Dangerous game to categorise different circumstances of rape

THERE is much that we tip toe around when discussing the issue of rape; much that’s left unsaid because it risks offending those who have already been so gravely offended by a rapist.

Dangerous game to categorise different circumstances of rape

The truth is that by not facing up to some of these issues, for fear of causing further hurt, or damaging the feminist agenda, we maximise the risk for women rather than keeping them safer.

There are so many ways that women suffer harm in the discussion of rape, and the attitude of society to it, that we veer away from the uncomfortable truths rather than give fodder to the victim-blaming brigade.

Listening to retired Judge Barry White give his thoughts on the subject of rape cases, in an interview with Sean O’Rourke on Radio One, was one of those occasions when the notion of giving any further ammunition to the “other side” seems an odious prospect.

I am not suggesting that Judge White, 70, retired a week today after a very eminent career, was anything but fair and learned in his sentencing in the Central Criminal Court over the years where he heard murder and rape cases.

But it was not easy listening to him discuss those experiences in his marvellously supercilious tones. If I were a rape victim awaiting a court date whatever reluctance I may have been feeling would have been seriously magnified by the time he finished speaking.

Judge White acknowledged that “rape is a crime of violence, and you cannot say it is not a violent offence”, but said there are parameters or degrees of gravity and these are matters that have to be taken into account. He made a distinction between “very violent” rapes and “less violent” ones. That is fair enough. Clearly the circumstances surrounding an act of rape can vary greatly, depending on the amount of violence or personal injury involved, or, for instance, if there were weapons used.

People do tend to categorise when they hear details of a particular case, but it should also be kept in mind (and one expects that judges do just this) that some of the most insidious and horrible rapes may not involve direct violence at all, because the level of terror is so great none is needed. It is a dangerous road to go down – to attempt to decide that one rape is of a more serious nature than another. After all the very act of rape – the violation of being sexually penetrated against your will – is an appalling act of violence by its very nature, no matter what the circumstances. But there are always surrounding circumstances, and these need to be taken into account. That’s where a judge comes in. It’s their job to dispassionately take on board all the circumstances when deciding on a sentence.

Judge White’s use of language was most unfortunate when he spoke of how some victims might try to influence a judge in sentencing by implying their rape did not fit into the middle range but was “one that fits at the very top of the range”.

He acknowledged the effect of the crime on a victim had to be borne in mind by a judge, but added that if somebody was “trying it on, and seeking to influence you …you must just have regard to that and simply say no”.

What an unfortunate picture he paints of pushy rape victims, exaggerating their claims. He may have been speaking of particular cases but his use of language and the lack of sensitivity was dismaying. His remarks could not be described as female friendly and could have a devastating effect on any rape victim waiting for a trial, or one that has already had her case heard.

This judge has form. He was in the news a while ago in relation to a case involving a Brazilian woman where he said he did not believe the rape had a “profound psychological effect” on her, and he said it had struck him the woman was more interested in compensation that anything else.

So what? If seeking and receiving compensation meant this woman felt less aggrieved about her rape, and that her rapist was made to think twice about attacking another woman in the future, what shame was there in seeking money? If more women did so, in conjunction with a prison sentence, it might act as a better deterrent.

I suppose it should not have come as a surprise to hear that Judge White does not believe judges need specialist training in how to deal with rape cases and sexual crimes. In any event it would come too late for this man, appointed to the High Court in 2002, now at the end of his career on the bench.

But these sort of remarks are the ones that get the attention and outrage — understandably so — but they are just a small part of a culture that ultimately has a negative impact on the pursuit of justice. It is a culture which is perpetuated and reinforced at so many points of the criminal justice system.

These points are addressed in “Rape and Justice in Ireland” (RAJI) a really good report produced by the Faculty of Law, NUIG, led by Conor Hanly. Published in 2009 it was commissioned by Rape Crisis Network Ireland. Reading it one can only conclude that culture, beliefs and attitudes have a significant and negative impact on the pursuit of justice when it comes to rape.

What we do not hear enough about, or speak to young men and women about, is the clear message from RAJI that our binge drinking culture “provides the context for the majority of sexual violence crime”.

The figures quoted were really quite staggering not least that almost 77% of suspects had consumed alcohol and over 80% of complainants. For about two third of complainants and 90% of defendants, whose alcohol consumption was capable of being measured, the drinking was at “binge” level. Almost half of defendants were described as ‘severely intoxicated, with 45.4%, in a similar state.

The report makes it clear how alcohol’s presence presents challenges in responding appropriately to sexual violence; how rape survivors, where alcohol was present, were not only more vulnerable to targeting for sexual assault in the first place, but once they report such an attack to the gardaí, they were less likely to obtain redress through the legal system

It found that most people were raped by someone they knew and many of the assaults occurred in the victim’s, or the perpetrator’s home. Alcohol was consumed in the majority of cases. Yet the report showed that a rape that fit this scenario was less likely to be prosecuted, while the less common rape which is perpetrated by a stranger is the most likely to be prosecuted.

The report called for us as a society to deal with our binge drinking culture, and that this should form an integral part of any anti-rape campaign. It sought a media campaign aimed at men, particularly young men, to make them aware that rape is a possible consequence of binge-drinking.

But listening to Judge White makes me feel bad about going into this detail because “the female cause” is already under such strain when it come to rape. But these sort of facts and figures are too overwhelming to ignore.

What an unfortunate picture he paints of pushy rape victims, exaggerating their claims

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