly the lads who say it. One of my friends was sexually assaulted, but she didn't tell anyone at the time because she thought people would blame her as she wore a short dress. There's a real victim-blaming element here that needs to stop, and a campaign like this is great for making people talk about it and getting the message out."
Victoria says that the situation is similar in Poland, and when she visits there, people might remark if she wears a low-cut top. "They'll say, 'Is that not a bit slutty?'" she says. "Or 'Don't go out in a short skirt.' The thing is that I should be allowed to wear whatever I want, no matter what time of the day or night, and still feel safe."
Victoria feels that the situation is exacerbated at nightclubs, and that some guys think if you're drinking and wearing a short skirt, they can do whatever they want. She recalls meeting a guy at a club once who bought her a drink, and they were chatting and getting on well. "He sat down in a corner and pulled me on top of him, and then started trying to take my knickers off from under my dress," she says, incredulously. "Thankfully, one of the bouncers came over and stopped him, and then I ran over to my friends and he went off. I think sometimes that guys think if you're just being nice and chatting to them, that this is pretty much an invitation to your pants."
Sorcha Murphy (19) from Cavan has just started a degree in art history and English at UCD, and she wanted to get involved in the Slutwalk because she has experienced verbal abuse based on her clothing choices.
"Boys feels the need to shout harassment at you from across the street, just stupid things about your boobs and stuff like that," she says. "I've had an eating disorder in the past and body-shamed my own body, so when you get to a point where you're comfortable in your own skin, it's a pain when other people feel the need to harass you. I think it comes to a lack of education, as they are used to objectifying us and don't empathise with how it makes us feel."
Sorcha says that when she goes out, she almost has to brace herself for the onslaught, and notices that when people are in a group, they have no shame and are not afraid of being pulled up on their catcalls by the rest of the group.
"It happened to me last week when a group of six boys started shouting at me across the street in Dundrum, and it really deflated me," she says. "You're dressing for yourself, but they turn you from a person into an object. You fear for your safety, and if it's getting dark and I'm by myself, I phone my mum or a friend and talk to them all the way home."
According to student vice president Hazel, she sees a stream of students in her office who are upset over being harassed on the street or inappropriately touched. While the majority are female, some are men who are experiencing this treatment at the hands of other men or even women. It's a big issue for the LBGTQIA community in particular, she explains.
"The Slutwalk participants walked in solidarity for all those who have been assaulted or harassed," she says. "We hope that by raising awareness and educating people, we can help to bring about change. We would like to show people that victims should never be blamed, no matter what they wear or how they behave."