Here we go again. And again. And again. Whose fault is it when a woman gets raped? Her own? Or the perpetrator's?
The answer to that one is simple and straightforward. There should be no equivocation, no debate, no musing about the length of the skirt she was wearing at the time. If there's no consent, it's rape. End of story.
Yet, time after time, we see the line of responsibility between victim and rapist being blurred. Time after time, we end up talking about what the woman could have done to prevent it; how she could have acted differently.
In this case, it's Joanna Lumley, of all people, offering unsolicited safety advice. “Don't look like trash”, she said. “Don't be sick in the gutter at midnight in a silly dress, with no money to get a taxi home.”
Why do we continually see the onus placed on women to avoid their attackers, when the emphasis should be on deterring potential rapists?
However well-meaning such |remarks are — and, of course, it's important for girls and women to be aware of risks to their safety — they have the effect of shifting the balance of blame.
In a society that is already ambivalent about the meaning of rape, that is a dangerous move — especially here in Northern Ireland.
I have never forgotten the 2008 Amnesty survey, which showed that almost half of our university students believe that a woman is in some way responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a |flirtatious manner. That is one sick statistic.
And here's another: almost one-third of local students consider that a woman is partially, or totally, responsible for being raped if she is wearing ‘sexy, or revealing’ clothes.
No. She is not to blame. The fault and the consequences of his criminal action lies entirely with the rapist. How many times must this basic fact be repeated?
So here is what we need to do. We need to challenge the pernicious spread of so-called ‘lad culture', where women are regularly shamed as drunken sluts; fair game to be used and abused.
If girls are consistently treated as non-sentient, sexual fodder, then it provides a ready context for rape. Student misogynists, like the ones who set up the Holyland Lad site, should be challenged and condemned — not rewarded with newspaper columns, as one local publication did.
We need to stop telling girls not to get drunk, or telling them not to go out late at night, as though they are under some kind of moral curfew. (Besides, the vast majority of rapes — more than 90% — are carried out by someone the victim knows, not some random, knife-wielding psychopath on the street.)
The PSNI needs to stop its |regressive, paternalistic focus on curtailing female behaviour and look to campaigns like the successful Canadian Don't Be That Guy initiative, which targeted ordinary men, showing them that drunkenness does not equal |consent.
Most of all, we need to see a sharp rise in the rate of convictions for rape in Northern Ireland. As it stands, they are dire.
In 2011, 440 rape cases were passed to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) from the PSNI. Just 218 were recommended for prosecution and only 78 were prosecuted. Fewer still were convicted.
Given the notoriously high rates of under-reporting when it comes to sex crimes, that means the number of rapists going to jail represents a tiny proportion of the real number of perpetrators out there. And, of the cases recommended by the PSNI for prosecution, why are so few actually prosecuted?
It seems that the PPS is operating as an over-zealous gatekeeper, pre-emptively acting as judge and jury.
This, in spite of recommendations from the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Inspection that the PPS “should investigate the reasons why the majority of rape cases are directed for no prosecution”. I'd love to hear the answer to that vital question.
So the law does not work as a deterrent; in fact, it does the |opposite. The law shows that you can rape with virtual impunity.
Even where perpetrators are caught, the time served is often short. When, for instance, was the last time a life sentence was handed down to a rapist?
For too long, women have |carried the burden, the pain and the shame of rape.
It's time to stop talking about who's responsible — we know the answer to that already — and start taking action.