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Premium: Making sense of the CSO figures on sexual violence

Tell me, dear reader: How do you square the circle where, on the one hand, Ireland is supposedly a more tolerant and inclusive and confident and liberal and feminist society than it ever was in the dark days of yore – while at the same time the CSO reports yesterday that young people are almost three times more likely to have suffered sexual abuse than those who grew up under the watchful eye of Archbishop McQuaid?

The proportion of adults who experienced sexual violence in their lifetime was 40%, with higher levels for women (52%) compared with men (28%).

Overall, sexual violence prevalence rates in the survey show an age effect as younger people reported higher levels than older persons, for example, 22% of those aged 18-24 experienced sexual violence both as an adult and as a child compared with 8% of those aged 65 and over.

There are, I would suggest, several interlocking explanations. The first, let’s be honest, is that there are probably generational differences in understanding about what the words “sexual violence” mean. Wolf whistling, to take an extreme example, would almost certainly have been broadly considered harmless banter forty years ago, whereas today it is commonly understood to be an example of brutish male behaviour towards women. In less specific terms, we can probably agree that behaviours which would not have been considered socially beyond the pale four decades ago are very much socially unacceptable today. That probably explains at least some of the difference.

And yet, that doesn’t hold up entirely. In fact, if you take the most extreme kind of sexual violence – rape – then you find that once again those growing up in the modern and liberated society are having a much more dangerous experience than those who grew up in the shamed and repressed one:

Almost one in five women (18%) experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse as an adult. Non-consensual sexual intercourse is defined as sexual intercourse where the person was coerced, threatened or forced into having sex. They were six times more likely than men (3%) to have experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse as an adult.

Those aged 25-34 were more likely to have experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse as an adult (17%) compared with those aged 65 and over (4%).

This is true of men, as well:

For men, the highest level for non-consensual sexual touching was 17% among men aged 25-34 compared with 4% of those aged 65 and over.

The broad narrative about Ireland, which is almost universally accepted, is that the more we talk and are open about sex, the safer everyone becomes. We preach endlessly about consent. We talk about being sex positive. We’re very keen on stripping away layers of shame and stigma. It is broadly taken as a given that these things are good, and that they are in particular to the benefit of women. And yet the other explanation for these figures is that this thesis is wrong.

It’s an observable reality in society that the more liberated we become in talking about sex, the more liberal every individual is expected to be. “This isn’t true, John”, come the cries from the gallery, but in reality, it is: In theory, sure, a person who wants to wait until marriage to have sex has the right to have their wishes respected. In reality, such a person will find the dating pool become a dating paddling pond and find it much harder to find partners. Further, you do not have to take it from me that the culture, and the widespread availability of pornography, is creating a culture of entitlement to other people’s bodies. Just take it from anyone – literally anyone – working with young people.

And of course, there’s been a change in how people date: Gone are the days when most relationships began after a chance meeting in a bar or at an event led to a first date and a second and a third – now, people are meeting more and more through dating apps, leaving women in particular more vulnerable to the predatory but charming stranger.

There will of course be those who posit an alternative explanation: That younger people are simply more willing to speak up and tell the CSO about the things that happened to them. Older people are more ashamed, and less willing to admit it, they might say. But the problem with that is that if it is true, then the whole survey has to go in the garbage: You can’t just take the bits of it you like, and discard the bits that make less sense on the basis that respondents might be fibbing.

If, on the other hand, we take the CSO’s figures seriously, then the only obvious conclusion is that the sexual revolution has brought with it major costs which are being paid, in particular, by the young.

All of that said, there is no obvious solution: A return to the social and sexual mores of the 1960s is not likely. The fact is that for most people, whether they admit it or not, an increased level of sexual crime is a price worth paying for an increased level of sexual liberation. The only serious pushback, these days, is coming not from the traditionally minded on the right, but those feminists like Louise Perry who are arguing that it’s progressive young women who need to erect new barriers themselves.  How successful they will be remains to be seen.


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