A Woman’s Worth Part I – the reporting of violent crimes against women

Update: January 2016

This post was originally intended to deal with the way society quietly contributes to and colludes with a culture of violence against women in ways that are often so subtle, we don’t even notice. Be it “casual sexism”, the acceptability of men catcalling or abusing women on the street, the common tendency to imply that survivors of sexual assault somehow are partially to blame, the frequent disdain towards feminism, the objectifying and abuse of women in the media, as well as workplace cultures and media cultures that continue to quietly reinforce the myth that somehow women have less to contribute. All of the above elements are intertwined, and all play their own role in the way women are treated in society. 

I also wanted to look at the low reporting levels and the frequently sentencing of crimes of violence against women, to examine the way the courts contribute to this culture. I have looked at reporting below; but the list of unduly lenient sentences became so long and unwieldy that I have now removed it, and it is available here. 

Reporting of crimes of violence against women.

There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that violent crimes against women are significantly under-reported. It’s difficult to obtain exact statistics, but it’s estimated that, as few as one in five incidences of domestic assault are reported to Gardai. The Sexual Abuse Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report (2002) published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre found that disclosure of sexual crimes was startlingly low  – just 7.8% of women experiencing adult sexual assault had reported to Gardai. Bear in mind that prosecutions and convictions for reported crime are very low also – according to the Garda Recorded Crime Statistics report 2007-2011, published by the CSO, there were 1,992 sexual offences recorded in Ireland in 2011. Court proceedings were taken for 318 (16%) of the offences recorded (with 244 pending at the time of publication), and convictions were returned in 54 cases. 54 convictions. That’s a conviction rate of 16%. Out of all offences reported, that’s a 3% conviction rate.

Why is this the case? There are a myriad of reasons. Firstly, identifying an assault in the first instance can be an issue – sometimes women aren’t aware that what they have experienced is actually an assault. Many don’t know where to go for support (over a quarter, according to SAVI, would not know where to turn). The reporting process itself can be traumatic. A victim of crime may have enough on their plate just dealing with the fact that they have been assaulted, without embarking on process they may not feel able to cope with. The burden of proof usually lies with the person who has been attacked, survivors are often afraid that they will not be believed, or that they will in some way be blamed for encouraging or provoking the attack. And if someone who’s been affected by a crime does decide to go down this road, conviction rates are low. The ordeal of reliving their experience on the witness stand under cross-examination can prove too much of a deterrent. If the perpetrator is convicted, sentencing is inconsistent at best.

Even the 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report recently demonstrated just how flawed process are within the force in terms of recording, classifying and following up on domestic violence, and also demonstrated that within the force, “some members displayed negative attitudes towards domestic violence by referring to calls as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources.”) So it’s clear that there is a massive problem.

Take the following scenario. To report a sexual assault women need to contact the gardai, and probagly get to a garda station. Depending on who they deal with, they might be given detailed, sympathetic information about the process ahead. SAVI indicates that lack of information from gardai and medical personnel was the main source of dissatisfaction with services – with gardai in particular providing inadequate explanations of procedures being undertaken, and medical personnel needing to provide more comprehensive information regarding services and options. Upon arriving, they’d be advised not to wash, remove their clothing, or brush their teeth. They might be injured – missing teeth, for example, or bleeding heavily. They’d need to be medically examined, but because facilities are under-resourced, they may need to wait for hours to be examined. They may even need to travel to a certain unit to be examined (there are just seven specialist Sexual Assault Treatment Units in Ireland). This is all in the immediate aftermath of an assault.

In terms of reporting, journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy gave an excellent and detailed account of the reporting process, pointing out that it is often a fraught one for survivors, who can frequently feel like they are peripheral to the process. Deirdre has included two case studies on the reality of the reporting process which are well worth a read. (Notably, Deirdre also explains that legislation on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, while designed to prevent re-offending, can place the onus on survivors of assault who are already struggling to deal with the abuse, to ‘save’ others. This legislation will also introduce mandatory reporting for social services, agencies and public sector organisations dealing with abuse victims, a move that may potentially dissuade them from seeking assistance or counselling for fear they may be inadvertently starting a legal process that they don’t feel ready or able for.)

Sentencing

We’ve already seen that once crimes are reported, it’s a long road to prosecution and conviction, and the process can sometimes take years. Over the past few months a trend has become apparent in the way crimes against women are treated in Ireland by the courts. Lenient and inconsistent sentencing in particular is a concern, and I’ve detailed in this separate post just some of the more unacceptable examples of sentencing reported in the past few years. There are undoubtedly more, and the number of judges referenced indicates that this problem is ingrained in the judicial system.

Sentencing is not the only problem. Take the case of Danny Foley, a bouncer from Listowel, who in 2009 was jailed for five years for sexually assaulting a 22 year-old woman. Before he was jailed, approximately 50 people in the courthouse lined up to embrace him and shake his hand – in front of his victim – before he was jailed. Foley later lost a bid to overturn the conviction.

Where is the incentive for survivors to report, and sometimes be forced to relive their ordeal face-to-face with their attacker on the witness stand, when rapists and violent criminals, receive what appear to be minimal custodial sentences, sometimes none at all? When victim-blaming is rife, what does that say to a woman? What does the commercialisation of crimes say to potential rapists – giving them an option to pay a “token” of compensation in lieu of a spell in jail? That they can pay a price for their victim’s consent? The consistent theme of judges commenting on offenders’ previously “good characters” indicates that such assaults are viewed as a mere slip-up, an indiscretion, a minor mistake. Nowhere is there evidence to show that any of the members of the judiciary referenced above demonstrated an appreciation of the impact a sexual crime can have on a woman.

So what’s to do be done?

There’s a lot to do, and less than ever to do it with. But we owe it to those women who have had to endure the physical and psychological trauma of a violent assault, to ensure that we start sending a strong message to them (we are on your side, not your abuser’s) and to abusers (this is not acceptable and you will be severely punished).

Stop victim-blaming

When violent or sexual crimes are committed, we need to immediately stop victim-blaming, or implying that women attacked violently were in any way responsible for their assault be that in how they might have dressed, where they were or what they might have been wearing. They were not. The only people ever responsible for violent crimes are those who commit them. This is indisputable – yet we still see fit to imply that women who have been assaulted Jane Ruffino, mentioned above, has written this piece, entitled 10 things you should do when confronted with violence against women, and it’s worth a read.

Female survivors of violent abuse need support, and somewhere they can go for practical advice or counselling in a non-threatening and confidential environment. Organisations like Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network and the Rape Crisis Centres as well as many smaller organisations do excellent work, but in the current environment are fighting harder for a smaller slice of the funding pie. Wexford Women’s Shelter and the Midwest Rape Crisis Centre have both had to close for periods of time due to lack of funding.

Sentencing guidelines

The need for sentencing guidelines, particularly in the area of sex crimes is being examined. As already mentioned, the Law Reform Commission is calling for a re-examination of mandatory sentencing however it would also surely be prudent for the judiciary, who undoubtedly have a difficult job to do, to be versed in the very real effects of sexual crimes against women, and to bear in mind the message their sentencing sends to both perpetrators and victims of crime. It is worth noting, however,  that in a 2013 report, the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS) conducted research which suggested that sexual assault sentences in Ireland are not in fact too lenient, and that rapists who have either pleaded not guilty, failed to show insight into the nature and consequences of rape, or those who inflicted violence, were typically given a sentence of at least nine years in jail. Relatively few sentences were seen as lenient, according to the report, and those that were tended to be highlighted in the media.

Training

There have been a number of calls for training of judges with regard to rape sentencing, particulary from within the Rape Crisis movement; however these have proved fruitless to date. In a 2014 interview on RTE Radion 1 with Seán O’Rourke, retired High Court Barry White rejected the idea of judges requiring training, saying: “I don’t believe that judges need training in relation to sentencing, in cases of a sexual nature. There may be judges who are inexperienced in dealing with crime, who find themselves sitting in the Central Criminal Court, from time to time, but most judges who sit in the Central Criminal Court have had long criminal experience, have had substantial criminal practices over protracted period of time. And they are fully aware, as to the parameters within which a sentence should be imposed.”

The mounting evidence would suggest that they are less aware of the implications of their decisions.

Taking responsibility

Aside from this, we need to take control ourselves and start creating a culture change. A change in perspective from ‘punishment’ to ‘prevention’, and educating our children, especially our boys, about consent. That means thinking about the way we treat, regard, discuss and behave towards women. All of us, men and women alike. We need education. We need to think about how we speak to our children, how we speak  to each other in front of them and instil in them a different mentality than that which exists in society towards women presently.

If our judiciary don’t take it seriously, if our police force don’t do it seriously, if our government doesn’t take it seriously, if a significant proportion of the population at large doesn’t take it seriously, it’s time that those of us who do stepped up to the mark and started making Ireland a safer, better, more just country for everyone living here.

Why THAT Club Orange ad annoyed me

I’m sure most of you have already feasted your eyes on the orgy of faux bit-squeezing borderline soft porn that makes up the most recent Club Orange advertising effort. If you haven’t, do go right ahead and feast/hide your eyes right here. (I’m not really too fussed about adding the video to my blog – I think I’d feel a bit dirty. Please make sure to clean the screen afterwards….and you can take that any way you like.)

Yes, I know, I know. By talking about it, I’m contributing to the debate, generating buzz, giving them what they want, all that jazz. The only thing worse than being talked about, etc etc. While my profession involves lots of work based around advertising, I tend not to get on my soapbox about creatives, instead preferring to regard them as a necessary evil. The fact that the Club ad has made me feel strongly enough to put pen to paper surprises me, but I’m fascinated by the reaction it’s garnering across all the various spectrums, particularly in social media. The ad has “gone viral” it seems, which is what most savvy marketers apparently aspire to these days. But is it necessarily a good thing?

I have a number of issues with the Club Orange ad debate. I don’t really buy the “Diet Coke break” revenge argument that has cropped up so many times in its defence. Diet Coke ads are equally shit, equally lazy and equally sexist. I know Matthew McConaughy was happy to get his pecs out for the Dolce & Gabbana cause. I also recall another aftershave advert – the brand name escapes me – involving a naked man, and a leather couch (the meeting of which upset me greatly, I might add. Bum sweat on the sofa? No thanks.) We’ve all seen countless ads portraying men AND women purely as sexual objects. Sex sells, or so they say… but this is different.

Firstly, it’s the sheer lack of subtlety that gets me. It’s really not very … classy. Granted, this argument won’t stand up to much scrutiny in a reasoned debate about sexual objectification, but my instant reaction upon seeing this ad was to think, how well, …..cheap … it looks. It’s the advertising equivalent of Katie Price, isn’t it? All boobs, faux sex “appeal”, and very little substance. The ad sells using sex, in its lowest form, aimed at the lowest common denominator in the cheapest, most tabloid-esque manner possible – the type of manner that would make a red-light district window display look positively classy. All brawn, and no brains, and titillation (no pun intended) without fulfilment. Of course, procuring yourself some Club Orange may just provide alternative fulfilment… depends on what you’re into, I guess. On another level, this ad just irritates me no end – it has a “nails on a background” vibe about it and that contrived accent is already starting to grate, before it even hits the screen.

More importantly, however, I’m almost annoyed with the “actresses” featured, and their deliberate, unashamed provocativeness. I feel betrayed by them. Every day, we read about the ‘glass ceiling’ and witness first-hand the struggles women face in the workplace and on the world stage simply in order to be taken seriously and to progress in their chosen careers. Never mind that they shouldn’t have to fight harder, the fact is a lot of them do, and it is strong, powerful, intelligent women that I would prefer to be seen as representative of our gender – and of me. Then, you look at this ad, and read the (mostly male-generated) comments on YouTube, dissecting as they are the finer points of an ad featuring a row of boobs in tiny bra tops (their faces are barely shown, of course) designed to sell a soft drink, and you start to despair. Yeah, there’s a freedom of choice argument – women are free to do as they will with your bodies (mostly) and all that. But I can’t help thinking that women everywhere striving for true equality are being let down by the “actresses” in ads like these.

I’m conscious the opinions above might imply that I think all men are suckers for this low form of wit. I know the opposite to be true. What’s struck me about this palaver over the past few days is the amount of men I have observed rolling their virtual eyes at this and dismissing – nay, slating – the ad both for its lack of intelligence and its dearth of originality. The advert is clearly targeted towards young men, and I’ve noticed quite a few such men taking offence with the notion that advertising agencies still believe they are brain-dead enough to fall for such base concepts. Men object just as much as women to the fact that teenage boys and young men are being targeted using an ad that blatantly objectivises women, and that’s heartening, as is the level of condemnation for the ad by men on behalf of women. I think it’s born out of a realisation that objectivising and sexualising women to the extent where we’re almost watching soft porn before the watershed is wrong and unhealthy, particularly because in our media-saturated world it plays a massive part in skewing young people’s perceptions of each other’s gender at an impressionable age. All of this contributes to a greater malaise in society – and ultimately, on a more serious level, contributes in no small way to a culture where even violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is not regarded or treated with the seriousness it should be. I am in no way exaggerating when I say this. It all adds up.

On another note, having scanned through a number of the reactions on the internet over the past few days, I get the sense that most women actually don’t feel they can voice their annoyance with this ad, without being labelled. Even the stronger, more prolific, outspoken women I’m aware of in the spheres of media and journalism, seem to feel they need to qualify their objections with an “I’m no prude but…” or “You might think I’m being old-fashioned and conservative but…” and this is what really makes me sad. As women, the fact that we still appear to perceive ourselves in such a way that we don’t feel comfortable enough to voice our objections without prefacing them with a qualifier, says a lot about how we feel we are perceived – and at the risk of being controversial here – specifically by men, for articulating these concerns.  I won’t lose any sleep over this ad, but on a moral and ethical level I’m not happy about the level to which sex is used – across any industry – to reduce people to brainless, objectified, sexualised objects. I’m less happy about the fact that it appears to work, to an extent, but I’m most unhappy that I as a women should feel I need to justify my objection to it, for fear of being labelled a frigid old feminist. And yes, feminism is still, in this day and age, seen by many as a dirty word with negative connotations. Hysteria, even. There’s a lot of progress to be made yet.

Finally, I’d also like to note that this ad irritated me purely because I think it’s rubbish. It’s lazy, it’s boring, it’s clichéd and it’s been done to death already. Hunky Dorys got there before Club, Diet Coke before them, and if this ad was designed as a parody, as has been suggested, then it’s an abject failure. I can’t help but feel the agency responsible might have done a pretty great Irish brand a considerable disservice. In what I’m guessing is an effort to differentiate it from its biggest competitor Fanta, they have misfired, and by resorting to such a cliché-ridden, one-dimensional campaign, lacking in any subtle nuances or discernable humour, I wonder if they will cheapen the brand irreparably, and alienate a good proportion of their non-regular buyers.

I’ve no problem with a brand tailoring advertising in order to target a specific market, and indeed redefining their target market – it happens all the time, to good effect and is clever marketing – just look at Special K and Yorkie respectively for examples. But for a brand which had such great potential to shine in a much broader territory, and from a uniquely Irish position, at that – I can’t help wondering whether the agency, and Club themselves have shot themselves in the foot. It’s easy to drive brand equity down, but very, very difficult to reverse the damage.

Time will tell. But I know what I won’t be buying for a sugar rush from now on.