An Cailín Rua
MANY of you will have seen Louise O’Neill’s excellent documentary, ‘Asking For It’ last week on RTE2. The documentary sees the acclaimed author explore the issues of consent and sexual assault in Ireland. O’Neill’s documentary is significant, in that it is probably the first time a conversation on consent has gone truly mainstream, and moved away from the feminist arena, where it has, of course, been talked about for decades.
‘Consent’ with regard to sexual relations seems like a pretty obvious concept; it implies that both or all parties have given their permission or are partaking willingly in sexual activity. It also means that ‘no’ means exactly that – no.
Twenty-three years ago, in another seismic moment for Irish women, Lavinia Kerwick became the first rape victim in Ireland to waive her anonymity when her rapist was given a suspended sentence. The 18 year-old was raped by her then boyfriend, William Conry, after attending a disco in Kilkenny. The couple walked to the grounds of Kilkenny Castle and lay down together, where they talked for a while, then, despite her protests, Conry started getting rough and raped Kerwick.
In court, Mr Justice Fergus Flood said there had been ‘a high degree of intimacy’ between the two, and that Conry was now contrite. In description of evidence given by a sergeant, he said that ‘things got out of hand and just went too far’. This language suggests that the judge felt the events were beyond Conry’s control. An attitude – highly unflattering towards men, it must be said – that persists to a certain degree to this day.
I distinctly remember being in a room of adults where a heated discussion took place about the case. I recall a majority of the people – men and women - protesting that it wasn’t Conry’s fault. By wearing what she wore - a black top, black velvet mini and a red jacket – and by going alone with her boyfriend to this dark place, Lavinia Kerwick was ‘asking for it’.
These Neanderthal attitudes are what shaped many a generation’s attitude to sex and consent. Popular culture for years has espoused the notion that when women say no, it doesn’t really mean no – look at any James Bond movie or Indiana Jones movie for examples. In fact, rape was not criminalised within marriage in Ireland until 1990. Combine this with the traditional Catholic shame associated with sex and the lack of basic sex education available to young people, and you have the makings of a sick society.
The question of consent doesn’t just apply to interactions between individuals, however. The State itself routinely shows contempt for consent when it comes to women. Tusla, for example, funds a number of rape crisis centres in Ireland. According to Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the funding contracts between Tusla and the RCCs explicitly require access to information gathered from survivors by the centres. Outrageously, the State contracts specify that if the consent of the survivor to any such disclosure is needed, RCCs will have to obtain it - or breach the funding agreement. Such an outrageous stipulation makes a mockery of the notion of consent and in doing so, further violates survivors.
Add to this the fact that the State can also legally compel women to give birth against our wills by preventing us from accessing abortion services, or from travelling to obtain one (in the case of migrants). It has also subsequently forced women to involuntarily undergo Caesarean sections. Just this week, the HSE sought an order to force a pregnant woman at risk of uterine rupture to have a Caesarean section against her will, to vindicate the right to life of her unborn child - who was legally represented in court – a situation that arose as a direct result of the Eighth Amendment. Thankfully, the court ruled it would be a step too far to order a forced C-section, regardless of the risk to both.
The screening of ‘Asking For It’ on a national channel brings the conversation on consent into the mainstream like never before. But is it any wonder Ireland has a problem with the concept, when women are reminded repeatedly from all sides that their bodies are not their own?