When I was 19 I lived in a house in north Dublin. I'd dropped out of college, but was still living the student life with a friend and our housemates. Our landlord, who wasn't much older than us, but whose sister we knew (who was a housemate) also lived with us. For the purposes of this post, let's call him Eamonn, though that is not his real name. I found Eamonn a bit dry and serious, but the girls who shared the house (including his sister) were all lovely, and generally it was a happy home.
One evening, Eamonn had two male friends come to stay with him. They seemed like nice enough guys, and we chatted for a while before going our respective ways to bed. I had already gone to sleep, when suddenly I awoke to find one of the guys on top of me, smelling of alcohol, saying that he could see that I wanted "it". I told him to get off me, and when he wouldn't, I aimed my knee in a general groin-led direction, and fled the room. The two girls who shared the room next door had both gone home for the weekend, and their room had a lock, so I locked myself in, and didn't come out until I knew my landlord's friends had gone.
I confronted my landlord and told him what his friend had done. He stared at me impassively and told me I must have been mistaken.
There have been a number of times this year when I have had reason to recall this incident, because, it seems, there have been a lot of people in the last twelve months who have had an opinion on sexual assault, and more specifically, rape. In truth, the people who seem to have got the news headlines going have been white middle-aged men. From Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, to George Galloway, there seems to be a section of society that is hugely misinformed about what constitutes rape and sexual assault. The best definition I've come across was in an article in the Guardian, from Becky John, who was raped aged 15 by a man whose home she went to voluntarily: "No consent equals rape".
I realise how lucky I was not to be raped on that night in North Dublin. Rape victims often speak about how they were paralysed by fear; and I remain confident that there is some man out there, like Pavlov's dog, remembers my knee to his groin, and will hopefully have been deterred by that memory on trying to assault again. Why did I not take it further than my landlord? In truth, it didn't even occur to me, or seem like an option. It was taken as part and parcel of a girl growing up that she would get some "hassle" from "lads". Boys will be boys, and all that. It seemed like boys' "misdeeds" were all part of them growing up, whereas if a girl had "hassle" - well, there was a good chance she might have brought it on herself. Shortly after, I was accosted late at 9p.m. one night down Dublin's South Circular Road by a man who pretended to be asking for the time, and then waved a £20 note in my face and begged me to have sex with him. I broke away from him, and ran home. It did not cross my mind to report him, so ingrained was it to put up and shut up. Even adverts today propagate theories along similar lines: "Ladies, don't take that unlicensed mini-cab, there may be a rapist driving it". Or "Ladies, be careful about how much you drink, you don't know where it may lead to" sort of scare-mongering. In other words: it is all our fault, and responsibility for provoking men's libidos.
I've seen those adverts, and I find them risible. Statistics show that victims of rape normally know their rapist. So that cuts out the "Don't be caught down a dark alley way after pub closing hours hailing an unlicensed mini-cab" brigade (although that is probably still advisable). Of all the things that women talk about (and although rape does affect some men, it is a crime where women mainly are the victims), tales of having been raped, sexually assaulted or the victim of domestic abuse are not subjects that women tend to engage each other in. I have two friends who told me about having been raped - one by a friend, one by her boyfriend. A few have recounted about attempts to sexually assault them; and there are a couple who have admitted to being victims of domestic abuse. In every single case they knew their attacker, sometimes intimately.
One reaction would be to see all men as potential rapists; that is not one I would advocate or condone, simply because I don't believe it. But it is foolhardy to think that everything possible is being done to prevent rape and sexual assault, and one has to wonder whether this is because this crime predominantly affects women (according to the Rape Crisis centre, 5% of women experience rape, as opposed to 0.4% of men; a whopping 23% of women experience sexual assault as opposed to 3% of men), and our legislators are pre-dominantly men? Or is it because rape is still a hugely under-reported crime? A UK government report from 2007 estimates that between 75-95% of rapes are not reported to the police; so it is hard to condemn the police for not acting on a crime that is not reported officially. However, according to a news report on the BBC in that same year, although 230 women were being raped on average daily across the UK that were reported, equating to 85,000 women in that year, only 800 were convicted: in short, the conviction rate was less than 1%. This year, it was also revealed that Ryan Coleman-Farrow, a former police officer in the Met's Sapphire unit, which investigates rape and other serious sexual assault, failed to investigate rape cases properly and falsified records, for which he was later convicted. Is it any wonder that women do not want to relive their ordeal if the outcome has little consequence?