The Irish Times view on sexual violence: A culture of impunity

We like to think attitudes are changing, but evidence tell us there is a very long way to go

A survey by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the Active Consent research team at NUI Galway found that almost 30 per cent of female students in higher education say they have been raped. Photograph: iStock

A survey by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the Active Consent research team at NUI Galway found that almost 30 per cent of female students in higher education say they have been raped. Photograph: iStock

 

We like to think that attitudes to sexual violence are changing. In important ways, progress is indeed being made in confronting the problem.

A doubling in the number of reported offences over the past decade is clearly linked to such shifts, including changes to the criminal law defining consent in sexual assault cases, improved record-keeping by An Garda Síochána and a broader cultural shift that gives survivors some of the reassurance they need to name their abusers and report their crimes. We are indebted also to the #MeToo movement, which is helping to shatter a culture of impunity that protected abusers.

Yet no problem as deep-rooted as this one simply fades away. If we needed reminding of the scale of the task ahead, it came this week in the alarming findings of a survey of college students’ sexual experiences. The research, by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the Active Consent research team at NUI Galway, found that almost 30 per cent of female students in higher education have been raped.

Some 66 per cent of students in third year or above said they had experienced sexual harassment since beginning college. Of those who reported non-consensual penetration, 49 per cent of men, 35 per cent of women, and 25 per cent of non-binary students said they did not disclose the incident to anyone prior to taking part in the survey.

These are stark numbers, implying large-scale hidden violence and pointing to the urgency of national efforts to eradicate it. The agenda encompasses three areas. First, education is vital in ensuring toxic and dangerous ideas are not perpetuated. Those institutions that have pioneered consent classes, for example, have reported their ample benefits. Second, we need to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the problem.

The planned large-scale survey of sexual violence by the Central Statistics Office cannot happen soon enough. Finally, the law must catch up with society’s sense of revulsion by reorienting a court system that for too long has done more to retraumatise victims than to hold their abusers accountable.

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