Above photo: Last year’s UCD Slut walk
With one in six students in Ireland having an unwanted sexual experience at university, Online Comment & Opinion Editor Ruth Murphy, looks at facts and misconceptions surrounding rape, sexual assault, and consent.
WE have this idea of what a rapist is like. He is a man, dressed in black, lurking in the shadows, who will pounce on an unsuspecting girl, who is probably wearing a short skirt. Many of us would like to deny that this is what comes to mind and many of us indeed only believe parts of this. Nevertheless, it is a prevailing view.
“What was she wearing?” you might ask in your head. It’s not a valid question. Firstly, the victim might not always be female and the perpetrator might not be male. A 2001 survey carried out on behalf of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre found that “One in three women and one in four men have experienced sexual assault.” It may happen to more women but men are less likely to report it. According to the DRCC “research found that only 1% of men and 8% of women report rape or sexual assault to the Gardaí.” Why the gap in figures? Well it is much easier to tick a box on a survey then report an assault to the Gardaí and go to trial.
Secondly, while you might think that “looking sexy” makes you more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted this is in fact untrue. A booklet published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre in 2014 on Rape and Sexual Assault stated that “research shows that the primary motivation in rape and sexual assault is the meeting of the perpetrator’s non-sexual needs for power and domination and their expression of anger, rather than their sexual gratification.” Rapists are not sex addicts but people who want to be dominant and take advantage of a power imbalance caused by, for example, being in a position of authority, physical strength, or even trust.
Why might a victim trust their perpetrator? They usually know them.
Why might a victim trust their perpetrator? They usually know them. The DRCC’s survey “found that 74% of those who experienced rape or sexual assault knew the person who assaulted them. The truth is that most rape and sexual assault takes place within a social or family situation.” This fact can cause much confusion for the victim and even cause them to blame themselves. They might ask themselves “how could this happen?” or even “what did I do to allow this to happen?” This connection is also a deterrent when it comes to reporting rape or sexual assault. This “means that the victim has to continue their life in a context where they may have ongoing contact with the perpetrator.”
We must remember that it would be much easier emotionally to report a stranger than someone you knew and cared for who was connected to your family or social network. According to the DRCC’s 2015 annual report “of the 318 cases where the reporting status was known, 113 cases were reported to the Gardaí, a reporting rate of 35.53%. Of these 113 cases, 1 case was tried, resulting in 1 conviction/guilty plea.” It would be extremely difficult to report a case of rape or sexual assault when you know that the only concrete outcome of you reporting the case is that more people will know that you were raped or sexually assaulted, or as the newspapers report it “allegedly” raped or sexually assaulted.
The words “alleged rape” may be familiar to many UCD students as they were the words used to describe an attack that happened on campus in November. It is rare that you will hear any other description of such an event unless the perpetrator is convicted which we know is unlikely when most rape or sexual assault cases go unreported. A perpetrator is assumed innocent until proven guilty and so we are almost led to believe that the victim must be lying. However, as stated by the DRCC in their informational booklet “A person who reports a rape or sexual assault undergoes a lengthy Garda interview and a medical examination. Months later, she or he faces a court appearance where s/he may be cross-examined on the details of the rape or sexual assault. It is unlikely that a person would put him or herself through such an extended ordeal to substantiate a false allegation, or that an individual could sustain a story which was not true.”
It would be difficult to make up a story and be cross-examined on it without making mistakes and there could be no positive outcome. Even when you tell the truth people may attempt to prove that you are lying. This ordeal is so difficult that we must trust those who say that they have been raped or sexually assaulted.
A perpetrator is assumed innocent until proven guilty and so we are almost led to believe that the victim must be lying.
It is the victim’s word against the perpetrator’s. The perpetrator may deny the assault, and what if they actually believe they did not perform rape or sexual assault? What if the victim is not sure either? This is where the issue of ‘consent’ comes in. Do you remember receiving and giving consent in every sexual encounter you have ever had? We put rape next to murder and so we think that as we are not the sort of person to attack someone on the street or commit vicious crimes, so we do not need to hear about consent. However, it’s not that simple.
You may hear people say things against attending consent classes such as “consent classes won’t stop rapists” or (speaking of themselves) “this is not what a rapist looks like.” Rapists can look like anyone. They can look like your partner, your teacher, your relative, your friend. Consent classes are unlikely to stop that scary man hiding in the shadows but they will help reduce the number of sexual encounters where consent is not given. A smile is not consent. Agreeing to go home with someone is not consent. Agreeing to kissing or certain sexual acts is not consenting to all sex acts. Intoxication due to alcohol or drugs can reduce someone’s ability to give consent or take it away entirely. If someone can hardly walk or speak consent cannot be given.
Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Some might say that “you just know” when someone wants to have sex with you but unfortunately you do not. You have no idea what is going on in someone’s head. If someone trusts you or is scared of you, or feels that they owe you they may not say no to you but that does not mean that they are consenting. Even if you are in a relationship with someone you are never entitled to their body. Consent is not just for certain occasions or certain people. It is for everyone, always.
Consent can be withdrawn at any time.
According to USI, in a video published in The Irish Times, “one in six students has an unwanted sexual experience while in university.” Note the wording “unwanted sexual experience.” Many of us would say that we have never been raped or sexually assaulted but an unwanted sexual experience is something we are more likely to admit that we have encountered. In the same video, Noeline Blackwell of the DRCC said that many people would come to them and say “I wasn’t raped but…” Many victims and perpetrators have difficulty fathoming where the encounter went from consensual to non-consensual.
Next time you have sex, if that is something you engage in, remember to ask for consent. Do not worry about it being a mood killer. If somewhere in the back of your mind you feel that your reason for not asking is that you are afraid that they will say no think about the problem with that. Also, it is sexy to hear someone say confidently that they went to have sex with you. So ask.
Next time you have sex, if that is something you engage in, remember to ask for consent.
We need to change the way we think about consent, sex, and rape, as a university, as students and as a society. Talk to people about consent. Whether you are sure of its meaning or not, discuss it with people and educate each other. Discuss it with sexual partners.
Trinity’s Students’ Union released a video about consent featuring some common scenarios where consent is not or cannot be given and one where it is. According to Trinity’s University Times they also passed a motion through student council that mandates consent workshops for students staying in halls. This was following on from a survey carried out by the union which found that of the 1038 respondents 25.2% of female students and 4.5% of male students had experienced a “non-consensual sexual experience.” Trinity then also hosted consent workshops.
Last year UCDSU held a “slut walk” where scantily-dressed people marched through UCD with signs such as “My Dress is Not a Yes.” The title, while attention grabbing, just reinstates people’s mental connection between “sluts”, a derogatory term, and sexual assault. Unfortunately, this walk was mostly attended by males who’s bodies are not so scandalous to see uncovered. It appeared more of a parade of the walk of shame then an event to teach people about consent though it did somewhat publicise the issue.
Since then the SU announced that they would host consent classes. All we have seen of these is poorly advertised consent discussions which were only attended by those passionate about consent or the SU. The people from NUIG who came to host these discussions were not informed of how little time they had to perform these workshops. While the discussions were interesting and could be a stepping stone towards consent classes UCDSU has a lot more to do, as do we as members of society.
We need to educate ourselves and our friends about consent, rape, and sexual assault as no matter how much we think we know there is almost always more to learn. Consent is not as easy to identify as some of us might assume.
The Rape Crisis Centre national helpline is open 24 hours a day 1800 77 88 88 and the website is DRCC.ie