Tuesday 20 August 2019

Colette Browne: 'In the age of #MeToo, we all need to call out sexual crime and help bring an end to wave of violence'

There are those who have suffered sexual violence in every family, every peer group, every classroom and in the business sector. Stock photo
There are those who have suffered sexual violence in every family, every peer group, every classroom and in the business sector. Stock photo
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Be honest. Admit it. Did your eyes glaze over when you heard Ireland is in the midst of a sexual violence epidemic?

When news organisations reported the latest horrifying statistics from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC), did you turn the channel? Scroll past the article on the website you were reading? Or click through to read the first couple of paragraphs, before growing bored with the story? Did you even hear about it?

In case you weren't paying attention, nearly 14,000 people contacted DRCC last year - 270 people every single week. Of the 4,228 individual counselling appointments delivered, the majority - 2,187 -were crisis appointments for people who had experienced rape or sexual assault in the past six months.

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Remember, these are just figures from the limited counselling service of one organisation in Dublin. Now consider that there were just 1,754 sexual offences recorded by gardaí across the entire country in 2018.

It is clear sexual violence is both endemic and hugely under-reported.

If you think this is an issue that doesn't affect you, that doesn't impinge on your own cosseted social circle or demographic, then you are wrong.

According to the 2002 SAVI report, the most comprehensive study of sexual violence ever undertaken in this country, 42pc of women and 28pc of men reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime.

This means there are those who have suffered sexual violence in every family, every peer group, every classroom and in the business sector.

Why don't we hear from them? Why isn't it better reported? Why, in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, don't the numbers who are subjected to sexual crimes appear to be decreasing?

A large part of the problem is the perception that perpetrators of sexual violence are unusually aberrant.

The "stranger danger" stereotype of rapists as beasts who pounce on victims in the dead of night means that many of us do not believe that we have the power, individually and collectively, to be catalysts for change.

This misnomer, that sexual violence is something that is both hidden and rare, means many of us are not attuned to the many acts of sexual harassment and assault we ourselves can witness every day.

How many times have you seen a woman become uncomfortable on public transport because of the leering or inappropriate behaviour of a man who invades her personal space?

How many times have you watched a female pedestrian or cyclist flinch because of vulgar comments directed at her from a passing motorist?

How many times have you witnessed women being casually groped on streets or bars or nightclubs by men who laughed off the encounter as a joke?

How many times have you laughed along?

Now, ask yourself how many times you intervened? How many times you offered support to those women? How many times you made it clear, at that moment, that this kind of behaviour was unacceptable.

Bystander intervention can be an important tool in changing a social culture in which acts of sexual harassment or assault are tacitly tolerated.

Earlier this year, UCC launched a bystander intervention programme for students, with Dr Louise Crowley, of the School of Law, describing sexual violence as "a deeply ingrained societal poison".

Dr Crowley said the aim of the programme was to "educate our students to recognise their capacity to effect cultural change, to empower them to recognise the problem, to speak up as part of a collective voice and to reject any attempt to normalise violence and harassment".

This is an initiative that does not have to be confined to college students.

Every one of us has the capacity, in our own lives, to call out this offensive, degrading, and indeed criminal, treatment of women. We just have to decide to do so.

The correlation of extreme pornography and sexual violence is also something that urgently needs to be addressed.

Earlier this month, High Court judge Mr Justice Michael White said he was deeply concerned about the high numbers of cases "where young children have committed the most serious [sexual] offences ... where the start was exposure to pornography on smartphones".

This does not mean every child who watches porn will eventually find themselves in court. However, this generation of children is the first to be entirely digitally native and no one is quite sure what the long-term impact of that will be when it comes to the easy accessibility of hardcore porn.

Parents, if they are giving young children smartphones, have a duty to at least install filters on those devices to prevent them from directly accessing this material.

But, they also have a duty to face the reality that children will, in all likelihood, be exposed to extreme pornography and have a frank discussion with them about it. About the unrealistic expectation that it can create around sex and about the oftentimes demeaning way in which women are treated.

Discussions of this nature with children cannot be entirely outsourced to schools or teachers, who should also have a role via a sex education curriculum that addresses things like sexting and pornography - things children today will undoubtedly encounter.

When we speak of the measures that can be taken to combat sexual violence, too often the approach is "top down" - the introduction of new laws or regulations - and the powerful impact of "bottom up" action is overlooked.

We clearly need a legal system in which women and men feel comfortable coming forward and reporting sexual crime and gardaí who are specially trained and equipped to take their statements.

We also need public information campaigns, education programmes, investment in the provision of accurate statistics and for agencies like DRCC to be adequately resourced to help victims.

But we also have to open our eyes to the pervasive and pernicious nature of this crime - and call it out when we see it.

We can opt to criticise a friend who shares a nude picture of a woman without her permission, the man who engages in street harassment or the older man who makes suggestive comments to a young girl on public transport.

In doing so, we can send a strong message. Not just to the men involved, but to everyone in the vicinity. That you will face public censure from your peers if you behave in a way that is inappropriate. You will not get off scot free.

Maybe then things will change.

Irish Independent

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