Fourteen-year-old Ana Kriegal was sexually assaulted and murdered on the 14th of May last year. Two boys, aged thirteen at the time, were found guilty of the crimes against her.
Since the verdict was reached last week, there have been many column inches devoted to the case. There has been mention of how this is an ‘unusual’ case, how it shows the ‘dark side’ of Ireland. Such statements, however, are unhelpful and untrue. This is Ireland. This is the Ireland I grew up, this is the Ireland I now live in. I have seen people wonder how we ‘get boys like this’, but the truth is we create them.
Lack of education around pornography and sexual relationships has been cited as part of the problem – and I don’t discount these claims. The problem is, however, that it’s too easy to point to the obvious and suggest that it provides the complete picture. It doesn’t.
Irish society creates and condones the behaviour of these boys, and boys like them. Because – don’t kid yourself – these boys are not an aberration. Their attitudes towards, and treatment of, women and girls, is not unusual in Irish society. And it’s their attitudes that fuelled their behaviour. Yes, murder is still unusual in Ireland. Thirteen-year-olds murdering people is also still an unusual phenomenon, but thirteen-year-olds sexually assaulting girls is not nearly as unusual as you might like to think.
If Ana had ‘just’ been sexually assaulted and not murdered, think how the media and the public would have reacted. Without a doubt, she would have been unmercifully victim-blamed, in exactly the same way as every other victim of rape and sexual assault over the age of ten is blamed for their own victimisation. At this point, I would like to respectfully suggest that we need a cultural sea change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators of sexual violence, rather than their victims.
The problem is not with individual children or even individual families – the problem is with the whole wider society. I know this will not be a particularly popular statement, but – as my friend and colleague, Dr Jessica Eaton says – ‘our systems won’t change by protecting ourselves from our own shortcomings’. And we have shortcomings galore in this society.
Bullying is endemic in Irish culture. We have learnt that Ana Kriegal was bullied online, and in person. People – adults – were aware that she was being bullied, and they chose to do nothing. Before she started secondary school, her resource teacher told Ana’s parents that she was worried for the child’s welfare. Ana was suicidal before she left primary school. She was bullied by children a few years older than she before she even started secondary school.
Nothing effective was done to stop the bullying because we tolerate bullying in Ireland. It flourishes in Irish schools, in Irish companies, in Irish businesses, in Irish institutions. It is a top-down phenomenon, and it thrives because our systems support it: Look at how we treat whistle-blowers, and how we treat victims of bullying.
We neither teach nor model empathy, kindness, and compassion. Such traits are seen as weaknesses. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other that ‘Boys will be boys’, that victims need to ‘toughen up’, be ‘less sensitive’, and learn to ‘cope’. They are told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, even though every person with a pulse knows that simply isn’t true.
The word ‘resilience’ is also bandied about – as if resilience is a good thing, instead of another stick with which to beat victims. In case you’re confused, the word ‘resilience’ suggests that whatever circumstances exist to cause a person’s upset are established; and it is, therefore, incumbent upon an individual to look after themselves. As if the display of symptoms is synonymous with weakness. As if ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness’ are interchangeable.
Yes, Boy A and Boy B caused Ana Kriegal’s death, but we caused them. We – as a society – taught them how to behave. We – as a society – support bullying, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, rape-culture, and male entitlement.
Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit. Specific to sexual assault, the lack of empathy and feelings of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. Research informs us that when entitled individuals do not get what they want, they become hostile or violent.
We live in a society where we attempt to induce outrage and empathy by saying things like ‘Imagine if she were your daughter / sister / niece / cousin / friend’: By so doing, we rob the victim of her personhood. By insinuating that we can only see the victim as worthwhile or empathetic if we can, somehow, re-imagine her as someone like someone we may know speaks volumes about our inability to view a person as worthwhile simply because they exist. That, alone, should be enough without additional qualifiers – real, or imagined.
We need to create a society that is intolerant of bullying, misogyny, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, male entitlement, and rape myths. We can only do that by modelling such intolerance.