EVERY ONCE IN a while I try to explain sexual violence to my parents. It doesn’t always go particularly well, and I keep telling myself that I have to stop bringing it up at the dinner table.
The latest episode in this saga saw me explaining that it is generally better for people to err on the side of caution by not touching others in social settings and that, given the usual environment of wolf whistles, derogatory comments (I was called a slut last week for looking out the sunroof of a car that was being driven by a man) and cat calls, it is quite reasonable for some people to express a general fear of other people. I am afraid of some people, as much as there are others whom I love.
Many of us are told to put up with it and move on
These revelations were met with silence, which was how I realised that my words had made an impact – a rarity (I’m beginning to get used to being brushed off as a faint-hearted college-educated liberal; when I insist that something is actually true I think most people believe I’m just making it up). And then the inevitable question: has something happened to you?
The truth is that something has happened to me, but it’s not the reason that I call myself a feminist or am committed to gender equality. Last year I was standing on the steps of the Court House in Cork city and a man put his hand between my legs. I didn’t confront him – even though there was a Garda standing about five feet away and I could have said something – and I never reported it. It didn’t seem that significant at the time and it doesn’t bother me on a day-to-day basis. But the scary part is that I know these incidents happen all the time and that many of us are told simply to put up with it and move on. “That’s just the way of the world; you can’t change everything,” as many parents would probably say.
Teaching people about boundaries
But that is not quite true. Know Offence is a group of university students aiming to raise awareness of sexual violence and help those affected by it. The group provides information about essential services for both men and women, and in this way helps to dispel damaging myths surrounding the issue.
Did you know that it’s possible for your boyfriend to rape you? Because I know some people who don’t think that’s true. Those people may be in danger because they falsely believe that sex with a significant other is somehow always consensual – like entering into a relationship with someone is also apparently an unwritten contract which demands that you have sex with them whenever they want, forever. Not so.
These are the types of myths we’re talking about, ones that can have terrible consequences if they are not challenged. Men and women always have the right to say no to unwanted sexual contact – and if that sex happens anyway, these people should know that they need not suffer alone, and that they should never blame themselves for what has happened.
Filling the gaps in public knowledge
The Know Offence group recently pioneered a survey of University College Cork students and found that nearly one in seven students had been the victim of rape or serious sexual assault, while around a third of students said they had experienced minor sexual assaults.
While these figures are only an estimate, perhaps the most alarming thing is that some respondents were not sure whether their sexual experience had been consensual or not – maybe they were assaulted by a partner, or maybe they were groped on the street and found it upsetting, but didn’t realise that so-called “minor incidents” actually count. The vast majority of students (82%) did not know where to report a sexual offence to university authorities.
Know Offence is a small group, but it is committed to filling in these gaps in public knowledge. The university has given its full support to the information campaign, and is helping to clarify the protocol which is already in place for dealing with such complaints.
Remember this: you do not have an obligation to report a sexual assault to the police or to the university. But you do have the right to know that what happened to you was real, and it was serious, and that it was against the law.
With the knowledge of what sexual assault actually is, with access to information about counselling, reporting and legal services, and with clearer university guidelines for lodging a complaint, you get to decide what to do next, and you have the power to choose the best option for you. The important thing to know (and what Know Offence takes as its founding mantra) is that no matter what happens – sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
Ruth Lawlor is a master’s student in International Relations at University College Cork and a member of the Know Offence campaign team. Her research focuses on sexual violence in the American military.