The latest crime figures from the CSO have shown a marked rise in recorded rapes and sexual assaults. In 2015, 536 rapes were reported throughout the State. That’s an increase of just over 12pc on 2014.
The number of sexual assaults went up by 15pc in the same period, with a shocking 2,361 offences reported throughout the country last year.
Just what is going on?
There’s no doubt the figures are up. But it’s worth bearing in mind that these are figures for reported offences, and they’re far, far lower than the numbers of actual offences taking place. The 2002 SAVI report, the most comprehensive report ever done on sexual offences in Ireland, found that just 7pc of rape victims had reported the crime.
This is borne out by the most recent figures from the Rape Crisis Network, which are from 2013. According to the countrywide centres, just 7pc of those who avail of its counselling and support services had previously reported their experience to Gardai.
Many of the victims approaching sexual violence centres are just coming to terms with historic abuse, so these figures are not a snapshot of a particular year. 60pc of those who present to a rape crisis centre are reporting child sexual abuse; some recent, some historic.
Are more rapes happening? Or are victims more willing to come forward, and risk their reputations, mental health and the stability of their day to day lives, by reporting what’s happened to them?
There’s been a huge shift in how we talk about rape and sexual assault in Ireland in the past two decades – indeed, the fact that we are talking about it at all represents a change.
It’s due in no small part to the actions of incredibly brave victims who have spoken out about their experiences and broken down walls of shame, silence and complicity. At first, they were victims of clerical child abuse and institutional abuse. The wave of people, the sheer numbers, who spoke out about their experiences of brutality and pain at the hands of religious orders, teachers and other authorities, shocked Ireland to the core in the 1990s and changed our society irrevocably.
In just the past two or three years, however, a new discussion around sexuality, consent, boundaries and different types of rape and sexual assault has begun. Thanks to outspoken activists like the author Louise O’Neill, the conversation has moved from ‘stranger danger’ and child abuse to the kind of rape that is worryingly common, and where, in the words of that infamous song, ‘blurred lines’ still cause difficulties for victims.
O’Neill’s book, Asking for It, is about a teenage girl who’s gang-raped at a party. She’s not an innocent; she’s a young woman with an active sex life already. She herself doesn’t want to face the fact she’s been raped by boys she knows. She refuses to believe it’s even a possibility. And that’s not unusual.
66pc of rapes reported to the Rape Crisis Centres in 2013 were carried out by someone well known to the victim. And none of us want to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that someone we know could be capable of doing that to us. But that is changing.
The case last year of Magnus Meyer Hustveit, who raped his sleeping girlfriend repeatedly, was a wake up call for many people. It confirmed that being dragged into a dark alley by a stranger is just one point on a continuum of ‘real rape’. ‘Real rape’ is any penetration that doesn’t take place by mutual consent, and seeing a conviction for rape of an unconscious woman – crucially in a long term relationship with the perpetrator – is highly unusual. While Hustveit didn’t initially receive a custodial sentence, he has since been sentenced to a 15 month stint in jail.
To me, that case represents a new departure. It shows that justice is available. And it’s possible that Niamh Nic Dhomhnaill’s decision to speak out, and to waive her right to anonymity, was an encouragement to many others.
Reporting is not an easy path, but women like Nic Dhomhnaill have given hope to many others – men and women – that they will be listened to, no matter that they are in a relationship, no matter that they’ve previously consented to sex with the perpetrator, and no matter if there is no violence involved.
According to the SAVI report 2002, just 10pc of reports at that time resulted in a prosecution, with under 10pc of those resulting in convictions. Is it too much to hope that the rise in reporting will turn the tide of convictions, too?