COLETTE BROWNE: Women suffer in silence about sexual abuse — and I should know

THE first time I covered a sexual assault case I remember sitting in the court room and being stunned by the evidence — when I realised that I had experienced the same abuse that was being outlined by the victim.

It may sound stupid, but I had genuinely never thought of the casual sexist abuse I routinely encountered as criminal. Instead, I labelled it odious behaviour by a minority of cretins that was best not to dwell on. The fact that this behaviour was so pervasive was just bad luck.

It’s hard to know at what point girls become inured to sexual assaults and conditioned to endure them, as occasional unwanted intrusions into their lives, but it happens at a young age. One of my first memories of being assaulted was when I was in school and, after an assembly, when the halls were crammed with students and teachers, being pinned against a wall and groped by a boy in my year. I remember feeling humiliated, panicked and helpless. I was surrounded by people but no one was aware of what was happening and I was too shocked and embarrassed to utter a word. I didn’t tell anyone.

There have been many other instances throughout the years. The time a man in a pub grabbed my hand and placed it on his crotch because he wanted me to feel his erection and “see what I had done to him”. The time I was on a deserted train carriage when a man, sitting opposite from me, began to masturbate. I stood up and got out at the next stop. There was the time I went to a friend’s house party and, having gone to sleep in a spare box room, woke up in the middle of the night to find a man in bed with me with his hand up my top.

Half-asleep and in shock, I jumped out of bed and locked myself into one of the other spare rooms. He was gone the next morning. Creep, not criminal, I thought at the time. It was only later, as I was sitting in a court room and listening to the identikit details of a stranger’s assault, that I realised this behaviour does not have to be tacitly tolerated.

The lesson I had learned from society up to that point was that this behaviour was something that had to be endured. I could fill this entire column with unpleasant anecdotes. Before you roll your eyes, and mutter that I have simply been unfortunate, managing to encounter every deviant in Ireland, understand one thing: my experiences are not uncommon. If anything, they are the norm. I recently raised this subject with a number of female friends and every single woman had a story to tell of sexist abuse and assault. Tellingly, no one used the word assault and no one had ever reported a single instance of abuse.

Why? Because sexual violence is not an easy subject to broach. Most women, who feel humiliated, debased and intimidated by the experience, would prefer to forget that it ever happened rather than dwell on the details. There is also concern about people’s reactions and whether they will think that you brought the attack on yourself. That you dressed a certain way, made a certain remark or drank over a specified amount and are therefore partly, or entirely, to blame for what happened. Some of you, reading this, are thinking that exact thing right now. That I must have done something, given some sort of signal, to prompt a stranger to creep into bed with me while I slept. I didn’t.

Although intellectually I knew that I was blameless, this was something that I found myself thinking about afterwards. Idiotically, the next day, I wondered if I had said or done anything to lead him on — as if anything I did could have excused his appalling behaviour. There are also those who use women’s perceived attractiveness as an arbiter of truth. Some readers will have already examined the picture that accompanies this column to decide if I am attractive enough to warrant an assault, or if I’m too ugly to bother with or be believed.

Women are also loathe to discuss these issues as those who do are routinely derided as shrill harpies who exaggerate relatively benign high jinks by drunken pranksters in some kind of bizarre attention-seeking mania. Anyone who dares to make a fuss about having obscenities shouted at them as they walk down a street, being groped in public or subjected to even more serious assaults, are deemed humourless feminazi wagons who are too brittle and self-absorbed to put up with some harmless horseplay or banter.

“But he was drunk, he didn’t know what he was doing, it was completely out of character,” is a common reaction. The implication is that being drunk gives men a licence to harass and assault women.

In order to be seen as strong, and appear unaffected by abuse, women just shrug it off and pretend that it’s a matter of little consequence. To acknowledge it publicly would mean that you care, or that the behaviour has hurt and upset you, and this is something you definitely do not want to do. You want to brush it off, forget about it, move on. This is the reaction that men who perpetuate this kind of abuse count on. They need women to stay silent so that the perverse stigma, that victims of this kind of abuse suffer, remains intact.

Consequently, instead of having a real discussion about abuse, its alarming ubiquity in society and the damage it is wreaking, women suffer in silence and learn to put up with it. But we shouldn’t. Instead of regulating our behaviour, it is men who need to regulate theirs.

I WAS reminded of this while reading the coverage of Charles Saatchi’s attack on his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. Saatchi, although he has now admitted there was an assault, at first labelled his apparent throttling of his wife as a “playful tiff”. British National Party chairman, MEP Nick Griffin, tweeted that: “If [he] had the opportunity to squeeze Nigella Lawson, her throat wouldn’t be my first choice.” When people complained about this comment, he dismissed them as “feminist cranks”.

Blatant abuse, accompanied by incontrovertible evidence, was trivialised and normalised as something that was not serious or worthy of attention. Despite the shocking nature of the photographs, the assault was downplayed as an isolated incidence. An aberration.

Well, it’s not. Research by Women’s Aid has revealed that one in five Irish women has been a victim of domestic violence. The proportion who have suffered a sexual assault is more than twice that, but just a tiny fraction ever report the abuse.

The insidious culture of complacency and victim-blaming that uniquely accompanies these crimes is the reason they remain so endemic. This is something that we, as a society, need to address.

Until victims are supported, instead of having their characters assassinated, and men’s abusive behaviour is no longer tolerated, nothing will change.


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