Ill-judged words can often add to the pain and horror of rape 

Using language sensitively when discussing victims of rape and sexual violence is important, according to Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop

EDUCATION is the way forward in preventing sexual violence in our society. The words we use can offer comfort and support, but they can also do great harm.

When it comes to the crime of rape, we all need to be mindful of the language we use. This is not about political correctness. It’s about being open to learning about the sensitivities of victims in the aftermath of this heinous crime. One journalist in a recent article in The Sunday Times said that, by saying that there is “no such thing as ‘less violent’ rape”, I was implying that there is no such thing as ‘more violent rape’. It is disingenuous that she concludes from this that the Rape Crisis Centre’s position is, according to her: “Once you’ve seen one rape, you’ve seen ’em all.”

The context was that, as a result of comments made by a retired judge on Seán O’Rourke’s radio show, there was a flood of calls to the national 24-hour helpline from upset and angry victims and members of the public. The retired judge’s use of language was interpreted by the callers to indicate that he did not appreciate the spectrum of traumatic impact that rape has on an individual and that he did not believe that judges needed education in this area of understanding.

Judges listen to the most appalling stories of human depravity and man’s inhumanity to man. We can have confidence in our judges’ ability to know and understand the law, and their training in the law prepares them well to be the best at what they do. They carry a very heavy burden of responsibility when a jury finds an alleged perpetrator guilty of rape, to weigh up all the circumstances, mitigating and aggravating, before deciding on an appropriate and just sentence. It is imperative that we, as a society, have confidence in our judicial system and in our judges.

Rape is a horrendous act of violence. All victims suffer trauma as a result and that trauma is on a spectrum and depends on many factors. Of course there are degrees of, sometimes extremely severe, violence that can be perpetrated in addition to the rape. That is why we at the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre support judges having discretion when sentencing guilty perpetrators, while taking into account the Supreme Court ruling that rape should carry a substantial custodial sentence. We do not support mandatory sentencing. We do not propose that all rapes are the same and that they all have the same effects on all individuals. That is why we lobbied for victim impact statements that are now allowed in court after the alleged perpetrator has been found guilty and before the judge hands down the sentence.

It is why Rape Crisis Centres would like the opportunity to provide input into the Judicial Education Programme on what we know and have learned from nearly 40 years of working with victims of sexual violence, about the consequences of rape, sexual assault, and childhood sexual abuse on victims. That is our expertise. Through the training we offer we support the work of many professionals in Ireland and overseas by sharing what we know. We believe this understanding and knowledge can support the work of the judiciary also.

RAPE Crisis Centre volunteers a accompany victims to Sexual Assault Treatment Units both men and women, week after week, who have been victims of rape, by partners, by husbands, by strangers, and by multiple perpetrators. And we know that only one in 10 victims report theses crimes.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s trained volunteers accompanied 59 victims of rape and sexual assault to the SATU in the Rotunda Hospital in the second quarter of 2014. We want to encourage more age- appropriate sex education programmes for children at home and in school because we firmly believe that education is the key to preventing the prevalence of sexual violence in our society. This is why we have developed a prevention and awareness raising programme which is used in secondary schools and other youth settings. We want to encourage more victims to report rape and we must all play our part in breaking down the barriers that hinder victims reporting, by challenging our own assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes to this most heinous crime and by being sensitive in our use of language when it comes to sexual violence. It is the perpetrator who is responsible for rape and sexual assault, never the victim.

-Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop is chief executive officer of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. National 24-hour helpline: 1800 778888

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