The zeitgeist of Irish society, with regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape is sadly very regressive. Victims themselves are still blamed – to a large extent – for the assaults they suffer. Their previous sexual experience is interrogated. What they wore; who they were with; if, and how much, they had been drinking; how they met the person who assaulted them; how long it took them to report the assault (if they did); and whether or not they fought back, are all discussed and dissected in the Court of Public Opinion, if not in the legal court of the land. In the rare event that a case of sexual assault actually gets to court, the sentences are shockingly short, and don’t always include an immediate custodial element.
As a society, we don’t seem to have realised that unless consent is sought, freely given, given in advance, given enthusiastically, and ongoing, any ensuing act is assault. The problem with the prevailing attitudes and beliefs has long been identified by feminists. Identification of a problem, of course is an important first step; but it is only the first step. Once it’s been identified, a solution needs to be found. A concerted, consistent campaign (or series of campaigns) to highlight the issues and confront them is what’s needed next. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again, but consent really is key. Consent workshops are a great idea, and my feeling (unpopular though it may be) is that they should be mandatory across all educational institutions. Yes, I really do mean starting with preschool facilities, and teaching children that they don’t have to give or receive hugs and kisses that they don’t want. In tandem with that, our understanding of, and response to, sexual assault needs to move beyond the binary, and speak to those in our communities who don’t identify as straight.
Finally, it wouldn’t hurt, either, to insist that any judge in Ireland, who is likely to be asked to preside over a case of sexual assault, abuse, or rape, should undergo mandatory training from the Rape Crisis Centre. I have it on good authority that, even though it’s been offered for several years, no judge has ever availed of this training.