Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan’s message was loud and clear. Potential victims: be vigilant. At the time of writing, we still don’t know what happened to Elaine O’Hara that led to her body being found in the Dublin mountains. Gardaí are examining her computer records, investigating whether she was interacting with someone online. It’s on that basis that Callinan made his warning. Potential victims: be vigilant.
Societies are in crisis over how men treat women. It is a crisis that representatives who are in charge of protecting citizens, such as Callinan, still expect the victims to solve. Potential attackers are rarely instructed to exercise vigilance. Police don’t say “don’t be violent”; they say “protect yourself from violence”.
Internet dating is not the slightly seedy underground it was generalised as in the early days of the web, when people perceived to lack the real-life social skills necessary to find a partner took to chat rooms to shack up.
What isn't internet dating now, when so much of our communication has migrated online – when we google potential suitors, trawl through their Facebook friends, see photos of them on holidays and on nights out, cross-reference their Twitter handles with their LinkedIn profiles, and email or text to arrange a drink before we've even spoken to the person in real life, never mind seen them face to face?
The problem is not the internet. And even if the internet is perceived as not an entirely safe space for interaction, where is a safe space for women? A house party? A crowded bar? A romantic restaurant? A dark laneway? A family home? A bus stop? The problem is not where women interact, the problem is who they interact with – men. It’s not nice to hear, but it’s true.
Men, don't rape
Instructing women to be careful gets men off the hook. The potential perpetrators of attacks are seldom asked to be as conscientious, apart from occasional innovations such as the Don't Be That Guy campaign. So, women, be careful? How about men, don't rape? Men, don't murder your exes or partners. Men, don't beat up your wives or girlfriends. Men, don't assault someone you've just met that night. Men, don't shout at women across the road just because you can. Men, stop hanging your threat of rape over dark streets.
Men, of course, argue that this generalisation is unfair, that it demonises blokes who are non-violent and deplore such behaviour. Yet every group of guys has a buddy who is a little wayward, and whose behaviour towards women is dubious. Many men remain silent when the lads suggest a strip club on a stag night, even if they are uncomfortable with it. Most guys probably have a suspicion that a male close to them has bought sex.
You can’t tar every man with the same brush, but men must accept that most violent crimes perpetrated against women are by men, and that they have the power to stop this.
Women should be free to talk to whomever they choose and go wherever they want without threat of assault. Men have the choice to either create this freedom, or uphold the threat. Which is the easier option, when insinuating that a victim is even a tiny bit responsible is a subconscious moral manipulation backed up by sociocultural norms and by the law? Some 69 per cent of victims of sexual violence do not report it, according to the latest figures (2011) from the Rape Crisis Network Ireland.
Under-reporting is not surprising given the stigma that is still imposed on victims of sexual violence, and the apathy with which the judiciary treats them. In Ireland, 7 per cent of rape cases that are reported to the Garda lead to a conviction. That figure is from 2009. In 2010, Senator Ivana Bacik published research examining rape cases between 2003 and 2009. Of the cases she studied, less than a third resulted in a conviction. She also found that in 70 per cent of the cases, the judge permitted the defence to question the alleged victim's sexual history.
We exist in a society where some judges believe it is appropriate for a perpetrator of sexual violence to offer financial compensation to a victim whose life they have shattered. Ah sure, they were of good character otherwise.
All of this reinforces a belief that the attacker is not totally at fault, that their punishment will never match up to their crime and, ultimately, that they can get away with it. If that’s the scenario, then of course it will continue as such.
How refreshing would it have been if Callinan had decided to appeal to potential attackers instead of potential victims? Why must we continue to exonerate the perpetrators of violence in our society – overwhelmingly male – while telling women to watch their backs? Everyone knows the best remedy for any ill is prevention. If being a man means standing up and taking responsibility for one’s actions, then men: be men.