Getting justice after rape
High-profile rape cases and an intimidating court process can discourage women from reporting an attack. But the conviction rate is high – and the outcome can be healing
Nicola Furlong: victim of sexual assault and murder
Convicted: Ohio footballers Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who were found guilty this week of raping a drunk classmate last summer. Photograph: Keith Srakocic/Reuters
You went to a party, got drunk, hooked up with a guy and it went too far. You didn’t want sexual penetration, but he did it anyway. If you said you were raped, would anyone believe you? Or would they blame you? Who do you tell?
“Just tell someone,” says Caroline Counihan, the legal director of Rape Crisis Network. If you are a victim, or even wonder whether you are, ring a local rape-crisis helpline or Dublin Rape Crisis’s 24-hour line.
But would you dare? You’ve heard about the case of the Ohio footballers, in which the unconscious victim of two high-school football heroes, aged 16 and 17, convicted this week, was a drunk 16-year-old girl at a party. Her abuse was photographed, tweeted and given disgusting commentary on social media. She has been vilified and blamed by a community that does not see unconsciousness as a defence.
You’ve also heard about Nicola Furlong, the victim of sexual assault and murder, whose reputation was shredded by the defendant in a Japanese court. Closer to home, you might remember that in December 2009 a man convicted of sexual assault had a crowd of 50 supporters queuing to shake his hand on the steps of Tralee Circuit Criminal Court.
Cases such as these “discourage women from reporting”, says Counihan. “I have heard it said it’s better not to report rape; from male barristers, mostly.”
Only 20 per cent of victims report it. Of those who go to the Garda, only one-third see their cases prosecuted, although, of these, 75 per cent result in convictions. But what of the 80 per cent who are too afraid to report it?
Among the many rape victims Counihan has listened to, she says, “There is a huge preoccupation with how the community will react. Will the world find out? Will his family find out?”
Nine out of 10 women know and usually trust their assailants. “Women say, ‘I live in a small town and I’m afraid everyone will know.’ They’re afraid information will leak out unintentionally, or intentionally through the malevolence of his friends or family. The fear of being branded a slag is huge, ” says Counihan.
As shown by the social-media storm around the Ohio case, the belittling of rape is endemic. Porn normalises it, while reality TV depicts getting off your face and having spontaneous sex as “normal”, sending the message that intoxication is a signal that a person wants sex, making alcohol the ultimate date-rape drug.
Many victims are so shocked by the rape that, as a psychological defence, they go into denial about it. Days, weeks and even years may pass before they dare to tell a soul. They may be silent out of shame, or out of fear of reprisals by their assailant and his family. “In some parts of the country, people are right to be scared to report,” Counihan says.
But should this stop people reporting such crimes? If victims call a confidential rape-crisis line, a trained counsellor will listen and guide them through their choices, but the Garda will not be alerted unless the victims choose to report.