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Dublin: 2 °C Saturday 16 November, 2019

'They're depending on your silence': 8 myths about sexual violence that are totally untrue

We’ve been found to have the highest levels of sexual harassment in Europe.

Image: YouTube

IN A BUSY BAR, a man approaches a woman and offers to buy her a drink, placing his hand on her bare back. She repeatedly declines and visibly recoils from his touch.

Though it may be a sight you’ve seen before, it isn’t from your average Friday night – it’s a recent ad from The Department of Justice and Equality that aimed to “question our responses to a range of sexual harassment and potential sexual violence scenarios which are endemic in our society.” So explained Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan, when the ad was launched earlier this year.

A major study by WIN World Survey 2018 suggests that scenes like this are all too common. Almost a third of women aged 18-34 said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the last year – the highest in Europe. In the countries surveyed, 4% of males reported sexual harassment in the last year.

As Minister Flanagan explained, “Ireland suffers from disturbingly high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence” and the ads are designed to tackle this: “[They] consider the extent to which we excuse or ‘explain away’ incidents when we see them.”

The campaign tackles one essential question: “Are we facilitating a culture in which it is really hard for victims to be heard, to be helped, to be supported?”

So, what does an expert say we can do about it? The people who perpetrate sexual violence are “depending on your silence and interpreting it as support”, says Dr Clíona Saidléar, executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland. Here are the facts.

Myth 1: Only rape is considered sexual violence

“It’s fairly difficult to find a woman who hasn’t had an experience of sexual violence because it’s become so prevalent”, says Dr Saidléar. This she says can include “unwanted groping, someone rubbing their penis against you in a nightclub or on a bus.”

The term encompasses “all unwanted contact or threatened contact of a sexual nature”, and she reminds that “if you were to grab someone in a nightclub without their consent, be it their crotch or their breasts, that is defined as sexual assault.”

Myth 2: It’s not a problem in Ireland

While European-wide research from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that over one in four (26%) women in Ireland have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once since the age of 15, Dr Saidléar says that other studies have placed that figure higher.

For example, the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) Report says that 42% of women reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime, with over a quarter (28%) of men reporting the same. Last year, 3,182 sex crimes were recorded by gardaí - a 26% increase on 2017.

Myth 3: It’s better not to challenge the behaviour

sexualviolence2 Source: YouTube

For Dr Saidléar, it’s a worry “how casual sexual assault has become in our social spaces” and reminds that “it’s never OK, it’s always against the law and you don’t have to accept it”: She explains:

If you’re in a pub, night club, street, school corridor, grabbing people (particularly women) by their bum or crotch has become more common.

 So, what role do we as witnesses to it have to play in stopping it? Dr Saidléar says that it’s about having no tolerance for any form of sexual violence: “If we don’t pay attention to where the bar is, it keeps raising and only gets more and more serious.”

Myth 4: Some forms of sexual violence are harmless

There is a very important reason why this campaign is appealing to the public to challenge all sexual violence: “If we only talk about rape, we miss its connection with our everyday lives, where all of this is happening.” Dr Saidléar reminds that while 97% of us agree that sexual violence is wrong, most of us don’t question what we can do about it.

There’s also a very practical reason why this is where we should challenge these behaviours, explains Dr Saidléar: “It’s more important we notice it at a lower bar because this is where it’s safer to name it and intervene, to say I’m not OK with what I see.”

Myth 5: If it happens in work, you need to keep it to yourself

One of the first scenes shown in the campaign depicts a female manager massaging her male colleague’s shoulders. It challenges us to ask, ‘Is this OK?’. Situations like this in a work context can be difficult but Saidléar reminds that there are designs in place to protect you.

She reminds, “one of the first steps is that you have to feel confident enough to say that you’re uncomfortable – that’s enough”. In this instance, she advises to talk directly to the person (if you feel comfortable), HR or a supervisor or alternatively, you may just want to call the gardaí: “There’s nothing stopping you – you don’t have to handle it in-house.”

Myth 6: In a nightclub, you have no protection against it

sexualviolence3 Source: YouTube

Those who commit sexual violence “behave in a predatory sort of way that they think they’ll get away with it from the rest of the community”, says Dr Saidléar. What can be very powerful is to demonstrate very simply that you’re not OK with it, using phrases such as ‘I wouldn’t be comfortable if you did that to me’, which create safety for everyone.

Fortunately, in the context of a nightclub, both bar and security staff are generally well trained to be proactive in getting you safe or to intervene before the situation escalates. If you yourself aren’t safe enough to get their attention, Dr Saidléar says to “find an ally – reach out to someone to indicate you need them to go to the bar or security staff.”

Myth 7: There’s no one to ask for advice about tackling it

A section of the campaign also features a male partner becoming pushy about sex towards his female partner. When this is happening with people you know, it can be a very difficult situation, says Dr Saidléar: “You have an ongoing relationship with your friend, just as they have with their partner”.

In this situation, your number one job is to “stay available to them” explains Dr Saidléar: “You’re their support. You want to ensure that you’re a safe person to trust that doesn’t isolate them”. She reminds not to be judgemental – check in with ‘that would make me a bit uncomfortable, does it make you uncomfortable?’”

If you’re unsure how to intervene, the Rape Crisis Helpline and the gardaí can both advise you. Or you can go to gov.ie/noexcuses for more information.

Myth 8: There’s no need to get involved if you witness it

The most important takeaway for Dr Saidléar is that we have to be clear about what is and isn’t acceptable: “People who are responsible for sexual violence are depending on your silence and interpreting it as support.”

At the very least, Dr Saidléar reminds that we have a role to tell them we’re not in agreement, but this can extend in both telling the gardaí and ultimately removing yourself from that friendship:

We all have a role in this and our role is quite simple – we need to make sure that any assumption they have that their behaviour is OK, isn’t OK with you. This can be so powerful in helping to reduce sexual violence.

Source: Department of Justice & Equality/YouTube

Think you could play a bigger role in helping to stop sexual violence? ‘No Excuses’ is a major awareness campaign that challenges us to question our responses to a range of sexual harassment and potential sexual violence scenarios. It also asks us to stop excusing the incidents that we do see. Find out more at gov.ie/noexcuses.

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