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"I should have told my friend his 'rape joke' was inappropriate. Why didn't I?"

Men need to start feeling more than a little uncomfortable about the issue of consent, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Donal O'Keeffe

“ISN’T YER ONE gorgeous?” said the man beside me at the bar. The bar woman, perhaps 30 years old, was indeed beautiful and – making sure she was out of earshot – I agreed with my neighbour, a man in his mid-thirties.

“She’s very attractive, alright,” I said. “Seven years doesn’t seem a long time,” he said agreeably, taking a sup of his pint.

I thought of seven years’ bad luck or maybe the seven-year itch but I didn’t get the reference, so I asked “How do you mean?”

Laughing, he replied: “Isn’t seven years the average sentence for rape?”

I gasped and said something feeble like, “You can’t say things like that!” He responded that I’d want to cop myself on and lighten up a bit.

I should have said more but I didn’t. I know him well. He’s a father and a husband, clever and, by nature, very kind. I believe – in as much as you can know anyone’s secret heart – that he would never in a million years dream of raping a woman.

I should have said more. So why didn’t I? Honestly, I didn’t want to have a row with someone I like. Cowardly, I know.

I should have spoken up, why didn’t I?

I should have asked him to think about what being raped must feel like and what that experience would do to anyone. I should have told him about what Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, late of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, calls “the dreadful, and far too often, lifelong debilitating effects (rape) can have on the victim’s life”. I should have asked why anyone would ever think rape is funny.

I suspect my not laughing at his remark showed me up – in his eyes – as prudish and humourless. So we changed the subject. In the future, he probably won’t joke about rape to me, but I’ve no doubt he will to others. By not engaging, I missed the opportunity to get an otherwise-decent man to think a couple of steps further down the road than he had travelled before.

A few years ago, I saw Vincent Browne express disbelief at the notion of rape jokes, telling his TV3 show panel that he had never heard a single such “joke”. I remember thinking that Vincent would surely get a fit of the vapours any Saturday night in the average Irish pub.

I ran a pub, years ago. We kept a good house and we had – for the most part – a great clientele, a lively, friendly mixture of young and old. I lost count of the times my female colleagues were harassed and groped by men “only having the craic”. I once threw out – not very gently – a respectable businessman who had grabbed an 18-year-old woman while he chanted some pretty explicit words at her.

It’s not just in pubs – not that drink is any excuse – that you’ll see our deeply-ingrained ambivalence toward women, toward the concept of consent and toward men just acting like decent human beings.

Blaming women 

Last week I had a stand-up row with a man loudly asking “Ah but WAS it rape?” about one high-profile rape case, even as he blamed young women’s dress sense and “loose” morality for most (as he said) “so-called rapes”.

I even got thrown the old chestnut, “confucius say woman with skirt up run faster than man with trousers down”. (Yes, he did the accent too, proving himself a racist also.)

I’ve been thinking about the notion of rape culture since I read Louise O’Neill’s novel Asking For It. It’s a powerful, unflinching examination of victim-blaming and rape- apology and of attitudes toward rape survivors.

Two weeks ago, Mia Doering wrote a very moving column here. I thought her suggestion that men need to start feeling uncomfortable about the culture in which we all live – was imminently sensible. I found it hard to read – it’s harrowing in places – and, yes, I did feel uncomfortable.

Can I ask you big, brave, anonymous men in the comments section, why it is that when you read the testimony of a rape survivor, your immediate reaction is not concern for the survivor, or horror that any man would rape, but instead the urge to mock, to demean and to declare loudly #NotAllMen?

What is wrong with you?

I should have told my friend at the bar, musing that seven years isn’t a long time for rape, if the woman is pretty and/or if you think the “joke” funny, that the average sentence for rape in Ireland is indeed five to seven years but the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report (2002) says that only one in ten victims of sexual crime in Ireland reports that crime.

Rape convictions in Ireland 

Those who do report that they are the victim of a sexual crime then face a torturous journey to the point where the DPP thinks it worth prosecuting the case. Ireland has the lowest conviction rate for rape cases – following allegation – in Europe, standing at 1 – 2%. The EU average is 8 – 10%.

If there is a conviction, our judiciary has a habit of sometimes making things even worse for victims. Hence we see a self-confessed rapist like Magnus Meyer Hustveit given initially a non-custodial sentence, or Anthony Lyons, offered initially an opportunity to buy off his victim.

Two years ago, retired High Court Judge Mr Justice Barry White told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke:

“I don’t believe that judges need training in relation to sentencing, in cases of a sexual nature”.

In a country where the parish – and the parish priest – can queue up to shake the hand of a convicted sex attacker, there is a serious need to have a conversation with ourselves about the message we send every day to the victims of sexual crime.

We need to talk about consent, we need to talk about our attitude to victims of sexual crime and, yes, men need to start feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.    

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s 24-hour national helpline is 1800 778 888.

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