Last year, the Students’ Union published the results of a survey conducted on student experiences of non‐consensual sex. It makes for depressing reading. One in four women on campus have had a non‐consensual sexual experience. Think about that for second. Think about the average number of women in any one of your lectures, split them into quarters and appreciate the sheer volume of people in that lecture theatre who have survived sexual abuse. Think of your group of friends and do the same. The results from the SU survey are not extreme. The 2002 SAVI report found that 20.4% women experience sexual abuse during childhood and 20.4% experience sexual assault as adults. Statistically speaking, whether you are aware of it or not, you know many women who have been victims of sexual abuse.
I write this article because I am part of that 25%. When I was still in primary school, a man from my town sexually abused me. My parents chose not to press charges against my abuser. There were several factors in their decision. Firstly, they were worried about the effect having to relive my experiences in the courtroom would have on me. Secondly, they did not want me to go through that and then lose, which seemed likely. Thirdly, they were concerned that living in a small, rural Irish town, despite the best efforts of an in camera court, I would always be whispered about as the girl who claimed that a nice, respectable family man sexually abused her.
The foundation of the second two of these concerns is ultimately the same – my parents were afraid that I would be deemed a liar. My parents’ fear was completely rational. As a society, we do not just cast doubt on the claims of women who have been abused; often, we actively vilify them. The vitriol directed against the woman raped by footballer Ched Evans is but one example of the way we treat those who are brave enough to speak out about their experiences. This woman has had her identity repeatedly revealed on social media, been subjected to horrific abuse online and generally treated as a pariah, to the point that her father has said she effectively has to live “on the run.” Ched Evans is protected by the privilege he enjoys as a public figure in a position of relative power. His victim has been further victimised as she broke a societal rule: don’t call out the people we think are more important than you for their wrongdoing.
However, the problem is wider than those who actively attack victims of abuse for speaking out. In our culture, women and men who speak out about assault are automatically suspect. We are all guilty for perpetuating the stereotypes that make it harder for victims of abuse to speak out. Incidents of sexual abuse and assault are very rarely the classic “man drags sober, modestly dressed woman down an alleyway and violently rapes her,” or “strange man with creepy moustache lures child away from safety in a public park.” They can occur in any environment, at any time, to any person. A woman who goes out dressed “provocatively” does not “deserve” to be raped any more than I, in my blue pyjamas with a rabbit on them, “deserved” to be abused. A woman after several tequila shots is not “asking for it,” or “up for it,” or any of the other horrible, seemingly innocuous little phrases we employ to undermine her credibility. Every single one of us has at some point or another disparaged a woman for what she was wearing, or scoffed at her because of the number of lads she shifted on a night out. We are all part of this problem.
Every person’s experience of abuse is deeply personal. Since coming to college, I have begun to tell people outside of my immediate family circle about what happened to me when I was little. I have been incredibly fortunate in that I have not experienced a single incident of someone doubting my story, and very few unsupportive reactions. This has massively bolstered my confidence, which has in turn allowed me to confront aspects of the long‐term effects of being abused which I found difficult to process before. Unlike so many people who have had experiences like mine, I have never personally experienced active disbelief. It is the subtle, everyday narrative of suspicion which affects me constantly. I am no longer frightened of the man who abused me, but I am afraid of the reaction people will have when I tell them about what happened to me. After all these years, I am still afraid I will be treated as a liar.
No wonder so many of us experience sexual violence, and no wonder so few of us come forward. Who would want to add the trauma of being called a liar to the trauma of non‐consensual sex? By creating an environment where people are frightened to speak out, we add to their trauma and fear. We also make it increasingly difficult to have meaningful dialogue about how to tackle this issue, as without people speaking out, it is easier to downplay the extent to which this occurs.
One in four women in Trinity have had a non‐consensual sexual experience. I want to applaud every one of the members of that unlucky quarter who filled out that survey and got the ball rolling on improving life for all of us, men and women. However, the solutions to this problem are not solely the job of the SU Welfare Officer to provide. We must all become more conscious of the hundred small things we do that perpetuate this culture of fear. No woman should feel that she won’t be believed because she had the temerity to wear a short dress that night, or because the man who attacked her “doesn’t seem the type, and sure, wasn’t she flirting with him anyway.” If those affected by sexual violence cannot speak, no change can occur. One in four is not a statistic we should be happy to live with, and we must all do our part to change it.
Illustration by Naoise Dolan