Time to remove victim-blaming from our courtrooms

Time to remove victim-blaming from our courtrooms
The Dublin Pride Parade, 2019, arrives at Westland Row on its way to Merrion Park in Dublin city centre. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

LAST weekend, a 61-year-old man by the name of Russell Sykes, entirely of his own volition, crouched down on a Dublin street during the Pride parade and used the camera on his phone to film up a woman’s skirt.

In court, defence solicitor Michael Hanahoe cited a “certain looseness of behaviour” by some of the participants of the parade.

“On this particular occasion, I couldn’t help seeing some of the participants making their way back and there was a certain looseness of behaviour,” Mr Hanahoe said in court, in defence of his client.

Sykes, a married father of two from South Carolina who was in Dublin for business and not activist reasons, cited getting “caught up in the atmosphere” of Pride as an explanation for his behaviour.

The judge was having none of it.

“The day is long gone when men can simply use, abuse and objectify women without their consent, for their own benefit or pleasure,” Judge Conal Gibbons said of this rather “lame excuse”.

In the end, the American businessman pleaded guilty to engaging in offensive conduct of a sexual nature and was jailed for two months.

The woman whom he had filmed had confronted him at the time, but Sykes “scarpered like a thief in the night”.

However, he returned to the same area later in the day and the woman recognised him. A garda approached him and found an image on his phone that had been taken up a skirt.

In a statement, the woman said she feared that a recording of her private person would be put “all over the internet”.

“I was distraught, I had a panic attack, I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. She felt “violated, shocked, and in a state of total distress”.

It was a court hearing of both modern and prehistoric times.

On one hand, we have a qualified, experienced legal professional citing a “certain looseness of behaviour” in defence of a client who committed an offence of a sexual nature — and aren’t we all well used to that narrative?

And then, on the other hand, we have a judge who called out the abuse and objectification of women “without their consent”, and who heralded Sykes’ victim as a “symbol” of modern times, who has “escaped from a cultural backdrop where women were oppressed and exploited.”

In Spain this week, there was also a trial involving sexual offences, only it involved six men and a 14-year-old girl.

That same old narrative of blaming the victim, to remove responsibility from the perpetrator, crept in.

Prosecutors in the trial argued that the six defendants should face the lesser charge of sexual abuse instead of rape. Why? Because the 14-year-old girl was drunk, under the influence of drugs, and did not fight back.

Lawyers’ work is detail-heavy. Meticulous research is the name of the game.

When it comes to trials involving crimes of a sexual nature, a little research would go a long way.

The majority of victims do not fight back.

When humans find themselves in dangerous situations, there are several responses to attack: Fight, flight, freeze, and even fawn, where the victim will try to placate their attacker because the latter three are too dangerous an option to go with.

In cases of rape and sexual assault, freezing is the choice the body makes most regularly. The research is there to back it up.

In a sample of 298 women treated at a Swedish rape clinic in the space of one month, 70% reported an inability to resist their attacker. It is known as tonic immobilisation. It is an evolutionary defence response to a predatory attack. A further 48% reported experiencing extreme tonic immobility.

The research was published in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica in June 2017. For working solicitors and barristers, it shouldn’t be too difficult an article to get your hands on.

The reason this research is so important is because this “immobility” is so often confused as consenting, and therefore used as part of a defence case in a courtroom.

There is so much used in trials of offences of a sexual nature that is made up of bias, myth and misconception, all of which serve only the perpetrators of these crimes.

In any other crime, the behaviour of the victim is not used to mitigate the actions of the perpetrator. Cheap, inappropriate analogies abound, ones of people being carjacked on O’Connell St, who drove with their windows down and their doors unlocked.

Consent is a simple concept, but millennia of a victim-blaming narrative to serve and preserve the liberty of perpetrators, often leaves our head in a spin.

We debate the role of alcohol, the length of skirts, and now, even the victim’s presence and activity on a dating app. As times change, the goalposts move too.

But nothing is an invitation to rape.

Everyone is responsible for their own behaviour. Nothing forces you to crouch down and take footage of a woman’s crotch. No one causes you to interfere with another’s body. No item of clothing forces you to abandon your ability to be a law-abiding, respectful citizen. If this was the case, beaches and bikinis during holiday season would be banned. But they’re not, because neither the sun, sand, sea, nor swimwear causes rape. Only rapists cause rape.

Solicitors and barristers spend a lot of time studying and apprenticing, and then practising. Sexual offences are a common crime and they’re now becoming an even more commonly reported crime thanks to the likes of the young woman who confronted the up-skirting Russell Sykes.

We would all be served if lawyers versed themselves in the myths and misconceptions around rape and sexual assaults.

Judge Conal Gibbons certainly has no time for such mythically-based defence in his courtroom.

He has done the complete opposite of blaming the victim, and instead rightly elevated a young woman who took a courageous stand.

“Not only did she resist her humiliation and exploitation, she went to the gardaí,” he said. “She is a great symbol for all women.”

Not all victims have the ability to resist, such is the nature of these crimes, but with more education and the dispelling of myths from our police stations and courtrooms, it will become harder for perpetrators to explain away their behaviours and easier for victims to report the offences.

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