‘Make sure you’re the guy on the bike, not Brock Turner’
Off Topic podcast: Sarah Maria Griffin, Roe McDermott and Conor Gallagher discuss what the Stanford case tells us about everyday sexism, and how sexual assault is handled in and out of the courts system in Ireland
The Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin. Conor Gallagher says that trials can often become a “revictimisation for a lot of people and they find it absolutely horrendous”. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Earlier this week, in the wake of the Stanford sexual assault case in the US, the writer and poet Sarah Maria Griffin wrote a series of tweetsthat turned a substantial discussion on what she called the culture of “ambient fear” that women have to live with in Ireland.
Griffin also mentioned how she was tired of the “echo chamber” around sexism. While she and her circle of female friends and colleagues regularly discuss issues around rape, sexism and their own personal experiences of it, she reckons that conversation has reached its limits. It never spreads out into the wider world, she argues, and so nothing will change.
Roe McDermottis a journalist, columnist and a Fulbright Scholar at San Francisco State University’s Sexuality and Sociology Department. She makes the point, on today’s podcast and on this excellent article on The Coven, that the language in cases such as the Stanford one is both fascinating and horrifying. In many rape cases there is plenty of talk about the victim’s past – eg she was “drunk”, or “asking for it” – whereas much of the talk about the perpetrator or the accused is about “his future”, and “what he will now miss out on”.
McDermott references another insidious impact around the language of rape cases. “Female rape is only ‘She said’, as men enjoy the privilege of getting to stay quiet. Men are pleading the fifth, refusing to speak in case they implicate themselves, in case they admit their own propensity for violence.”
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There is also a framing of the narrative around when rape, even when it comes to statistics. And, when challenged, the results are deeply disturbing. The most commonly cited statistic is that one in four women have been the victims of a sexual assault - but when looked at from another angle, McDermott makes the point that this potentially means that one in four men is a rapist.
Conor Gallagher is the managing editor of court reporting agency CCC Nuacht, which covers many of Ireland’s cases of rape and sexual assault. Although alcohol is often mentioned as a mitigating factor in court cases, he says that in Ireland it is not admissible in terms of diminished responsibility. Judges take the view that if a person can decide to have one, two or five drinks, they can also decide on their actions, according to Gallagher.
Roe McDermott argues that for things to change, consent needs to be taught from “day one” and that from an early age young men need to be shown they are not entitled to sex or women’s attention. In society, women are taught to be polite and are set up as gatekeepers for sex, which needs to change. She points out that the majority of sexual-assault cases take place in environments that are not dangerous: “Just because men think they are good people doesn’t mean they always act like good people.”
Sarah Maria Griffin says that women can’t be “treated as prizes or something to be achieved; the body is not something to be fought for, it’s something to be given”. She asks people to “keep an eye out for one another and be kind for one another. If you see something happening or lads been cruel unnecessarily, intervene. The two men who stopped the situation with Brock Turner were two men cycling by. Make sure you’re the guy on the bike, not Brock Turner.”
Conor Gallagher would not advocate changing the defendant’s right to silence, as everyone is entitled to a fair trail. But he points out that “Trials can be conducted in a more humane and sensitive way,” and says the recent EU Victims’ Directives are quite subtle but effective. More positive changes include using “video-link evidence with plenty of breaks, along with help from intermediaries can certainly help, and for victims to simply not be in the same room as the accused.”
He points out that trials can become a “revictimisation for a lot of people and they find it absolutely horrendous. I’ve spoken to a lot of women who said they wished they had never gone through with it, even in cases where there was a conviction. These are small things but they are massively important.”