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Dublin: 9 °C Monday 30 May, 2016

We need to smash the silence that surrounds sexual violence

Compelling first year Trinity College students to attend mandatory classes on sexual consent has raised eyebrows, writes Ruairí McKiernan.

Ruairi McKiernan

NEWS THAT TRINITY College Dublin is to compel first year students living in college accommodation to attend mandatory classes on sexual consent has rightly raised eyebrows.

The majority will no doubt already be well aware of the difference between right and wrong and yes and no when it comes to sex. However it is clear something must be done to change a culture where sexual assault is an all too common occurrence.

The Trinity initiative echoes similar moves in the US where colleges are starting to take action. This follows the alarming 2014 White House report ‘Not Alone’, which outlined the urgency of the situation concerning sexual assaults on students. The problem merits serious attention here in Ireland too. A study last year by the Student’s Union at Trinity revealed a staggering 25% of female students and 5% of male students have been subjected to an unwanted sexual experience.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office showing a 15.7% increase in sexual assault offences show that this is a much wider societal issue.

In the wake of the horrific New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, it seems predatory forces also exist much closer to home. Children’s charity CARI has experienced a 43% increase in the number of young people reporting rape and sexual assault by teenagers, some of which have been recorded and shared on social media.

Sadly sexual abuse has been around for a long time but awareness is growing, perhaps coinciding with the rising voice of women who make up the majority of survivors. That’s not to say men aren’t affected. There is no shortage of men who have experienced similar abuses, many of whom continue to suffer in silence in a society where it can be difficult for a man to appear vulnerable.

Sexual violence is a national problem that surrounds us all

The study that influenced the naming of One in Four, the organisation founded by clerical abuse survivor Colm O’Gorman stated that one in four people have been victim of sexual abuse of some kind. That’s a lot of people, people you and I know well without necessarily knowing their private suffering.

It also points, rather worryingly, to the existence of a large number of abusers, many of whom are never  brought to justice. An antiquated justice system with one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe helps maintain this indefensible status quo.

Things need to change. It isn’t right that many women feel they aren’t safe to walk alone. Nor is it good for us men when a woman crosses the road or speeds up because she feels afraid.

Yet beyond the rape crisis centres and women’s groups, where are the public demands  to address what are essentially crimes against the basic humanity of our mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, aunts, cousins, sons and brothers?

One initiative that seeks to address the particularly high levels of violence against women is the White Ribbon project which in Ireland is run by the Men’s Development Network. Like the UN’s HeForShe campaign, it has helped ignite debate on the issues but much more is needed if there is to be a fundamental culture shift.

Listening and understanding men

The emergence of a new wave of men’s groups such as Fir Le Chéile, Mojo and the ManKind Project (see www.mensgroups.ie) represents a welcome approach to listening to and understanding men. This is essential if we are to avoid a culture of blame and shame that can leave some men feeling patronised.

The growing men’s movement is also helping to define what constitutes healthy masculinity. Central to this is the idea that a truly empowered man doesn’t need to abuse other people. This isn’t about feminising men, but rather creating space to identify the underlying tensions that are driving so many men to addiction, violence, depression and suicide. This also means looking at how we can better support and mentor young men so that they can be initiated into manhood in life affirming ways.

I work a lot in schools and colleges and can see that change is happening. However, there remains a significant gap in the provision of consistent and meaningful education on sex, relationships, and emotional wellbeing. This is especially needed in a world where the sexualisation of young people through media, marketing and celebrity culture is relentless, and where violent and demeaning pornography is freely available on every smart phone.

In order to create a safe and nurturing society for all women and men we need to start looking deeper and having difficult conversations. Regardless of whether the Trinity approach is a wise one or not, one thing is certain – we can’t sit back in silence. Addressing rape and sexual assault is a collective responsibility and one we must not shy away from.

If you or anyone you know needs support on any of the issues raised in this article please contact the free and confidential Rape Crisis Helpline on 1800 77 8888 or email counselling@rcc.ie

 Ruairí McKiernan is part of the founding team behind www.alustforlife.com, he is the founder of SpunOut.ie, a Fulbright scholar, and a member of the Council of State. Twitter: @ruairimckiernan. Website: www.ruairimckiernan.com

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