Men must face up to the horrific reality of rape and sexual abuse

Many women and girls know fear as an everyday reality

Women’s groups on a march to  the Dáil to protest about the trivilialisation of rape. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Women’s groups on a march to the Dáil to protest about the trivilialisation of rape. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

According to the organisation’s annual report for 2011, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre received almost 12,000 calls to its national 24-hour helpline during that year. Of these calls, more than 9,000 were from people who had suffered (or were suffering) sexual abuse. Forty-four per cent related to adult rape, 52 per cent to adult sexual violence and 48 per cent to child sexual abuse.

The number of first-time callers increased by 18 per cent on the previous year and, not surprisingly, the majority (81 per cent) of those seeking help were female, although the number of male victims is growing.

Shocking statistics
I think it is safe to conclude a few things from these shocking statistics. The most disturbing of these is that the incidence of sexual abuse in Ireland is undoubtedly far higher than this report suggests.

Only a minority of people who need help will contact helplines, and this is especially true of the victims of sexual abuse.

Many victims are reluctant to share their experiences because of threats of violence from a perpetrator or perpetrators, a misplaced sense of loyalty and/or irrational feelings of shame or guilt. It is a fairly safe conclusion that the perpetrators of sexual abuse are overwhelmingly male, which is enough to make one feel ashamed of belonging to that sex.

Ireland is far from unique in having a high and seemingly rising incidence of sexual abuse.

The situation is much the same in most developed countries, but this should be a matter for despair rather than comfort.

As I argued in this column recently, western societies on many levels are far ahead of other parts of the world in their treatment of women and girls. However, it is also true that females are forced to spend a substantial part of their lives in fearful anticipation of being sexually molested, or worse – which puts the provision of basic entitlements such as education, healthcare, suffrage and supposed equal opportunities into perspective.

Men who think that talk of fearful anticipation is an exaggeration need only glance into the eyes of the next woman they happen to meet, at any time of the day, on a deserted or even semi-deserted street.

What they will see is someone making a hurried appraisal of the possible dangers posed by the man approaching them. Imagine having to live your life like that.

Unfortunately, most women and girls in the West don’t need to imagine: for them constant vigilance is an everyday reality.

Those are just the women and girls who are fearful of being attacked by a stranger. There are the others, the majority of victims as it happens, who suffer regular abuse at the hands of a relative or a family friend.

For them it is the dread of the foot on the stairs, the opening of the bedroom door, or the smiling visitor that haunts their every waking minute.

Why do we continue to tolerate this situation?

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre says that in order to begin to tackle sexual abuse, there must be a change in public attitudes. I agree, but not entirely. The hard truth is that it is only half of the public that needs to change its attitude: the male half.

Sexual abuse is a societal problem, but why are women the only people complaining about it? Where are the men in this? When pressed, most men will condemn sexual abuse in the strongest terms but otherwise, which is most of the time, we choose to remain silent. By our silence, are we at best minimising sexual abuse, and at worst acquiescing in it?

It isn’t good enough to parrot platitudes. Nor is it enough to be concerned only about the wellbeing of our daughters, wives, sisters and mothers. We should be concerned for the safety of every female.

Extenuating circumstances
There are no extenuating circumstances where rape is concerned. It is an insult to victims and women in general, and an incentive to sexual predators, to persist, as so many men do, with the notion that there could be.

To argue that how a woman was dressed, or the amount of alcohol she had consumed somehow lessens the culpability of a person who had sex with her against her will is attempting to excuse the inexcusable.

It would be bad enough if only the occasional Neanderthal was guilty of voicing this nonsense. Unfortunately it isn’t. Men up to and including judges have been known to suggest the same.

Sexual abuse of any kind is a heinous crime, and it is high time men treated it as such: in respect of the attention we pay to it, the resources we commit to tackling it, and the punishments we mete out to those who commit it. Only men can stop sexual abuse.

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