The puzzle of increasing sexual violence


The growth in sex crime may be a corollary of the rise in general violence across the State, writes Ian O'Donnell

The publication of preliminary crime figures for 2002 has raised concern about the surging level of sexual violence. More than 400 rapes were recorded by An Garda Síochána last year compared with fewer than 50 in 1980.

There are a number of possible explanations. The first is the increased likelihood that victims will come forward. There is evidence that "historic" offences are being reported, particularly where the victims were male.

The introduction of clearer guidelines and improved methods of recording, such as the PULSE computer system, are sure to have contributed to a more comprehensive logging of complaints.

Legislative changes have a role to play also. For example, the Criminal Law Rape (Amendment) Act, 1990, broadened the legal definition of rape to allow for the possibility of male victims and female perpetrators. It also created the new offence of aggravated sexual assault.

The growth in sex crime may be a corollary of the recent rise in violence across the country. Last year was the most murderous in living memory, and it would be unduly optimistic to think that this grisly record will not be beaten.

Demographic changes are important, too. The population swelled by 290,000 between 1996 and 2002. To a large extent crime is opportunity-based, and more sexual violence is to be expected as the number of potential offenders and victims grows.

Finally, the upswing in alcohol consumption may exercise a pernicious effect here as in so many other areas of our lives. A study by the Royal College of Surgeons found that alcohol was involved in almost half of all cases of sexual assault between adults.

It is sometimes said that today's sex crime is unprecedented in its viciousness; that it marks a shift to a more brutal and less forgiving time. A cursory glance through newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries gives the lie to this notion. Rape was regularly reported, and a ferocious attack occasionally left the victim dead or dying.

Despite the recent rise and the historical legacy, the overall level of rape in Ireland is not out of line with other EU countries. The rate is higher in England and France, but lower in Finland and Germany.

The increase in recorded sexual violence has been accompanied by a startling drop in the proportion of cases that lead to criminal prosecutions. In 1950, 85 per cent of sexual offences recorded by An Garda Síochána led to proceedings. By 2000 this had fallen to 25 per cent. This decline was much more marked than for other crimes, and is difficult to interpret.

It may be that a more selective approach was previously taken to the recording of allegations, with those unlikely to be pursued not making it as far as the official statistics.

Perhaps there are ever-growing delays in initiating proceedings. Or perpetrators cannot be identified. Or the Garda decides not to charge. Or a referral is made to the Juvenile Diversion Programme. Or the DPP decides not to prosecute.

Unfortunately the traditional lack of explanatory text in the Garda annual report makes it impossible to ascertain the significance of these factors and how they may have changed over time.

There is one final point to be made about what might be seen as the declining effectiveness of the criminal justice system in tackling sex crime. This is the difference between the number of cases where proceedings are commenced and the detection rate.

The divergent trends in the incidence and prosecution of sex crime highlight the difficulties associated with formulating effective responses. As in so many other areas that touch on the quality of our lives, good policy-making is frustrated by the absence of reliable information.

Dr Ian O'Donnell is deputy director of the Institute of Criminology in the Law Faculty of UCD. His analysis of sex crime in Ireland, on which this article is based, will be published next week in the Judicial Studies Institute Journal