Sunday 18 August 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Of course women shouldn't have to guard against rapists - but we have to be realistic'

Growing problem: As the number of rape victims keeps rising, we may need to rethink our conversation around rape and safety.
Growing problem: As the number of rape victims keeps rising, we may need to rethink our conversation around rape and safety.
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

ACCORDING to shocking headlines last week, young Irish women report rapes every 48 hours on foreign holidays. The Cork Sexual Violence Centre said all of these cases happened at holiday destinations abroad, and all were involving women in their teens and early 20s.

Founder of the centre Mary Crilly said there had been a big rise in reports this summer. "Every year, we would have come across young women who were raped on holiday," she said. "There seems to be more and more coming forward, or else it is happening more."

It's a chilling news story, but one that doesn't surprise me. Last year, a UK study found that nearly half of female festival-goers (43pc) under 40 say they have faced unwanted sexual behaviour at a music festival. Overall, 22pc of all festival-goers have faced assault or harassment, rising to 30pc of women overall. The most common forms were unwelcome and forceful dancing and verbal harassment.

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The latest statistics from the Central Statistics Office show that the number of sexual offences recorded here has continued to rise from 2,938 to 3,231 last year. The State's forensic science laboratory has seen a 30pc rise in sexual assault cases so far this year.

Sexual assaults are happening because we live in a rape culture that doesn't even realise it exists. A rape culture that tells us a catcall is a compliment. A rape culture that tells us they can grab our bums and dance too close to us in clubs. A rape culture where the only way to get a man to leave us alone is to say that we're married to another man.

There have been efforts to teach consent to young people in schools and universities. A national campaign on sexual harassment and violence was launched in May, but as the number of victims keeps on growing, maybe we need to rethink our conversation around rape and safety, too.

It's a conversation that is often so angry and irrational that we aren't allowed tell women they need to take common-sense precautions for their safety. And if anyone tries to even suggest ways to help women - and men - protect themselves from rape and sexual assault, they're automatically accused of "victim-blaming".

This narrative that we shouldn't ever offer safety advice to women, that we should be teaching men not to rape instead, would be grand if we lived in an ideal world. But our world isn't ideal and it is inhabited by violent and sexually aggressive people, too. It isn't useful to tell young women that they can go about their nights out exactly as they want to, on their own terms, when there are such devastating consequences for them if they do.

Women already live in a constant state of low-grade fear. Women are forced to navigate the world with the idea of avoiding sexual assault by men in mind. I'm not exaggerating. Think about it. Some might not even realise the emotional and mental energy we put into not being raped or assaulted - the precautions taken every day that come as easily to us as breathing.

We grip the keys to our house in our fist as a potential weapon. We don't walk to the corner shop after dark. We don't leave our drink unattended while we use the bathroom. We don't wear headphones when we go jogging in certain parks and we don't meet men for first dates behind closed doors. This is what we do. It's what we have always done.

The argument that rape-prevention measures are "victim-blaming" is putting women at even greater risk. People urging women not to take common sense measures - because that's not how the world is supposed to work - are sending a much more dangerous message than those pointing out that it is dangerous to walk home alone after a night out.

Yes, we need to change mindsets and curb the entitlement many predators feel when gazing at a scene of young women out dancing and having fun. We need these people to know they cannot behave like this. And we need to out sexual assailants and predators and make sure they face the consequences of their actions. Most importantly, we need to help victims who fear repercussions by supporting them and ensuring they get justice when they access our legal services.

But while we are trying to teach men not to rape and generally tearing the whole patriarchy apart, we can't encourage vulnerable young women to take unnecessary risks. I'm all for women doing whatever they like, as drunk or sober as they like. I'm also a realist and know that we need to take care of ourselves, because our world isn't made of unicorns and fairy dust, and there are bad people out there who want to harm us.

Until the world is free of rapists, I'll be taking the safety advice myself and, yes, never letting my guard down outside of my home. It shouldn't be a woman's responsibility to try to stay safe, but it is.

:: The Department of Foreign Affairs encourages any Irish citizen who is the victim of an assault abroad to contact their nearest embassy or consulate.

"Our officials work in the strictest confidence and can assist you in dealing with local police and medical professionals, speak with your family or friends if requested, and provide information on relevant support services," it says. "Irish citizens travelling abroad can familiarise themselves with our travel advice prior to their trip, with this information, along with details for the nearest Irish embassy or consulate, on our website, www.dfa.ie."

Irish Independent

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