No victory in victimhood

 

WE have become a nation of TV viewers, enthralled by the cult of the victim in an age when the publisher and the TV producer often arrive on the scene before the therapist. We have learned to take the most horrendous disclosures in our stride - yet to watch, even at a distance, a courageous and talented young woman slowly fading away through anorexia nervosa is still about as disturbing an experience as the media can offer.

Lavinia Kerwick has enough insight into her illness to know that to die for her cause is a decision which is hers alone, but that doesn't let the rest of, us off the hook. We are more than passive observers in this case.

Her lingering protest against what she sees as the inadequate nine year suspended sentence given to her rapist, William Conry, continues to raise disturbing issues which we have found all too easy to avoid.

Four years after the end of the court case which provoked public outrage, too little has been done for rape victims in the area of legislation. Since Lavinia's case, the DPP has been given the right to appeal rape sentences and we have seen the introduction of victim impact reports, although these are too often, written by unqualified people. In other areas there has been no action. Sentencing remains inconsistent. Therapy for offenders in prison is confined to a small programme at Arbour Hill and there is no monitoring of offenders after release, during probation or on adjourned sentences.

Wouldn't the short, sharp shock of a prison sentence for William Conry, combined with intensive therapy, have been more constructive for both William and Lavinia in the long run? We haven't attempted to deal with this question.

"Some progress has been made, but after so many years it is very disappointing," says Olive Braiden, director of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. "We have a list of 138 recommendations for the Minister for Justice which would make the appalling process easier for the rape victim. The low reporting rate is of enormous concern to me. We need a system people can feel confident in and believe they will get justice from - and we are as far away from that point today as we were so many years ago.

Could it be that in celebrating Lavinia's victimhood, we are distracting ourselves from the urgent issues raised by her case, thus creating even more victims?

Micheline McCormack shies clear of such analysis in Little Girl: The Lavinia Kerwick Story, published in paperback by McCormack Books (£7.99). Instead, we are presented - through no fault of Lavinia's - with the image of her as Romantic Heroine, shrivelling up through anorexia as poets and princesses once faded away from TB. It is an image which sells Lavinia short and which tempts the rest of us into complacency.

The book's cover declares that "this is a book which every "mother or father should insist on their teenage daughter reading." Certainly, Lavinia's extraordinary courage in becoming the first Irish rape victim to tell her story publicly has made her a worthy heroine, but - and Lavinia above all people would surely understand this - is her response to her experience the example we want our daughters to assimilate?

Do we want them to believe that it's almost impossible to recover from a rape when the reality is that there are many successful, happy and fulfilled women and men who have put the experience of rape behind them instead of defining themselves by it? Olive Braiden is concerned that this may be the message unintentionally conveyed by Lavinia's suffering.

Dr Marie Murray, psychologist at St Joseph's child and adolescent unit, Dublin, fears that teenagers may feel encouraged to follow the example of anorexia as an appropriate response to trauma. They may idealise Lavinia's self starvation in the same way that they may not appreciate the true consequences of suicide, believing that "after I kill myself my parents will be nicer to me."

BUT of all the issues raised by Lavinia's story, the most difficult one is this: did Lavinia innocently walk herself into a situation where she could not help but run the real risk of being raped? One startling fact revealed by the book is that Lavinia's self starvation was an instant reaction to the rape. She felt guilty and to blame for the rape from the beginning and as a result she literally never ate another meal. She began to survive on tiny, calculated amounts - an apple sliced into pieces, a yoghurt or dry bran flakes and plenty of cigarettes and water.

McCormack tells us that Lavinia kept thinking how stupid she was to go for a walk with William and felt that people were saying she was asking for it. She became afraid to leave the house. She wanted a slim body that a man would respect. "I didn't want a woman's dirty body," she says.

By the day of the trial in July 1992, her weight had dropped from 10 stone to five and a half stone. On that day, she wanted William Conry to see how terrible she looked. And she wanted the judge to punish William Conry. A sentence would change everything. She'd be clean, she'd eat again.

Instead she heard Mr Justice Fergus Flood adjourn sentencing for one year, stating that he was giving the 18 year old perpetrator, who had apologised and pleaded guilty, "a chance as a human being". Lavinia was led from the courtroom screaming and sobbing out that "he got away with it". The next day, she told the Gerry Ryan radio show: "I just couldn't believe it. He might as well have raped me yesterday again.

On Morning Ireland that same day, barrister Greg Murphy boldly stated what he saw as the subtext of the judge's decision - and this is the attitude which has actually prevailed in the years since. "It is a very emotive issue. These things happen. There must be a distinction between the cold rapist and something which is, at the end of the day, just a matter of consent," Murphy said.

Lavinia, in other words, wasn't raped, she was date raped which supposedly isn't as bad. Just as she had feared, society was subtly confirming that she was to blame. She continued to starve herself as she waited in vain for William Conry to be given a custodial sentence at the sentencing hearing one year later. Only this would redeem her.

Instead, she heard Mr Justice Flood say that there had been "a high degree of intimacy" between William and Lavinia and Conry was now contrite. In description of Sgt John Touhy's evidence, he said that "things got out of hand just went too far".

This distancing language made it sound as if events were beyond William Conry's control; and it is typical of the way we think about rape. Linda Coates of the University of Victoria in Canada, in her book Talking It Away, blames the inadequacy of sentencing directly on such distancing language, which is routinely used to minimise male responsibility.

The judge also said that the reports submitted were "very positive" for Conry and indicated "a clear desire on his part to face up to a situation that he alone brought about". He had shown "real and convincing remorse virtually from the moment of commission of the crime" and reports showed that remorse continued with a manifest intention to try to rehabilitate himself into society.

Liz McManus, TD, interpreted the judge as saying that "yes, this is rape, but there were all these other stances to be taken into account. Because of this, women could be raped and could be unclear about where the law stood in relation to particular categories of the crime. This has to be clarified and clarified very urgently. Otherwise, are we saying to women, if you get intimate you get raped?"

FOUR years later, we still have not attempted to answer this, question. Is there actually such a thing as unequal desire, in which two people in an intimate situation suddenly find themselves going past a point of no return, where one person cannot by their biological nature control their desire for sexual intercourse even though the other does not want it?

Fortunately, most men know how to control themselves - but "many other's use the excuse of the male as uncontrollable monster to give themselves permission to rape. "Rape is not an act of violence. It is an act of men who enjoy violent sex," says Olive Braiden.

She believes that acquaintance rape is the kind of issue which has to be discussed in schools. Lavinia has said that she was naive and had no idea of the risk she was taking. If the Lavinia Kerwick case teaches us anything, it is the crying need for sex education, Braiden believes. She is concerned that too many young women are entering sexual encounters without understanding the implications.

Many are accepting the feminist - and idealist - point of view that a woman should have the power to say no to sexual intercourse, even when two people are willingly lying together engaged in foreplay. The ideal man may ask permission at each stage of sexual activity, but are all young people psychologically equipped to cope with such sophisticated communication?

Instead of enlightening young people about sexual behaviour as a complex form of human interaction, we are still allowing them to retain the nonsensical notion that women are temptresses and men loose cannons who cannot control themselves. To prevent other young women from being hurt as Lavinia was - and to prevent young men from inflicting such hurt - we need to address this fundamental issue through sex education in schools.

It is the least that we owe Lavinia Kerwick for her courage in exposing her pain. We owe her this more than we, owe her our pity.