Out of Control Shaming: an RCNI reply to criticism of our call for victim blaming ad to be removed

For Shame

Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) made a public statement about the messaging in a Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign’s rolemodels ad, which we found shocking and unhelpful in terms of issues around sexual violence. Since then those opposing our viewpoint have not only said we are mistaken in our interpretation of the messaging, that what we saw was not what we should have seen, but indeed despite the campaign’s call for a debate that us raising questions about the messaging was unworthy and somehow damaging to ourselves.

What we saw was an ad portraying a young woman who has returned home from a night out drinking. She is depicted as visibly distressed – something bad happened to her. In isolation that bad thing could be anything. But add the tag line containing the words ‘following’ and ‘footsteps’, and it begins to tap into girls’ and women’s fears of our vulnerability to assault while walking home, drunk and alone, late at night giving an inference of sexual assault. Add the message about ‘consequences’ and ‘role modeling’ and you have an inference of victim-blaming.

As one of the leading specialist bodies on sexual violence in Ireland with an expertise of both how sexual violence is perpetrated and on whom as well as how sexual violence is explained, understood and hidden in our culture, this was what we saw. Having seen that message which we know to be unhelpful and damaging we put out a public statement. The Board of Out of Control responded by saying we should be ashamed of ourselves.

At the time the Board of Stop Out-of-Control Drinking accused me as spokesperson for Rape Crisis Network of ‘wildly’ misunderstanding, making a ‘series of completely inaccurate claims’ and amongst other things, of making ‘entirely unworthy assertions’ – shame on me! Many other commentators weighed in, including Matt Cooper on these pages, echoing the tone of paternalistic censure of the campaign Board and asserting their interpretation of the ad which is at odds with the RCNI’s. The Board also said they would continue to run the ad and the campaign.

Shame is a theme that runs through the ad campaign which we objected to and is also a strong theme in sexual violence. Shame is a powerful and visceral personal feeling which can be used to make people look anew at their behavior. Therefore it can be seen as a useful tool in creating cultural change towards preventing alcohol harm or sexual violence, both of which necessitates naming uncomfortable truths. But naming uncomfortable truths about alcohol harm by promoting shaming and threatening tropes about young women’s vulnerability to sexual violence is not justifiable because the end result of shaming rape survivors is silence and added trauma.

Another way to look at shame is that it helps maintain social order. It is something that those who are outsiders, discriminated against or are in some way different or disadvantaged are often targeted with. Shame for being unemployed, being gay, for being poor, for having different needs because of being differently abled, shame for being Muslim, for being old, shame for being a teenage mother, a ‘working mother’, an addict, a migrant, a victim!

Shame tells us our place in the world or more importantly it tells us when our presence, our actions, choices or our misfortunes are unsettling or burdensome to the status quo. Shame helps keeps us all in our place. Those who feel least shame tend to be the privileged who aren’t generally targeted for lessons in silencing. By extension they are likely to be the last to see or understand the impact of others’ shaming, they simply don’t have the training.

In our culture it is unfortunately commonplace to ascribe shame to victims of sexual violence, and many survivors struggle with those internalized feelings. We often hear survivors’ choices and actions, particularly their choice not to disclose, being described as motivated by shame. This is both disrespectful and underhanded as it makes disclosure all about survivors’ responsibilities and choices and nothing about the context within which they find themselves over which society as a whole has control and responsibility.

The shame we heap on survivors helps us avoid our responsibility to make change happen to make it safer and easier for survivors to break their silence. For if the problem is survivors’ shame then the cure is survivor ‘treatment’ sometimes combined with pressure to ‘do the right thing’. Thus we avoid asking hard questions about garda resourcing, practice and specialization, about our laws and our courts, about our prison and rehabilitation systems, about our risk assessment and monitoring regimes. And for all of us it helps us avoid the questions about how we respond to a loved one or someone in our community disclosing, because each disclosure challenges us to do the right thing and doing the right thing can come with costs.

We also very commonly hear victims’ choices in the immediate run up to being targeted for assault as cause for shame and blame; why did she choose that route home, why did she go home with him, why did she wear such a revealing dress on a Thursday and yes, easily the most popular one in Ireland, why did she get herself so drunk? These shaming questions makes it at least in part her fault and therefore the perpetrator is at least partly off the hook and so are we. This blaming silences victims.

It is vital that we challenge that shaming and silencing of survivors of sexual violence and it is the RCNI’s role to do so.

We challenged the shaming of women and particularly young women made vulnerable by alcohol consumption that was being activated in the Rolemodels ads. The ad depicting two females one upset home from a night out drinking and one in the doorway behind in a nightgown. The upset girl’s misfortune it is inferred was caused by her out of control drinking, any perpetrator is out of the frame.

Let’s clear up one thing, the figure behind in the doorway I presumed to be the young woman’s mother. I was wrong. Out-of-Control have explained it was meant to depict a younger sister. This is a much more plausible interpretation. Of course this makes the messaging even worse than I originally thought.

The Out-of-Control board of 10 men and 5 women (before subsequent resignations), all leaders in their fields with a median age leaning towards the upper end, and some of whom I have worked with and respect for their commitment in their relative fields, tell us that

when they signed off on the ad they did not see the inference that I named. I believe them. The point of course isn’t that they put it there, which I don’t believe they did, the point is that it is there!

Out-of-Control’s public response condemning the RCNI’s statement says that ‘nobody associated with this campaign would tolerate for a minute the inference that victims of sexual assault are ever to blame.’ I believed that too. That inference in the ad has now been pointed out to them by RCNI and a quick glance at social media can confirm that it is one many others also take from the ad. Yet their response in turn has been to defend the ad and state they will continue to run it despite RCNI’s ‘unworthy’ interjection. This is perhaps explained in the next line of their statement which says, we ‘would never allow [my emphasis] any untrue inference of that kind.’

The reading I or anyone takes from the ad is, I’m afraid, not in their power to allow or disallow. With respect to the audience the unpalatable, albeit unintended, inference that many take from this ad is such that it should at least be deserving of reflection.

Clíona Saidléar

RCNI Acting Executive Director

There are no shades of grey around sexual consent

There are no shades of grey around sexual consent

Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is just fantasy – but inexperienced young people are vulnerable to the mixed signals presented in this big screen blockbuster.

RAPE IS WRONG. No question. But consent? Well, there are all sorts of shades of grey, right? Not only do we get told the greyness of consent is realistic we also get sold a notion that it is, in fact, sexy. So where is the harm?

The harm for a victim of sexual violence is that we live in a culture where there are questions about rape. The questions range from why did you accept a lift from him? Why did you wear those skimpy clothes? Why did you get so drunk? All of these questions are nonsense, of course; when it comes to rape the only sensible questions that will give us any helpful insight are for the rapists.

When sexual consent is ambiguous, this means that for many survivors of rape, silence and isolation are their only options. If we think of consent as endless shades of grey then we help to sustain a society where perpetrators of sexual violence get away with it.

We should be critical consumers of the Fifty Shades of Grey fantasy

In particular, we are setting young girls up to accept and tolerate abuse and coercion. It is against this background we should be critical consumers of the cultural phenomenon that Fifty Shades of Grey has come to represent.

This book that is marketed as an epic love story, in reality it is nothing more than a glamorised, abusive relationship. Young people are especially vulnerable to the mixed signals delivered here. If your partner monitors your phone it is not romantic; if he tells you what to wear, what to eat and when to exercise it isn’t out of mere concern; if he shows up at your home before you have told him where you live, it is not sweet; if he hits you it is not love. It is control and it is abuse.

But this is ‘make believe’ so why does it matter? The truth is we have serious gaps in how we address gender equality. One of the most serious that the RCNI have been flagging for some time now is the prevalence of sexual harrasment and assaults that are experienced in schools. The casual corridor gropings and name callings that are minismised and we are told to not make a fuss about.

What does it mean when a young girl experiences assault and is told that her best option is to not ‘make a fuss’. What we have taught her is tolerance to sexual abuse. Fifty Shades of Grey is part of that continuum that teachs us that the ‘inevitable’ gendered sexual abuse environment is something we should tolerate rather than something intolerable we must challenge as a matter of right and justice.

Abusive relationships are being promoted as something good

At present, schools in Ireland do not have a National Policy to deal with issues of sexual harassment or sexual violence. There has also yet to be any concrete research carried out on school children and their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. Although a recent study carried out by Trinity College Dublin has found that, out of 1,038 male and female college students surveyed last year, 25% of women and 5% of men have been subjected to an unwanted sexual experience.

Fifty Shades of Grey completely bypasses consent and focuses on the pleasure and wants of Christian, regardless of how Ana feels about it. The results of this is that controlling and abusive relationships are being promoted as something good and, indeed, desirable.

Sexual consent and power are important themes here. In this scenario, sex is an entitlement of the powerful and privileged Christian. In Ireland we have become very conscious of power and the abuse of power, particularly when it comes to sex.

What messages are we giving young, inexperienced people?

We need to be aware of the message we are sending for young people. What are we telling a 17-year-old female that she should be looking for in a prospective partner? Is it controlling and abusive behaviour? By the same token, are we telling boys that this kind of behaviour will be valued? In 2013 RCNI National Rape Crisis Statistics Report found that 14% of perpetrators of sexual violence against survivors coming to Rape Crisis Centres were under the age of 18, this number is increasing every year.

Right now schools are ill-equipped to deal with the rising problem of sexual harassment that is going on inside our classrooms. More research needs to be done to show just how widespread the problem is so we can implement adequate protective measures that stop incidents from happening through policy and training. When teenagers are in an environment surrounded by these kinds of messages we need to be empowering them around safety. We need to teach our children the importance of boundaries, consent and respect, especially in relationships, as it is not something they will learn from this big screen blockbuster.

Clíona Saidléar

RCNI Director

 

 

 

Making choice to seek help is a big decision – 80% of sexual violence cases go unreported

About 80% of all survivors of sexual violence do not report to the gardaí.

A damning figure which the Government and stakeholders such as ourselves are working to improve.

To do so the question we must answer is why are such significant numbers of survivors making this choice?

Survivors are women, men, and children from all walks of life, who are making in fact a series of choices, about something that has the potential to have a massive impact on their lives.

Survivors live under a range of circumstances.

They may have families, loved ones, friends, jobs, dependents, illnesses, children, caring responsibilities, exams, bills, debts, mortgages, and all the myriad dilemmas, big and small that people deal with everyday all over Ireland, from do I move house to what shall I have for dinner tonight.

When someone is raped or sexually assaulted, then they have another set of choices. But those choices are not made in isolation, they are made in the context of complete lives.

What will reporting mean to my partner, how will I protect my children, will it affect my career, will it cost me financially, can I afford it, is there a risk that I will be approached by the perpetrator when I go to the supermarket to pick up dinner?

And filtering all those questions will be what survivors might know or believe about attitudes in society, how the justice process works, and what will be asked of them.

It is in that context that many people read the latest sexual assault case appearing in the papers. Each case informs a survivor about what they might expect and indeed risk if they were to report.

A survivor who has just been raped may need medical attention, may be afraid for their safety. They may worry about how others will react.

They may fear the doctor’s or the guard’s reaction. They may wonder who is going to be on their side if they feel overwhelmed.

And on top of that, maybe they don’t speak English, are new to Ireland and don’t know how the hospital and police system works and they are not aware of any support services and how to begin to access them.

Under these circumstances, making the choice to seek help or report is a big decision and getting through the right door is an enormous achievement.

From that moment on it is up to the professionals, the support services and the justice system to make the system work for the survivor, never the other way around.

That means creating the space and conditions for survivors to be heard and listened to; it means supporting the survivor to identify their needs and to meet them where possible; it means giving the survivor the information they need in a way they can understand and hear.

It means seeking and acting upon a survivor’s consent for what happens next.

What happens next might mean a visit to the sexual assault treatment unit where medical and nursing specialists, An Garda Síochána and a rape crisis support worker will meet them.

Those professionals will work to ensure the survivor gets the range of responses and information they need. The survivor will be offered facilities and the privacy to have a shower and a fresh change of clothes. There will be follow up the next day.

Ideally, if they decide to proceed, the gardaí will take a statement in a way that is comfortable and right for the survivor, whether that is supplying the right translator or ensuring the interview is in the local rape crisis centre and not the police station.

The investigation, by a specially trained garda, will be thorough and expert.

Ideally, the survivor can begin counselling with a specialist rape crisis counsellor without having to wait on a waiting list.

They will have been given the name of a guard who will liaise with them and keep in touch throughout.

The survivor will be accompanied and supported and will feel they are treated with respect and dignity in the courtroom.

If their case is not put to trial the reasons will be explained to them by the DPP’s office.

Their loved ones, colleagues and community will be supportive and will not blame or judge them. At all times they will feel safe and empowered in the process.

When all too often these things don’t happen for reasons of bad practice, lack of specialisation or resources or lack of priority, we cannot blame survivors for making the choice not to report.

Increasing the numbers of survivors who choose to report is about changing what happens next to make that choice not only cost less for survivors but ultimately an experience of positive vindication.

Clíona Saidléar is acting director with Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

This piece was originally published by the Irish Examiner on Monday, January 26th 2015, a link can be found here.

Speech by Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice & Equality Dáil Éireann

Statements on allegations regarding sexual abuse by members of the Provisional Republican Movement
Speech by Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice & Equality Dáil Éireann

12th November 2014

In my previous Ministerial role I often noted that child abuse hasn’t gone away.
Regrettably this applies not solely to child abuse. Sexual violence generally doesn’t go away. It persists as a dark stain on our humanity. It is amongst the most devastating of human experiences.

This morning I launched the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland National Statistics Report for 2013. The statistics in such reports never fail to shock. In 2013, 91% of perpetrators were known to the survivors.

The stark reality is that abuse and sexual violence happens in many settings, settings known to victims, by persons known to victims. Abuse occurred in religious dioceses and congregations; in institutions, both religious and state-run; and in sporting organisations. In the UK we have seen how sex abuse prevailed in show-business circles. Now, thanks to very public and courageous effort by one Belfast woman, Mairia Cahill, we know that sexual abuse occurred in circles of the republic movement.

Mairia was the victim of a heinous sexual abuse. But Mairia was also the victim of something else, equally heinous. She was the victim of cover-up.
She was the victim of a culture that sought to deal with abuse within a closed setting or institution, a culture which ultimately fails the victim while protecting the offender from the public rule of law, laws enacted by this Oireachtas.
While we now know of many of the settings in which cover-up of abuse took place, many questions remain. In the case of the IRA, we do not know what happened to abusers who were moved across the border. We do not know if high risk sex offenders have been resettled across the border, unknown to civil authorities, posing a lingering threat to children.

I note that Deputy Adams wrote a blog on 19th October titled “How republicans dealt with allegations of child abuse” in which he referred to how the IRA took “action against rapists and child abusers” including shooting or expelling offenders. However, despite Deputy Adams’ call for reporting, it still remains unclear as to how much Deputy Adams knows about the movement of sex offenders across the border. This matter is being currently investigated by An Garda Síochána.

Deputy Adams: Do you have any information on this specific matter which you have not shared with Gardai? Will you share this information with Gardai?

I would remind the House that this Government brought in the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information) Act 2012. Under that Act, withholding information on a serious sexual or violent offence committed against a child or a vulnerable person is itself an offence. There is a duty on everyone to provide information to the Garda Síochána where that information concerns serious offences perpetrated against the vulnerable in society.

Neither sexual violence, nor a culture of private justice or cover-up, can be tolerated, in any form, in any context, in any circumstance by any political leader or Government, or any member of society.

But for all we know about abuse and sexual violence, what is even more frightening is what we don’t know: The abuse and violence which occurs in silence; the abuse and violence which is never reported. The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland Report which I published today shows that in 2013, only 48% of survivors of adult sexual violence reported to a formal authority. Contacts to Rape Crisis helplines throughout Ireland, saw an increase of 11% from 2012 figures. This highlights the important work that the Rape Crisis Centres do, work I wish to commend on the record of this House. However a reporting rate of 48% is far too low.

As Children’s Minister I led a high-profile effort, built around the publication of the Cloyne Report and the re-launch of Children First guidelines, to raise public awareness of the absolute need to report all child protection concerns to the civil authorities. This worked, leading to an approximate one third increase in referrals to child protection services in 2012 compared to 2011.

It is my firm belief that we must ensure a similar cross-society approach to all forms of sexual violence, in all settings. We must ensure that no barrier, no hesitation, no doubt ever comes in the way of reporting suspicions or concerns regarding the occurrence or risk of sexual abuse.

I also hope the very public efforts of Mairia Cahill, while undoubtedly a testing period for her; will nonetheless have a broader impact in empowering other victims, suffering in silence, to come forward. In this debate we heard of reports of more women who were victims of sexual violence by persons holding position in the republican movement. Some of these victims are now coming forward. I hope all victims can be supported to come forward.

I wish to commend the comments, in this House today, by my colleague Deputy Regina Doherty and her statement that she has made an appointment with Gardai to pass on information she has received. Her action is an example to us all. Her actions are an example to Deputy Adams and members of Sinn Féin, who should similarly seek appointment with Gardai to pass on what they know.

Before I conclude, I must of course say that I am not blind to the broader challenges that can be faced by victim. These challenges were brought into sharp focus in the report of the Garda Inspectorate published yesterday.

As Minister for Justice & Equality, it is my intention to legislate for victims rights and to ensure the implementation in Ireland during 2015 of the EU Victims Directive. In addition I welcome the plans underway by an An Garda Síochána which will see new Victim Liaison Offices established in each Garda division during 2015. I am also bringing forward a new Sexual Offences bill and I intend to introduce consolidated and reformed domestic violence legislation which will allow Ireland to sign and ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence

Abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence all sit on a continuum of offending and suffering which should never find succour in any contemporary, humane society. Together, we must ensure that cover-ups are again never entertained and that reporting of concerns becomes the norm. As Minister I will do all I can to crystallise such a cultural shift while ensuring that the laws and services of this state, for which I have responsibility, are fit for purpose and put victims first.

ENDS

 

Failure of Government Strategy and the Sexual Violence Crisis

In 2014 six years of cumulative cuts of up to 30% saw the temporary closure of services by one of Ireland’s largest rape crisis centres. Yet six years of cuts and public funding shrinking has been accompanied by a very significant rise in demand on services nationwide – with a 28% increase in clients accessing services between 2009 and 2012. The 2.5% cap on cuts promised by Tusla: the Child and Family Agency for 2014 was recently increased to a 3.5% cut, in many instances with no notice to services.

The impact on rape crisis centres doing more with less has a direct impact on victims of rape using or wanting to use the services – less helpline hours, longer waiting times, shorter opening hours, cessation of outreach and prevention work to some of the most vulnerable in our society. Of greatest concern is that services are less available to victims at their time of need – when they first reach out for specialist support – often in a time of crisis.

Further cuts are predicted in 2015 as any increased public spending is not a priority for post-recession Ireland. In this context what can we in Ireland anticipate in the next few years in terms of responding to rape and sexual violence crimes, looking after victims of appalling, life altering crimes and preventing these crimes from destroying even more lives and families?

Sexual violence, and all forms of gender-based violence, can be addressed and significantly prevented in the first place. Recovery from crimes of sexual violence, whether experienced in childhood, adulthood or both, is possible and happens. The pathways to recovery vary greatly, it is far from being a neat, step by step path, as every woman, man and child who has experienced sexual violence knows only too well. Specialist support is often critical.

The Irish government is drafting the new National Strategy for Sexual Violence for the coming years. Sexual violence policy impacts across multiple departments including children, health, justice, education, local government. There is every indication that the Sexual Violence Strategy will be designed in terms of what Ireland can ‘afford’ – meaning what can be achieved in decreasing public budgets and further cuts. It is important to put on the public record that this would be nothing less than a spectacular failure in terms of what Ireland must do to provide a meaningful response to victims of sexual violence.

A strategy which does not set-out to achieve secure accessible services and coordinated national prevention is a strategy which fails children, women and men in Ireland. Every single department must have a comprehensive prevention strategy. The current patchwork of frontlines operate on less than half of the real budgets required – this must be addressed.

Responding to survivors’ needs must be a priority for the state because it is right. In addition from 2015 under an EU Directive Ireland will be at risk of enforcement proceedings, including financial penalties, if its obligations to provide support services to victims are not reflected in our law. And yet, response services such as Rape Crisis Centres are struggling to keep their doors open.

The Rape Crisis Network is clear that widespread and on-going crimes of sexual violence in Ireland are not sufficiently prioritised in the current administration. Responding to victims, and developing and delivering prevention programmes, both require increased budgets at this time – and significantly increased budgets.

Both services planning and policy responses must be driven and informed by quality evidence base and analytical capacity – Ireland is very fortune in have access to both, including access to a data collection system that is recognised as a model of best practice at both Irish and EU levels. However, this unique resource, crucial to each department’s discharge of its responsibility, has operated without committed core funding for years and will shortly fall off a cliff if this government does not secure its sustainability.

Based on our experience over the past number of years engaging at policy and practice level, Rape Crisis Network Ireland are not confident that the current roadmap will deliver the necessary and long overdue response and dedicated leadership required. What we need is a government willing to do what is needed to respond appropriately to the issue of sexual violence. As survivors striving to overcome the desolation wrought by rape are only too aware, sometimes, especially when you have nothing left to give, you have to dig deeper, go further, and do more.

 

Fiona Neary, Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) Director

The Rape Crisis Network detailed and comprehensive Submission to the National Strategy of Gender Based Violence is available on our website at: www.rcni.ie/publications/submissions-and-policy-papers/

Column: Policy needed on sexually harmful behaviour in schools

RCNI call on the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, to make 2015 the year that schools became environments free from sexual violence.

The journey from the moment of a sexual assault to the moment of confiding in someone who can support you is always a journey taken alone by every victim. But it does not have to be an unsupported journey. Consider the 14 year old girl who has just had her breast grabbed in her school corridor, what have we told her that will help her make the choice to cross the corridor to a member of staff and name and report what has just happened to her so that the school can step in with a set of supportive and appropriate actions under our Child Protection regime? In all too many cases, we had already failed her even before she was assaulted because we told her all too little that would help her in this moment.

As secondary schools reopen for the 2015/2016 year RCNI invite the Minister for Education and Skills and her cabinet colleagues to take up the very real opportunity of freeing schools from all forms of sexual violence and from any threat of sexual violence.
Sexual violence remains prevalent in our society with teenage girls a particularly vulnerable group. RCNI in fact revealed last year that of all the teenagers using Rape Crisis services nationwide 37% of them were abused by their peers. Due to a lack of research resources directed at understanding sexual violence in Ireland, we do not know to what extent sexual harassment and sexual violence occurs within school settings.

However, when sexual violence in schools was looked at in the Netherlands back in 2002, (Timmerman) of 2,808 students surveyed (aged 15—16 years) 18 per cent reported unwanted sexual experiences at school in the past 12 months, 72 per cent of whom were girls. A Swedish study in 2005 (Witkowska and Menckel) surveying 1,080 young people aged 17 to 18 years found that 49 per cent of respondents identified sexual harassment as a problem in school. An Australian study in 2008 (Schute et al) found that verbal and indirect victimisation of girls by boys was an everyday occurrence and almost entirely sexual.

While sexually harmful behaviour is not confined to mixed gender schools international research would indicate that onsite offending is higher than in single sex schools. According to the Dept. of Education 65% of 367,178 second level students attend co-ed schools and colleges across Ireland – approximately 237,000 children between 11 and 18. Yet we do not have a national policy and action plan for schools on how to prevent sexual harassment and violence.

No child should have to attend a learning environment, under the care of the State, where they risk experiencing verbal, cyber and indeed physical sexual assaults during a school day. No parent should be required to send their children to attend an institution which is notproactively ensuring the safety of their children from such harm.

The Dept. of Education is missing important opportunities to support and reinforce child protection strategies given the absence of the development and roll-out of a national schools policy on sexual violence prevention. Such a prevention strategy could ideally start by addressing the gap in evidence on the nature and extent of any sexual harassment and sexual violence that students experience while in learning environments, thus equipping informed prevention.

Proactively promoting a ‘whole of school’ culture of zero-tolerance to sexual harassment and sexually harmful behaviours can greatly enhance existing child protection responses under Children First. In a school that has an explicit anti-sexual harassment policy every child should be confident that the school community already has their back, even before they are victimised thus making reporting more likely and reducing the chance of there being negative consequences for the children reporting.

It is important that we teach our intolerance of sexual violence; that this needs to be done explicitly is unfortunately evidenced by the continued rates of prevalence.

A school with a culture of zero-tolerance to harmful sexual behaviours is a school in which students are equipped to identify such behaviour easily – whether virtual or otherwise – and each student knows through the schools visual environment and explicitly voiced attitude that such behaviour is never tolerated, minimised or dismissed.

Supporting such a culture also includes meeting our obligations to children through giving them information and facts about relationships and sex. This means biological, factual and unbiased information and crucially it also means information regarding relationships and empowerment around good communications and negotiating consent safely. The curriculum, both in terms of content and in terms of its optional delivery to children, falls short on both counts.

A ‘Whole of School’ zero tolerance to sexually harmful behaviour will also consider the school’s role in ensuring the minimal disruption to education for any victim and any child perpetrator.

RCNI invite and encourage Minister Jan O’Sullivan to take a lead in partnership with other areas of government, including justice, children and youth affairs, to initiate the development of a holistic ‘Whole of school’ zero tolerance of sexually harmful behaviour.

This column was published on the Independent.ie on Sepember 9th, 2014. You can read the original here.

Role of Alcohol in Sexual Violence

This table featured in Dr. Antonia Abbey‘s presentation for the launch of ‘Young People, Alcohol and Sex: What’s consent got to do with it?’. It compares how alcohol affects victims and perpetrators before, during and after a sexual assault.Alcohol role sexual violence

We could do worse than listen to what Beyonce has to say about sexuality

TIME to stop being coy in this age about the age of consent? Beyoncé’s new ‘visual’ album is, it has to be said, filthy. In a year that saw many public discussions on culture, sexually objectifying imagery, and sexual violence, it is fitting that the year ended with the release of this album.

In the same week as Beyoncé released her album, the final Cabinet meeing of the year tabled the Labour Party’s policy to lower the age of consent to align with ‘current social practices’, to quote Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. The Government could do worse than tune into the Beyoncé album if they wish to know more, for stamped across Beyoncé’s self-titled album, in every song and video are statements about current social practices for girls, for women, about sex, love, and gender.

Current social practice in Ireland is that the majority of children seeking support in Rape Crisis Centers in 2011 in Ireland are abused by someone they know, and 37% of them were abused by another child. Yet much current social practice is to coyly recast the rapes teenage boys commit against teenage girls as romantic, star-crossed love.

The fact is that, in our society, the older child is exceptionally vulnerable to sexual violence and that sexual violence is highly likely to be misunderstood, minimised, and denied. If we are serious about addressing this crisis then lowering the age of consent is altogether the wrong starting point.

Many of the conversations we have had in 2013 were about the ways the female body is objectified, sexualised, visual fodder in particular in pop culture. We have attempted to understand the impact of this phenomenon on young girls (rarely did we ask about the impact on boys). We went to uncomfortable places, yet one aspect we avoided talking about was, oddly enough, sexuality.

We all commented upon that Miley Cyrus twerking incident, how she stripped down and sexually objectified herself with a disinterested man almost twice her age, but we were too coy to discuss how the most uncomfortable part of it all may have been that she did it all so sexlessly.

Enter Beyoncé. In her new album, she takes on race, religion, poverty, misogyny, sexual objectification, and gender but, most of all, she takes on dehumanisation. Beyoncé takes up her position at the heart of one of the most powerful sources of misogynistic sexualisation, and pornographication — modern R&B — and radically simply tells us about her sexuality; raw, explicit, honest, erotic, complicated, holistic, pleasurable, fierce, delirious, fragile, hard, and altogether human.

To say Beyoncé’s album and its imagery is unashamedly sexual feels like a misrepresentation, since such utterings are normally associated with the anodyne misogynistic offerings of the music industry to which we have become inured. Instead, Beyoncé reclaims her sexuality for herself, and perhaps for all of us, in a way that exposes current norms of sexual explicitness as coy and gormless.

Beyoncé, in the video ‘Partition’, explores the erotic sexual fantasies of a woman; in the tender ‘No Angel’, she calls out the dehumanising impacts of poverty and gender with striking images of people all too often stereotyped and either dismissed or feared, and explores the possibility of love in hard places: “Underneath the pretty face is something complicated. I come with a set of trouble but I know that’s why you’re staying, because you are no angel either.”

In the fragile ‘Mine’, she reveals the strain motherhood put on her relationship; In ‘Rocket’, she puts all-but-extinct female sexual pleasure firmly back into the R&B frame.

And she also makes statements about the world in which girls are routinely objectified and diminished.

And throughout Beyoncé is in front of us in a way that would make a pornographer blush, with extreme close-ups which glory in her sexuality but also at times revealing un-airbrushed flaws.

Iin her arguably most political song, she calls out the infrastructure of the current social practices. In hijhab-wearing, midriff-baring, high heel-strutting, thigh-reverberating ‘Superpower’, Beyoncé eschews the patriarchy complicit shades of ‘girl power’, with its false dawn of nihilistic, individual empowerment without consideration for context.

Instead, she chooses ‘Superpower’ to talk about the “laws of the world … a subtle power” (read ‘current social practices’ here) where the revolution will be based on human connectedness, honesty and fragility: “Just like you I can be scared, just like you I hope I’m sparred, it’s tough love.”

Where are we having these conversations in Ireland? Unfortunately, much of our societal, structural, and leadership responses or lack thereof, to teen vulnerability is essentially coy. In Ireland, we have no mandatory sex education in secondary schools. Consent and relationship education is often treated as suspect, while status quo-complicit, victim-blaming safety lists for girls are seen as responsible interventions. There is no national prevalence study of children’s sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours because it was deemed unethical to ask children about the reality of their experiences as recently as 2005.

Where we do measure (adult) cultural knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour of sex and sexual health, we are invariable coy about sexual violence.

The opposite of this coyness is to get serious about understanding the world our children are navigating and to do what we can to support, empower and protect them. To engage in this conversation, rather than lowering the age of consent which permits us to disengage further? If we are looking for some pointers and possible rape prevention, safety messages for young girls, they are on this album.

One example is where Jay Z, rap superstar and also Mr Beyoncé, who in the flagrantly erotic ‘Drunk in Love’ duet with his wife, identifies his key attribute as being, ‘Niceeeee.’ In today’s culture that’s a powerful anti-rape message and it’s one for the boys.

Yes, the age of consent is an arbitrary line but, given our current social practices, lowering it is untenable. Instead we must work together to make it redundant. It will be redundant when we have a society in which boys understand that being NICE is the coolest and sexiest thing, where equality is hot, and a female’s body is always her own.

To make that a reality, we need leadership and commitment, and for our education system to support and empower young people towards the possibility of experiencing not only safe but a self-defined and fulfilling sexuality, when and if they so choose.

In short, in the face of social realities we need a leadership that is less coy and more Beyoncé about sex!

Column: Why is only sexual abuse involving physical violence deemed ‘real’?

Former newspaper tycoon Eddy Shah’s has claimed some underage girls are to blame for their own sexual abuse, highlighting the persistence of the ‘she was asking for it’ narrative, writes Clíona Saidléar.

CHILDREN WILL BE children, especially teenagers it seems, and what is an older, powerful man to do if they will throw themselves at him? This was the plea made by Mr Eddy Shah this weekend when he described the ongoing UK investigations of certain men’s sexual activity with underage children, largely girls, as ‘easy policing’, ‘easy prosecutions’ and a ‘witch hunt’.

What he clearly expressed was the understanding that sexual violence committed by coercion, deceit and manipulation was largely a victim’s own fault, and this standard to even apply when the victim was a child. In contrast sexual violence that is committed with physical violence is deemed ‘real’. Yet the majority of sexual violence involves power and coercion and little if any physical violence.

Mr Shah, who was recently cleared of raping a girl between the age of 12 and 15, came out with a set of statements about powerful men (of whom he is one) and celebrities engaging in sexual activity with underage girls. He asked us to have sympathy for those men, whom he does not deny had sex with minors, who are now being investigated by the police, and rather to direct our ire at the girls and boys involved whom he claims have largely only themselves to blame.

Do the laws of decency not apply to powerful men?

The particular case Mr Shah is making is that the law and common understandings of decency should not apply in the same way to men who were and are famous and powerful. After all a 40 year old man having sex with a 12-year-old is altogether different from a 40 year old famous rockstar bestowing on a 12-year-old the privilege of his sexual attention. While the first are clearly criminal child abusers, the later are not to be held responsible as the children in question most likely threw themselves at the rockstars is the argument being made.

Mr Shah goes on to describe a child’s vulnerability, compounded by the vastly disproportionate power of the older celebrity, as mitigation for abusing that child. Exposed in this argument is an overriding sense of entitlement that sweeps away legal and common sense understandings of child abuse and responsibility. Put simply, positions of power, particularly fame, come with entitlements. Those entitlements include sex, with whomever, and the younger the better.

A sense of entitlement underlies most sexual crimes

As Mr Shah rightly points out children have always wanted to ‘appear adult and do adult things’. Does a person’s – and in particular a child’s –desire to get close to power and fame ever justify abusing and/or taking advantage of that vulnerability? If you take advantage of a grown woman in those circumstances you, at the very least, deserve to be called out as a cad. If you do it to a child you are a child abuser. No ifs, buts or maybes.

The perpetrators’ utopia that Mr Shah describes, with its stark and extreme sense of entitlement, exists in a privileged world of powerful abusers. Yet we should not forget that a sense of entitlement underlies most crimes of sexual violence. Most abusers take what is not given freely because they convince themselves they deserve, have earned or are in some way are entitled, to that other person’s body.

The challenge for us is to take the lesson from this exposure of a culture of entitlement and see how that culture plays out in everyday responses to sexual pressure, coercion and crimes.

This column was published on theJournal.ie on August 8th, 2013. You can read the original here.

Column: The CollegeTimes.ie article endorses the view of women as targets and men as predators

A ‘One Night Stand Guide – For Him’ on the CollegeTimes.ie caused controversy today after it told men to ‘prey’ on women and get them drunk. Cliona Saidlear writes there was nothing satirical about the article.

collegetimes-ie-sex-one-night-stand-2-390x285

Image: College Times.ie

FROM TIME TO time deeply problematic articles are written and published about sex or more precisely how to get it. These are largely but not exclusively penned by young authors and largely but not exclusively published on student and youth platforms. The latest article around which there is considerable discussion is an article published in the College Times on August 6 entitled, ‘One Night Stand Guide: For Him’.

These articles are characterised by an assumption that sexual activity amongst young people in our society is largely generated by men’s insatiable appetite for ‘no strings’ sex and these men’s capacity to trick women into ‘giving it up.’ Women are targets, men the predators.

While it is wearying and perhaps disrespectful to readers’ intelligence to point out the litany of misogyny in these articles and the clearly troubling and dangerous unrelenting assault on any concept of consent, what is less obvious and noted is the misandry that underpins every argument.

Women as sexual objects

Throughout these articles men are assigned a sexual straightjacket. They are encouraged to be opportunistic and manipulative towards fulfilling that narrow sexual objective, ejaculation inside a vagina. From the smorgasbord of sexual experience men are supposed to snatch the dry cracker and reject all other delights, with men being instructed to avoid intimacies such as ‘kissing’ and ‘look[ing] her in the eye’.

Secondly men are expected to be contradictory and duplicitous; sincere yet masters of manipulation, show kindness and compassion while being remorselessly detached and cruel, have honesty and integrity but lie flawlessly. In other words in the battleground of love, relationships and sexual activity men of otherwise sound, decent and good character are understood to operate with an altogether different set of rules. A set of rules that dehumanises and brutalises everyone involved.

When sexual activity and relationships, aspects of the human experience with so much potential for joy and fun, are reduced to a combat zone where the best that can be hoped for is to come out the murderer rather than the prey, there is little left for either sexes to be proud of or hopeful for.

Victimising women

The principal skills men must learn in these how-to guides are about identifying women’s existing vulnerabilities, creating and increasing those vulnerabilities and then exploring the means to use those vulnerabilities to manipulate, pressure and coerce them into unwanted sexual activity. The icing on the cake is how to then humiliate and denigrate the women who have been victimised by these tactics.

The tenuous negotiation of consent described here occurs when the man is instructed to invade a woman’s body space in seemingly innocuous ways, a hand placed on the small of her back, and if the woman does not react with aggression then she is understood to have given the green light.

The women are name called and belittled throughout. In this latest article the author cranks up the misogyny with each paragraph first likening women to dogs, then horses, fish, ducklings, baby gazelles and finally simply as ‘prey’. These dehumanisations underscored by an accompanying cartoon from a popular tv show of a couple in bed with the female depicted as a rhinoceros.

However, much more sinister is the fact that in the final utterance of the article women are humanised again by virtue of the ‘successful’ male ‘hero’ of the piece being likened to a ‘murderer’. Murder being, by definition, something only one human being can do to another.

This article first appeared on theJournal.ie on August 8th, 2013. You can read the original here