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Opinion: 'They are distraught when their images are shared by a former partner'

Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre says the law around image-based sexual abuse is useless as it pre-dates the internet and new legislation can’t come quickly enough.

Noeline Blackwell

SEXUAL VIOLENCE IS a real and endemic problem in Ireland. Dublin Rape Crisis Centre was founded in 1979 in response to the acute need for a support agency for women being attacked in their homes, on the streets and in all the places that life goes on.

In 2002, DRCC published the SAVI report, the first major survey on the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland. It revealed that 42 percent of women and 28% of men had been subjected to some form of sexual abuse or assault.

Those shocking findings endure; research just published from Maynooth University and Trinity College Dublin shows that 49% of women and 19% of men have been sexually assaulted or harassed.

Evidently the need for rape crisis support remains as acute as ever. After every single incident of sexual violence, whatever form it takes, a survivor should have appropriate support, adequate health care, recognition of the wrong done to them and a pathway to justice to redress that crime in a system that is sensitive to their trauma and respects their experience. In many cases, however, not all and sometimes not even one bit of that happens.  

Turning a blind eye

But as a society too, we have a sizeable blind spot about our tolerance for sexual violence. We are often quick to judge, to blame the victims of sexual violence for assaults. Do we even understand why we think like that?

A Law Reform Commission report on Irish law on rape in 2019 affirmed that “rape myths and misconceptions” play an important role in society’s attitudes to consent and consequently sexual violence. People are often not even conscious of how much they have absorbed such rape myths and how this has shaped their thinking.

A Europe-wide survey in 2016 found that 21% of Irish people surveyed believed sex without consent was justified in some situations. Clearly if a significant number of people believe that they do not need consent in some situations, sexual violence and all the lasting harm it brings must follow.

We are blinkered in what we treat as sexual violence. Most will recognise rape by a stranger as harmful and criminal. But non-consensual sex with a long-term partner? That’s rape too, but fewer people will name it so.

Sexual harassment continues to blight people’s lives in workplaces and social settings, online and in person, around Ireland. It is harmful and can leave a lasting impact but many will still consider themselves entitled to such ‘banter’.

Different forms of abuse

We are beginning to see convictions for coercive control in Irish courts – newly recognising this persistently controlling, coercive behaviour by one partner of another as damaging and traumatic.

We are also strangely tolerant of digital based abuse. Those who exploit others by getting or sharing another’s intimate images under false pretences and therefore, without their informed consent, are engaged in sexual abuse as surely as if they were carrying out physical sexual abuse. 

This image-based sexual abuse has a long tail, leaving the image subjects uncertain and often frightened about when such images might re-appear. Those who are given such images in good faith but later share them without consent are particularly culpable – they have breached the trust of someone whom they have conned. 

On the National Helpline, we hear from people who have learned by chance that pictures or videos given in confidence to a partner or ex- partner are now outside that intimate circle.

They are distraught at the thought of where those pictures might be, might travel, might end up. Equally, we hear from those where a former partner has knowingly and maliciously shared intimate images or records, or hacked their social media to include such posts where our caller knows that the aim is to humiliate, to intimidate, to threaten.

And then we hear from those who haven’t shared anything, but pictures of intimate parts of their bodies have been taken without their consent. 

Put like that, you would think that the Gardaí and our courts would be the first port of call for those who have suffered this abuse. But the reality is that our law isn’t up to the job.

Current legislation on harassment and the like is used by the Gardaí as best they can, but the reality is that the law pre-dates the internet. It never visualised the kind of harm that could be caused by one single covert action.

That is why the legislation being scrutinised by the Oireachtas Justice Committee today is so important. We know from her recent pronouncements that Minister for Justice Helen McEntee now proposes to take up the Bill first tabled by Deputy Brendan Howlin in 2017 in order to ensure its swift passage through the Oireachtas.

It can’t come quickly enough. These grossly offensive acts, to which our society turns a blind eye, need to be outlawed.

In addition, we must scrutinise further proposed legislation which aims to regulate digital providers such as social media companies – and porn sites. Such legislation must protect victims against image-based sexual abuse by strong codes of conduct, sanctions for failure to take down images swiftly, and the provision of a Digital Safety Commissioner.

The rationale of social media companies and other web-sharing sites is sharing. It’s how they make their money. They must not do so by trampling on victims of image-based sexual abuse.

The importance of our services

DRCC seeks to address these harms through the services we offer to survivors: the National 24-Hour Helpline, one-to-one counselling and therapy, and accompaniment for those attending courts, Garda stations and hospital in the aftermath of rape and sexual assault.

In addition, our trainers build understanding for others working with survivors of sexual violence: through better understanding of the impact of trauma in the aftermath of sexual violence as well as how consent awareness can transform understanding of such violence. We use our experience and expertise to inform, to advocate and to ensure the voices of survivors are heard in policy and law reform.

DRCC will continue this work for lasting change while also maintaining support for the thousands of people who call on us annually. However, just to keep our work at its current levels, we must raise €1m from public fundraising each year.

Covid-19 has both damaged our fundraising capacity and seen the number of survivors on our therapy waiting list grow by a third, to our highest-ever level of 411 people. We need public support more than ever to meet this challenge.

So from 25 November to 10 December, DRCC is marking the annual global 16-day campaign against gender-based violence with a campaign: #16stats in #16days.

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While this piece started with a depressing statistic about how much remains to be done, the reality is that more people than ever in Ireland are engaged with and committed to the DRCC’s ideals: to prevent the harm and heal the trauma of sexual violence. 

The American aviator Amelia Earhart is quoted as saying: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is mere tenacity.”  If our supporters can act with us, we can commit to being tenacious in the struggle against sexual violence.

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Noeline Blackwell is a human rights lawyer and CEO of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. She chairs the Independent Patient Safety Council and is a member of the UCD Governing Authority. Look for #16stats as part of the new campaign. Donations can be made at  drcc.ie/donate. You can also give €4 by texting DRCC to 50300, or donate €4 each month, by texting HELP to 50300.

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