Sexual assault has in the last few years become a prominent issue in the media and in society generally. This trend is to be welcomed, as it is bringing into the public eye an extremely important issue facing modern society. How society treats sexual assault, its victims and its perpetrators, plays a significant role in how it sees itself, and also in how it actually is. When it comes to sexual assault, it seems that society and culture have something of a split personality. One the one hand, society regards sexual assault, in particular crimes termed as rape, as abhorrent. In movies, on television and in mass media, sex offenders are portrayed as the worst type of criminal out there, and their crimes are treated with a mixture of revulsion and horrified fascination.
At the same time, society seems unwilling to confront head on the reality of sexual assault in many instances, and instead tries to diminish its importance, especially where the perpetrator or victim do not fit certain stereotypes.Take for example the case of this year of the businessman accused of attacking a woman on Griffith Avenue under the influence of, his defence claimed, a cocktail of medication and alcohol. The individual was given a six year sentence with five and a half years suspended, leaving him with a total of six months in jail.
After an appeal by the DPP, the sentence was increased so that he will now spend an additional 18 months in jail. Adding in time served already means that he will spend at most two years in jail for his crime. A factor in the leniency of both sentences was that the perpetrator had offered compensation to the victim. This case raises important issues. The attacker did not fit the popular profile of of a rapist. He was a successful businessman with a family. Society does not like to believe that such outwardly upstanding individuals are capable of horrible crimes like rape, so it lets them off with suspended sentences and paying compensation to the victim.
This makes a mockery of equality before the law, as it opens the door to better off individuals effectively buying their way out of serving time in jail. As the CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre pointed out, this is an option not open to the less well off. It also feeds into the social acceptance of sex offenders as long as they are nice, respectable people who don’t fit the picture society wants to construct of what a rapist is. If the attacker on Griffith Avenue had been a homeless heroin addict, it is doubtful he would have received so light a sentence.
Rape and sexual assault are amongst the most horrendous things human beings can inflict on one another. It beggars belief that someone guilty of such a crime could spend less time in jail than someone convicted of robbing a corner shop. The law, and the execution of the law, must change, along with how society treats and portrays perpetrators of sexual assault. A basic starting point must be mandatory minimum sentencing. It is simply not acceptable that one person can attack another on the street and then walk out of prison six months or even two years later. Theft, drug possession and public disorder all receive longer sentences than this, and sexual assault is an infinitely more serious crime.
A basic guideline minimum sentence for sex crimes is a first step towards changing how the law and hopefully society generally treats sexual assault. This requires no new laws. Our statute books already criminalise all forms of sexual violence. We simply need to add a minimum sentencing provision to all applicable sections. Minimum sentencing is only the start however. Irish law provides for judicial discretion in most types of criminal cases. This is usually a positive aspect of our legal system. It allows judges to use their best judgement when sentencing, to avoid excessively harsh sentences for crimes that don’t warrant them.
In the case of sexual assault, however, the opposite happens. Rather than using their best judgement to mitigate harsh sentences, the judges appear to be conforming to society’s blind spot about sexual assault and mitigating sentences for offenders, particularly when they don’t fit a predetermined profile. Social perception is that sexual assault is perpetrated by random individuals on victims they do not know, usually in a dark alley or other suitable setting. The offender is always a monster, complete with all the appropriate traits. The truth is that one third of all sexual assaults are committed by people who are known to the victim, within families or relationships, and the perpetrator often has no history of criminal activity.
In order to change this, we the public must push for both minimum sentences and for stricter interpretation of judicial discretion. We must insist that our justice system treat rape, sexual assault and any sex crime as the heinous and unforgivable acts that they are. The laws are already at our disposal, all that is needed is the will to convict and punish perpetrators in proportion to the crimes they have committed.
Society and the legal system are linked. Once society starts to push for the legal system to appropriately punish sexual assault, this will in turn help to improve our culture’s attitude to sexual assault. The law exists to treat all citizens equally, but also to sentence them according to the severity of their crime. Our justice system has a long way to go before it treats sexual assault with the severity and firmness it needs, but minimum sentences and public pressure can help to take it there.