Readers may find some of the content in this article – in which women and men share experiences of sexual assault – distressing.
“I am old enough to know that there are very few women my age that have not been subjected to some form of sexual assault, and I know this because I am one of them.”
With these words Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan shared her experience in the Dáil recently of surviving sexual assault.
In the days that followed, Irish Times readers came forward to tell their own stories, some putting into words for the first time something that happened years or decades ago.
The stories came and kept coming, more than 40 in all: stories of assault on the street, in bars, in homes, in taxis, at parties, in hotel rooms, in their own beds, on a GP’s examination table.
The root causes of sexual violence need to tackled, including violent porn which is 'hugely damaging to us as women' and should not be normalised
There were stories of one-off assaults on darkened streets, but these were rarer than the stories of abuse at the hands of someone trusted. Many people carried the shame of their assault for years, despite understanding on an intellectual level it was never theirs to carry. Rape myths run deep in our psyches.
The women and men who wrote spoke of anger, distress, survival and hope. “You can choose to be a victim or you can choose to be a survivor. I choose to be a survivor,” said one woman, raped as a 14-year-old.
As we publish some of those stories, Madigan and Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, suggest how we move on from stories to action.
Though the pace of change sometimes seems frustratingly slow, progress is being made, says Blackwell. We’re four years on from #MeToo and still listening to women’s stories, “but we’re 4,000 years from a place where women couldn’t tell their stories. When you say why isn’t more happening – the fact that anything is happening is miraculous.”
Both women welcome the publication of the Department of Justice-commissioned Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (DSGBV) audit this week, which found that the State’s strategy is “deficient in many ways”. It criticises the failure to build “a culture of joint problem-solving” and deficits in policy, funding for services and the absence of data.
“It is vital that Government agencies, gardaí, and the justice system have the full resources they need to address” the issues that give rise to DSGBV, said Madigan, who highlighted the work being carried out by the Department of Justice on a third national strategy.
Her top priorities include action based on the 45 recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality, an increased provision of emergency accommodation for those escaping DSGBV; a referendum to replace article 41.2 in the Constitution to “give a clear and loud signal … that women are equal”; a legal system that makes sure “that victims do not feel re-traumatised”.
The root causes of sexual violence need to tackled, including violent porn which is “hugely damaging to us as women” and should not be normalised, she believes. The sex education curriculum “should reinforce the importance of consent” and a culture of respect for women needs to be fostered from a young age.
For Blackwell there are three top priorities. “The absolute top would be that those who experience sexual violence of any sort have access to all of the services that they need.
Why are too many victims not coming forward? Why are they not reporting their cases to gardaí? What does that say about how we are bringing up our children?
“Item number two would be that for those who carry it out, there are there are adverse consequences for them.
“The third is that there is an extensive programme of awareness, learning about healthy relationships and consensual sexual activity, at school, in society, in workplaces, wherever it is. You can’t just do one of the three.”
Madigan believes the biggest shift of all has to occur in society.
“Why are too many victims not coming forward? Why are they not reporting their cases to gardaí? What does that say about how we are bringing up our children?... Stories are the most powerful tools to change minds on social issues.”
Finally, it is worth saying that though many of the accounts below are distressing and difficult reading, help is available. If you are in a position to report your assault, you should report it.
All of the stories below are republished with permission, and each individual was contacted directly. Some preferred to remain anonymous, and some chose to be identified by their first name only. All identities are known to the journalist.
I was 14 when I was sexually assaulted by my next-door neighbour. He was 65 years old. Back then in 2000, there was never a mention of sexual violence in Ireland. My parents made a complaint to the Garda. The case was prosecuted, resulting in a conviction and prison sentence which was minimal in comparison to the impact the assault had on my life. Despite the fact I was a minor and that the case was heard in camera, in rural Ireland seldom do you maintain anonymity.
There is still some way to go in relation to supporting victims and educating people about the reality of sexual violence
The man who did this to me was well known in the community, and between him and his family managed to convince some people that I had lied. This was despite a guilty plea having been entered at court. To this day those people who believe the word of a convicted sex offender give me dirty looks, say nasty things about me within earshot.
I took a civil action against the perpetrator when I came of age. In my settlement I received a written apology and secured money for the Rape Crisis Network which saved my life. Those people who continue to try and traumatise me in my community don’t know about the perpetrator’s apology or his acceptance of the crime.
Sexual assault has a profound effect on every aspect of your life. It’s something you come to accept, but never forget. Societal attitudes have shifted in the intervening years. People are more open now in speaking up about sexual violence and challenging unacceptable attitudes and behaviours. But there is still some way to go in relation to supporting victims and educating people about the reality of sexual violence.
I was sexually abused as a young child. I was assaulted at 13 by a family friend. At 16 I was raped by someone I knew in my own home. I didn’t know that I could say no. At 19 I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver. When I was 28, I was on holiday in Italy with friends. We all had dinner and drinks. I wasn’t feeling well so I left to go home on my own. I remember a man who walked with me back to my hotel. I don’t know if my drink was spiked but I woke up in the basement of the hotel where all the ski equipment was kept. I was naked from the waist down. I don’t remember what happened.
I don’t have an opportunity to prosecute any of my abusers at this point in my life. So hopefully using my name will be another step to acknowledging and accepting that this did happen to me, and that I should not be the one to feel guilty or ashamed. I also hope that it allows me to take back my power and feel more in control of my life, and that reading survivors’ experiences will encourage more people talk about it.
I was 18 and in a nightclub enjoying my night with friends. A man much older than me came over, grabbed my bum and forced himself against me. My head hit the wall. He proceeded to kiss me while I tried to push him off me. He was much stronger than me. His friends stood and laughed. When I told the bouncer, he asked me to leave for making trouble. I left, completely defeated. This isn’t an isolated incident. I could tell you stories for days, as I’m sure many women could.
I’m 49 now. When I was in my early 20s I was visiting a friend after work on a winter evening. On my way through Dublin city I sensed someone behind me. I looked around and saw two men with scarves around their faces at my shoulder. They pulled me to the ground and tried to take my bag. The 80 quid in my bag took me a long time to earn, and I wasn’t letting go. That’s when they dragged me by the feet towards a hedge and started to take my trousers off. I screamed and screamed and kicked and used language that didn’t come naturally to me.
A young girl in a little car with L plates stopped and flashed the car lights and beeped the horn until they ran away and she let me hobble to the passenger seat. I went to A&E later with a dislocated hip and a foot which was scraped to the bone from being dragged. When I went to my GP for a follow-up, I said I was mugged. He said, “No, you weren’t mugged. You were violently assaulted with a failed attempt to sexually assault you.”
I am mostly okay, but 25 years on still have flashbacks if I am very tired or stressed.
When I was abroad I was sexually assaulted by a GP on an examination table when I had a very high fever. I never reported it and I heard afterwards that it had happened to someone else. I felt terribly guilty as if I had reported that may not have happened.
I have been sexually assaulted twice. The first happened when I was 19 on a college surf trip. I was drunk and met a boy. We danced and kissed, and because we were on a campsite he said we could kiss in his car. I agreed saying I only wanted to kiss. He said that was fine.
As soon as I got in the car, he locked the doors. He kept saying how “innocent” I was and that he wanted to take my innocence. I kept saying no and to stop, but he didn’t. I felt trapped in my body unable to move. Each time I tried to open the door or push him off he held me down. I was lucky that friends found me before the worst happened. I felt so guilty for so long and blamed myself.
One of the biggest things was to forgive myself. When you're still blaming yourself, you'll never let it go. But I've moved on
A few years later I met a boy and we dated for almost a year. After some time I opened up to him about what had happened to me. I explained that I needed more communication to make me feel safe during sex, and he seemed to understand. Sadly though, not long after, he assaulted me too. He pressured me into sex and I gave in but when I asked him to stop because it was hurting me, he didn’t. I asked again and his response was to slap me hard, twice. I can’t describe how scared I was in that moment. I did anything to get out of that situation without being hit again, so I smiled even though I was shaking and pretended I was okay until I was safe.
I know of people who have had a similar response to “please” the other person so they can escape. Boys need to know that sometimes a girl will freeze when she’s scared or appease you to get out of a situation. In school we are told about fight or flight, but there are also the freeze and fawn responses.
What a lot of people will also relate to is then having to still see the person who hurt you. I was in the same club as the second man. I spent a year with him – with Covid it was all over Zoom – cutting me off in meetings, dismissing my ideas, not giving me credit for the work I was doing. I couldn’t go to meetings anymore without getting flashbacks to him hitting me.
So I have to put my mental health first and walk away from something I used to enjoy. One of the biggest things was to forgive myself. When you’re still blaming yourself, you’ll never let it go. But I’ve moved on. I found a different club and I’m keeping up the hobby.
“I’m 45 years old now, and there are too many assaults to mention, from the conductor on the school bus at 14, to the much older man pushing me into a garden for oral sex, to the old man in the local pub pulling at my bra a couple of years ago.
I am an educated, professional mum of three, and I have carried the shame and embarrassment of all these horrific encounters as an unwanted backpack for the last 30 years. My 19-year-old today shared two experiences of sexual assault that she has endured that I did not know about and I am again shedding bitter, heartbroken tears. Will this ever end?
Age 14: a man exposed himself to me in a park in broad daylight. Age 17: I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver coming home alone in a cab. Age 19: I was surrounded by 10 men on my way home. They harassed me and called me a f**king ugly bitch and they shoved me. I ran, scared out of my mind. As a 41-year-old mother, I will tell my daughter about my experiences when she is old enough and know she will lose some innocence in the process. But she needs to know that the world can be a scary place.
I was out with a friend celebrating one of our final exams. Afterwards I decided to walk home. It was raining heavily. This guy I knew socially called out from some way behind me. He caught up with me and walked with me to my house, though it was the opposite direction to his.
When we got to my house he asked to come in as it was lashing. I eventually agreed that he could crash in my room and gave him a towel to dry his hair and a blanket. I went to bed ready to sleep but he kept complaining that the floor was really uncomfortable. If I hadn’t been drunk and vulnerable I would have realised what was happening. Desperate to sleep, I relented and said he could sleep in my bed but we would be using separate duvets.
I came to with his hand on my breast and the other penetrating me. I said “what the f**k are you doing” he said sorry, and I passed out again. Afterwards, I told one friend, and word got around to our social circle. Generally it was treated as a joke with snide comments to me. An ex said I was clearly asking for it. A female acquaintance said I should accept he was sorry. Everyone stayed friends with him. One of the most loyal to me at the time of the assault had him at her wedding.
Any time that I thought about what had happened I thought about all the things I was responsible for. I was so drunk. I let him in my house. I said he could get in bed. I didn’t kick him out when I briefly woke up. The more time that passed, the more I understood how wrong and predatory his behaviour was. That I had been sexually assaulted. That I am not to blame. Still, I saw him at an airport departure area two years ago – 15 years later – and I hid in the loo.
When I was in university I was sexually assaulted by someone I regarded as one of my best friends. He considers himself a staunch Christian and didn’t drink. After a night out, we were all drunk except him. Four of us headed back to mine, and after some chat I went to bed.
I woke up at about 5am and he was beside me, trying to kiss me. In my startled state even then it all seemed weird. I knew he was a virgin, but he started asking me where I kept the condoms. He told me he really wanted to “try it”; he really wanted to have sex. I got a condom out and we got so far as to him putting it on before my awareness came back to me and I told him to stop.
I haven't seen him since and I continue to dread the day I might
To some people this may just seem like a guy chancing his arm with a friend of his. But I’d spent four years building a friendship with someone who portrayed himself to have good Christian values, and then one night he decided he wanted to “try sex” so he thought his best bet was to wait until his friend was extremely drunk and asleep and then just get into bed with her.
Afterwards I rationalised that I shouldn’t throw away four years of friendship for one stupid night. Unfortunately it happened again; two months later,there was another night when he came to the room where I was sleeping in and pleaded with me to get into his bed. I continued to tell him no. Once again he got into bed beside me. I don’t know why I didn’t get up, why I didn’t leave, why I didn’t tell him to f**k off. He proceeded to undress me. There was no penetrative sex, there was no violence, but there most certainly was sexual abuse.
I haven’t seen him since and I continue to dread the day I might.
I believe almost every woman has been sexually assaulted. It’s just inevitable. I feel lucky that I have no recollection of my worst story. I was 18, new to Dublin and had just started college. Still very much finding my limits with alcohol, I had a blackout drunk night in a club. It was the next day that I learned I had been kissing a guy in the club for most of the night, but at one point another guy joined us, and they both touched me down there at the same time, in the middle of the dancefloor. A security guy came over and pulled me away from them and took me into a backroom. He was probably just checking I was alright, but how can I be sure?
What I was disgusted by was the behaviour of my flatmates the next day. They laughed at me and said they were “so embarrassed” by my behaviour and turned their heads when the security guy pulled me away. This was only in 2012. Attitudes have changed in the last few years.
My ex-boyfriend allegedly used to sleepwalk. I was abruptly woken up most nights to find that he was having sex with me. I was in a coercive controlling relationship, where I was trapped. He claimed this was not rape. He claimed that if I had sex with him enough while we were awake, he would not subconsciously resort to having sex with me whilst I was asleep. He attempted to justify this nightly rape.
I think it would have been the mid-1970s. I was about seven years old. I had walked into town to the cinema in Limerick city with my older sister and a few neighbourhood kids. In the darkened cinema, an old man came and sat beside me. He chatted to me a bit while he ate his chocolate. He started rubbing my inner thigh and his hand went up further and further. I didn’t protest, although I was panicking inside. It would have been inconceivable to cause a scene. When he was finished he got up and moved seat. Nobody else noticed.
I tried to tell my sister at the intermission but she gave out to me for having talked to him. I never told anyone else.
I am a 37-year-old man. When I was 16 I was sexually assaulted by a guy I looked up to as a father figure in a local bar in Co Meath. I told one of few people I trusted – a priest in the secondary school I attended. He made me go to the Garda station alone. There were cameras in the bar, but I heard later that the picture quality wasn’t good enough and there was no-go with court. That’s essentially the short of it.
I never fully got over the ordeal, and was never offered counselling or anything. It was such a taboo. You couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I spent years, unsuccessfully, attempting to take my own life. I wanted to tell my story to say that it’s not just women that are affected. I still find it hard to trust people.
I was sexually abused as a child and had the perpetrator sent to prison for 15 years. It was a big story in 1997. When I was 23 I went for a few drinks with my sister. I had three shandies. We met these guys who invited us back to the house. One of the guys went and got us a drink. He came in with the cans open and I thought nothing of it. Well, that’s the last I remember until I woke up and he was sexually assaulting me. That was 21 years ago, and I’m still raging I never did anything.
It was June 2003, and I was on my first-ever holiday abroad in Lanzarote with my mam and little brother. I had just turned 14 two weeks before and I was hanging out with this older group. One guy acted like he was my best friend. In front of my mam he was saying, she’s like my little sister, and he kept pushing off any attention that came my way. One night I wanted to go out with everyone, but my mam said no. This guy knew I was there on my own and my mam was not coming back for hours.
He came over. He said he liked the way I didn’t plaster myself with make-up, the way I was natural. He then started talking about how I’m too good to be treated badly by guys who will only use me for one thing. He had his arm around me, holding me in a grip. I could hear people outside and they were passing having a good time, and I was like, please come in and save me from this.
Even if you overcome it, it's still right there. You can choose to be a victim or you can choose to be a survivor. I choose to be a survivor
He then told me he got accused of molesting someone before but that it was all lies and he’d never do that. After a few minutes he dropped his hand into my jeans, and started to do the most disgusting act. I said please stop, my stomach clenched and I was in full panic. All I could smell was Budweiser and his horrible cigarette breath. I felt like I was turning inside out. I tried to hit a bottle over him but it just slid over him.
One of the guys knocked on the balcony door and the monster that was raping me stopped, jumped up, pulled up his trousers and kissed me on the cheek and said: “See ya tomorrow babe, our secret though.”
After I got home I told my mam, I went to the gardaí, I made a statement, I did everything I was asked to do. But nothing came of it, only I was left more raw. He got away with it. I really feel sexual assault needs to be taken way more seriously. Even if you overcome it, it’s still right there. You can choose to be a victim or you can choose to be a survivor. I choose to be a survivor.
I was raped in my 20s when I was on a work trip in a foreign country. We were socialising in the evening. I liked one of the guys there, but I made it clear to him that I wouldn’t have sex with him. We went back to my hotel room where he ignored my protestations. He raped me. I didn’t have enough strength to get him off me. I was overpowered and I was worried I’d end up dead. I lay there looking at the ceiling and waiting for it to be over.
Afterwards I felt like I was a toilet someone had defecated in. He said to me, “You shouldn’t drink so much”, placing the blame and shame on me. I also put blame on myself as I had been drinking and had invited the man back to my room, even though I made clear that I didn’t want to have sex. I never reported it either to work or the police. It will always stay with me.
More open conversation around sexual assault has helped me to come to a clearer understanding that I did not have responsibility for his actions. I learned that freezing is a natural response to threatening situations.
It was 25 years ago. It has taken me that long to accept it for rape and to tell someone what happened. I think as a means of self-preservation, I told myself it was my own fault, that it wasn’t really all that bad, and then I blocked it from memory. But the memory has been seeping in of late – it started off as a rare thought, and now I think of it every single day. Every. Single. Day.
I told my husband, the first person I have ever told, and I have finally accepted that I was raped.
I was 17, he was 24. I felt so grown up, having an older man pay me all this attention. He was fun and interesting and interested in me. He took me to a house party with a group of his friends, and that was when I realised I was out of my depth. I was so nervous but wanted to impress them. I accepted the drink of almost neat vodka that he handed me. He topped it up. I blacked out. I don’t remember how I got there, but I came to in an upstairs bedroom, naked, him on top of me. I was powerless and unable to move. I couldn’t form thoughts, let alone words.
The door burst open and his friends stood laughing in the doorway. Some male, some female. I remember their faces, those women, laughing. I will never forgive them. They should have protected me. He put me in a taxi because I couldn’t walk. He raped me. And I told no one.
I was sexually assaulted by my now ex-husband over a few years. I can’t describe it in too much detail, it’s too difficult and painful. He would become violent if I didn’t have sex with him. Consent meant nothing to him. I fled when my baby daughter was just weeks old as I knew he was going to seriously harm us if I stayed. But he followed me, stalking and threatening me for three years. I lived in constant fear.
I reported him to gardaí several times, but I felt they dismissed my concerns. One garda suggested that I should ask a male relative to “sort it out”. Eventually they took a formal statement from me, only to inform me weeks later that they “lost” my statement.
Recently reports that desperate 999 calls to gardaí were ignored reminded me of the horror of my personal experience. I was prompted to share my experience after I read online commentary in relation to Josepha Madigan, implying that she was tarring all men with the same brush when she referenced her experiences and those of other women. What an utterly dismissive and judgmental response, one that serves to deter people from sharing similar experiences and compounds the stigma.