Fergus Finlay: We must change language around sex crimes in quest for justice

Fergus Finlay: We must change language around sex crimes in quest for justice

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Chief Executive, Noeline Blackwell.

That Noeline Blackwell one — the woman from the Rape Crisis Centre — drives me crazy. I can’t listen to her on the radio without getting angrier and angrier. Wouldn’t she do us all a huge favour by just going away and stop forever giving out about the law and the courts system? They’re both working the way we designed them to work, and what’s wrong with that?

Have I got your attention? Good. Noeline, the CEO of the Rape Crisis Centre is, in fact, someone I admire enormously. I’ve known her for a long time and worked with her once or twice. A more honest, direct, and professional advocate you’d go a long way to find.

And she’s not alone. Sarah Benson runs Women’s Aid. My former colleague Suzanne Connolly runs Barnardos. Mary McDermott runs Safe Ireland. Mary Flaherty, until she retired recently, ran CARI. Maeve Lewis runs One in Four. Barbara McDonald runs Ruhama, which campaigns against sex trafficking and prostitution.

I could easily think of other examples. Brilliant women. Highly professional. Each has a deep understanding of the issues they face. Each knows how they need to be addressed. The organisations they run are all dedicated to challenging and confronting the damage done to women and to children by abuse when it arises, and also by neglect, poverty, mental ill-health, and a range of other issues.

Brilliant women doomed to fail

But in an awful lot of cases, the job these women do is about enabling women (and children) who have been hurt by men to seek healing and justice. In too many cases, healing is impossible without justice.

So these brilliant women are doomed to fail more often than they succeed. Because justice for many is an impossibility. Because the rules, and the dialogue around the rules, are set in concrete.

I have an idea that might change that to some degree.

But before I get there, let me tell you what Noeline Blackwell was talking about the other day.

She was talking about a young woman called Sarah Grace. Sarah Grace is a solicitor — an obviously very brave young woman. She was brutally attacked while she slept in her own apartment.

Because of her courage, and her willingness to go public, we know the name of the man who attacked her. His name is Ibrahim Elghynaoui, and he is now serving ten years for aggravated sexual assault. Sarah Grace fought him off before he could rape her.

Search for justice

But what Noeline wanted to talk about on the radio was the ordeal Sarah faced in trying to bring her attacker to justice. People who have been raped go to court as witnesses to what happened to them, but can then be cross-examined in the most accusatory way possible. In Sarah’s case, the defence demanded and was given access to notes taken during the counselling that was essential to help her deal with the post-traumatic stress she endured.

These were perhaps the most intimate conversation Sarah Grace had ever had, about the worst thing that had ever happened to her in her life. And they had to made available to be read by lawyers defending the man who had done it to her

As Noeline said on the radio, if Sarah’s house had been broken into, or if she had been beaten up and her possessions stolen, no one would ask to see counselling notes. It is only in this unique case, involving one of the worst things that a man can do to a woman, that the woman is forced under oath to bare her soul.

Those are the rules. They militate against women every day of the week. We can only change the rules by forcing lawmakers to confront the damage that’s being done. We’ve got to find a better balance.

One way of doing that is by changing the way we talk about it.

There’s an American called Jackson Katz. He’s an educator and activist. I’ve seen him on CNN, and you can find a TED talk he has given easily enough on the web. His speciality is gender violence, and he argues passionately about the need to change the way it’s discussed and spoken about.

Here’s a couple of simple sentences from an interview he gave. You’ll recognise them, even though I’ve edited them down a bit.

“John beat Mary. John is the subject. Beat is the verb. Mary is the object. Now we’re going to move to the second sentence. Mary was beaten by John. We’ve shifted our focus in one sentence from John to Mary. The third sentence, John is dropped, and we have Mary was beaten. And now it’s all about Mary. We’re not even thinking about John. And the final sentence in the sequence, flowing from all the others, is Mary is a battered woman.” You all recognise that, I’m absolutely certain. You see it in the headlines and news coverage all the time, about women affected by violence. It is depersonalised. Always. There’s never a mention of the men who perpetrated the violence. Ever.

Oddly enough, the only recent mention I’ve heard about domestic violence was a recent news item reporting that the number of men suffering from domestic violence — beaten by their partners — had increased during the lockdown.

Shocking figures

But, for example, on International Women’s Day Sarah Benson’s organisation, Women’s Aid, issued a detailed and informative press release highlighting the fact that one in every five young women in Ireland (between the ages of 18 and 25) had experienced some form of intimate relationship abuse — online and in person, emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid.
Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid.

One in every five. And half of the women abused were girls under the age of eighteen. That’s a shocking figure, and it hardly caused a ripple.

Suppose the headline on the article had read: “64,000 YOUNG IRISH MEN ABUSED THEIR PARTNERS LAST YEAR”.

That figure is easily gettable from the Census. It’s roughly a fifth of the total number of men between 18 and 29. Then look at a recent statement from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. It referred to the fact that 168 men were charged with rape last year. But by their calculations — and they have very good reason to know — the huge concern is that that represented about one seventh of cases reported to Gardai.

Suppose for the sake of it, the headline on that story had read – “1,200 IRISH MEN COMMITTED RAPE LAST YEAR – AND MORE THAN 1,000 GOT AWAY WITH IT”.

They are two pretty controversial headlines. They seem to me to be justified by the facts.

But I’ve no doubt whatsoever that if either or both of those headlines had appeared in a national newspaper, or lead the 9 o’clock news, they’d have started a major national debate. Wildly irresponsible, some would say. What about the men who are abused, others would have said. How can you accuse men without proof would have been a refrain.

But it’s a controversy and debate we need to have. We have to change the language. Because we need to stop de-personalising crimes against women, committed by men. And because we know in our hearts that unless we change the conversation we’ll never change the law. And justice will never be done.

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