Two decades on from the SAVI report, have we done enough to tackle sexual violence? 

New research shows not enough has been done to tackle sexual violence and harassment over the past two decades, writes Noel Baker
Two decades on from the SAVI report, have we done enough to tackle sexual violence? 

According to organisations such as the DRCC and the RCNI, the under-reporting of sexual crime is still a major issue. File Picture

In the era of the pandemic, maybe it's easy to overlook an epidemic. Yet with new research showing alarming levels of sexual harassment and violence in Ireland, 'epidemic' is surely the right word.

Back in August the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI) referred to an epidemic of sexual violence in third-level institutions. Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, said as much and the current Programme for Government went so far as to describe an “epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence” that needs to be tackled.

In the latest research from Trinity College Dublin and NUI Maynooth, Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC), uses the same word to describe the bigger picture — one where 15% of Irish adults have been raped at some point in their life, where a third have experienced some form of sexual violence, and where women are more likely than men to be targeted. 

The nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 people shows that a fifth of women have been raped in their lifetime, as have a tenth of men, and that half of the women surveyed have experienced any form of sexual violence.

The findings are stark and the research invaluable, almost two decades on from the SAVI report which, for the first time, gave a clear picture as to the extent of sexual violence in this country. 

Back in 2001 more than 3,000 people were surveyed for an incredibly comprehensive report which found that 20.4% of women reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood, that one-in-six men said the same, that 20.4% of women reported experiencing contact sexual assault as adults, as did one-in-10 men.

In our study, 49% of women and 19% of men reported being sexually assaulted or harassed

It appears that whatever progress has happened in the meantime has been at glacial pace. 

According to the authors of the report launched this week: "In our study, 49% of women and 19% of men reported being sexually assaulted or harassed. 

It would seem, therefore, that in the intervening two decades, the proportion of women in Ireland who have experienced sexual violence may have increased slightly while the proportion of men who have experienced sexual violence may have decreased slightly.

"Whether this trend is due to changes in the occurrence of sexual violence, or a greater willingness to report such experiences, potentially facilitated by recent high-profile movements such as 'Me Too', however, remains unclear."

What has changed over the past 20 years? According to the new report, "in the intervening two decades, Irish society has undergone substantial liberalisation and secularisation, particularly with respect to matters of sexual health, identity, and reproduction rights." 

And yet, here we are. 

According to organisations such as the DRCC and the RCNI, the under-reporting of sexual crime is still a major issue. Speak to those in charge of Sexual Assault Treatment Units and it is clear that many of the people presenting will not make an immediate report to gardaí. So the crimes are still being committed, yet the conviction rate for cases that do make it to court is well below that for other offences.

The issues with the criminal justice system have been consistently problematic. According to Noeline Blackwell: "The real problem is that the justice system has tried to squeeze intimate crime into the same template as all other types of crime." 

It is to do with the specific type of offence — that it can often be someone you know, maybe a member of your family, that naming that person can disrupt your own life, that in the event of it going to court it can seem like you are the one on trial. 

Evidently, something needs to be done to ensure that there are consequences for those who commit sexual crimes, while those who experience those crimes get justice and the supports that they need.

The media — hands up here — can sometimes be too quick to attach blame to the role of social media platforms for the various ruptures in society, but you only have to recall the toxicity of some of what occurred around the time of the Belfast rape trial to see how it can add a darker gloss to an already dreadful situation. 

However, social media has also played a role in promoting greater awareness and understanding of issues such as consent, particularly among third-level students in recent years. 

Arguably, there are challenges for the education system elsewhere. In his foreword to the SAVI Report, the then-Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue, wrote: "It is an old saying, but prevention is always better than cure, and we must try to prevent crimes of rape and sexual assault." 

Has the school curricula at all levels, and how it is taught, caught up with the times? Late last year a draft report on sex education was prepared by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), yet it has been in the news this year because a freedom of information request showed 50 letters condemning the proposed changes had been sent to the Minister for Education. 

Just this month the ESRI published a research paper called Talking about Sex and Sexual Behaviour Of Young People in Ireland, which said there was a "significant variation in RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) receipt across individual second-level schools" and that by the age of 17 fewer than 60% of young people had discussed sex and relationship issues with their parents. 

A significant minority of 13-year-olds — predominantly from disadvantaged social backgrounds — reported no RSE or parental discussions about sex.

These and other issues persist, and while it's unfair to criticise an important piece of work such as the report published this week for what it does not contain, it would be instructive to know how many of those who said they had experienced sexual violence and harassment had disclosed it to someone, had reported it to gardaí, how many of the perpetrators had been investigated, never mind prosecuted and or convicted. 

Lasting impact of sexual violence

But the report does tell us of the lasting impact of sexual violence — the heightened likelihood of experiencing depression or anxiety, a great likelihood of a diagnosis of a psychiatric illness. 

With mental health the perennial Cinderella service within the health system, what improvements can be made to ensure that those who need additional supports receive them, and as quickly and effectively as possible? 

Instead, the authors of the report, like the rest of us, are left to marvel at the sheer resilience of those who have lived through these dark experiences, and endured.

In the foreword to the SAVI Report, written by Micheál Martin, the then-Minister for Health and Children, he said: "I hope that the findings of this report will contribute to the further development of appropriate responses by all those concerned with the provision of services to victims of sexual violence, whether they are male or female, adult or child."

Nearly 20 years on, we're still not there. 

As Noeline Blackwell points out, "epidemics don't go away of their own accord".

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