Monday 14 October 2019

'There's a part of me that wants to disappear... it would be easier to give way to the black-and-white logic of misogyny...'

Roisin Kiberd
Roisin Kiberd

Roisin Kiberd

The horror stories closest to home are always the most frightening. Reading about Karen Buckley's disappearance this week, I'm sure I wasn't the only reader disturbed by the familiarity of the events leading up her death.

An ordinary night out in an ordinary city, at a busy club surrounded by friends. And yet this woman disappeared - what kind of predatory world could allow such a thing to happen?

We have all been warned not to walk home alone at night, but so many of us still guiltily take chances.

Fuzzy after a few drinks, we ask ourselves "why should I be afraid to walk home by myself?" Up until now, I've done the same: I love walking through Dublin at night. Why should it be seen as irresponsible, or worse, "asking for" trouble?

I count myself lucky to have never encountered the scenarios told to me by friends, both female and male - stories of drinks spiked and stalkers following them home. But I have been trailed around shops by 'friendly' strangers, have had bottles thrown my way and had men try to pick me up off my feet on nights out. I've been the target of exhibitionist masturbators on trains. And after a while, it all adds up: at first I want to be bigger, loud enough to shout back. I want to carry on walking, because it's my right to be there as much as the next person.

But there's a part of me that wants to disappear, because it would be easier, somehow, to give way to the black-and-white logic of misogyny. When we weather the catcalls, we absorb them, and get a little more used to being shouted at.

An increasing number of women and men do not feel safe on our streets.

Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, reveals that, in 2014, the Dublin centre fielded more than 12,000 calls, in contrast to the 78 they took in 1979, when they opened.

Viral videos exposing street abuse come from abroad, the most famous made in New York by anti-harassment network Hollaback. But this is also an issue close to home.

Jenny Dunne, co-director of Hollaback's Dublin campaign, says: "The message that women in Dublin do not feel safe on the streets is very clear to us… from catcalling to groping to serious physical or sexual violence. Often these situations escalate very quickly, which means that women are constantly on their guard."

I will never understand why Irish law, dating back to 1925, still bans pepper spray, because I know that if it came to it, I would never be able to overpower an attacker. There are personal safety phone apps, but technology is fallible, and how often do you readily have your phone out, in a dangerous situation, in the first place? To me the very existence of these options indicates a failing on society's part. So much of the media we consume dwells on victimhood but shrinks from the mention of a rape culture, and to speak of micro-aggressions, let alone to place them on a spectrum which begins with 'banter' and ends with violence, is to risk being labelled the worst kind of man-hater.

When we text a taxi driver's name and number plate to family on a night out... are we casting an unfair shadow over the vast majority of men? 

Drink is frequently mentioned in the context of these crimes. It's a valid concern - binge drinking is cited in nearly 90pc of Irish rape trials, making it our nation's most common date-rape drug. But "was she drunk?" is as loaded a question as "what was she wearing?" How could the answer to either excuse a loss of life?

"There's more violence now," said O'Malley-Dunlop. "It's good that ­victims can avail of support services, but we still need to address those who are making the streets less safe." She cited the failure of a school ­curriculum which focuses on points rather than creating well-rounded human beings.

Followed, groped, threatened - why women demand better

"We need to get into schools, that's where you reach the potential perpetrators as well as potential victims. Young people should be properly informed on sexual consent and respect, and how to manage anger." The current SPHE curriculum offers a single 'Relationships and Sexuality' module, and consent is largely something young people learn about from the internet.

We are right to be angry, and scared, because aggression takes myriad forms. It swings and staggers between "only joking" and calls of "slut", or "fat", or whatever unimaginative insult it can hurl at you. It is never far away from turning vicious. It is the uncomfortable end to a standard night out, when you ask your friend to text you when she gets home. It is the moment when you say "take care", and mean it.

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