In the wake of Ashling Murphy’s tragedy, tens of thousands of us attended moving vigils to honour her individual memory, but also to demonstrate our collective trauma. Violence is surely one of the truest expressions of misogyny – of a contempt for women and girls that allows some men to see us as of lesser value – to objectify us, to try to control us, to hurt us if we do not bend to their will.
We are finally beginning to understand that the way Ashling’s life ended is not an isolated case. A pattern quickly emerges once we examine the circumstances of all missing and murdered women in Ireland, in cases both solved and unsolved.
Lives stolen by violent men, known and unknown, creating a palpable sense of fear.
We don’t want to live in fear, and we don’t want another family to suffer such loss. But getting to the root causes of this violence requires us to ask some difficult questions.
What drives these acts of physical, sexual and psychological harm? What fuels the misogyny that leads to such violence and degradation?
Recent research from Edinburgh University demonstrates that men’s dehumanisation of women – a ‘denial of women’s human uniqueness’ – predicts their own sexual aggression and is a driving factor for sexual offending. Perhaps it is easier to harm or even murder someone when you cannot recognise their humanity?
Startlingly, the study recommends that to prevent male violence we must emphasise that women are people too.
Where does this dehumanising begin? From our own research at the Sexual Exploitation Research Programme, we know that in no other place, on no other platform, are women more dehumanised or objectified than in the sex trade – in prostitution and pornography.
Right now, women without homes are being moved like luggage across Ireland to satisfy the demands of sex buyers, who select them online based on photos of their naked bodies – and promptly return to the same website afterwards to review them, as one would review any purchased object.
Each woman is rated out of five stars for her ‘appearance’ and the ‘satisfaction’ and ‘value for money’ she provided.
Most men don’t buy sex – but some do, and this seeps into the rest of our culture. The message is that women can be purchased as playthings to satisfy the sexual demands of men.
This is precisely the same message reinforced by prostitution’s sex-trade counterpart – pornography – the porn that saturates our everyday lives. In Ireland right now, one single live-stream porn website ranks as the eighth most popular web site in the country – and is visited more often than Instagram, Netflix and Amazon.
To be clear, this is not the porn some of us may remember from ‘our youth’ – much of which is now standard fare for many music videos.
This is violent and degrading porn, with women regularly spat on, slapped and choked during sex, often whilst being told they are a ‘bitch’ or a ‘slut’.
Almost 90pc of scenes contain at least one act of aggression, to which the women being filmed are expected to respond neutrally or with pleasure. Over half of Irish boys (53pc) see this porn for the first time between the ages of 10 and 13, as do 23pc of girls.
Researchers from Durham University found that one in eight porn titles shown to first-time viewers of porn – including children – constitute sexual violence. Titles containing the term ‘teen’ and depicting rape and incest are particularly common – ‘Again and again forced’ and ‘Daddy keeps f**king daughter till she likes it’ are just two amongst mostly unprintable examples.
It seems that dehumanising and degrading porn forms the wallpaper of many boys’ lives in Ireland. It is accessible on every device in a couple of taps. Calls to simply teach children ‘porn literacy’ are risible.
How can we realistically expect a 12-year-old boy with no sexual experience to understand that in porn when a girl says ‘no’ she means ‘yes’, but in real-life she actually does mean ‘no’?
The sex trade’s tentacles reach deep into our lives and fan the flames of misogyny. Rather than stir up a moral panic, we need to calmly confront the harms it causes.
A conversation about the role porn played in the life of the boy who sexually assaulted and murdered Ana Kriégel quickly petered out after her death. As we prepare to scrutinise the new government strategy to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, perhaps we can again pick up the threads of this conversation.
What is certain is that we can only begin to heal from our collective trauma if we are prepared to address its causes head-on.
Ruth Breslin is a lead researcher with the Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (Serp) at University College Dublin