Domestic violence victim

Why is sexual violence still hidden in plain sight in this era of oversharing?

  • Society

The launch this week of the figures on sexual violence by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), brings both good news and bad. The good news is that we now have up-to-date evidence on a serious societal challenge. The bad news is that the 2022 figures are sobering.

A representative population survey of 4,500 adults in Ireland, the Sexual Violence Survey 2022 provides the first overview of sexual violence in Ireland since 2002, when the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report, of which I was the lead author, was published.

I’m pleased that the survey was delivered by the CSO. It has invested extensively with partner organisations in the sector in planning and delivering this sensitive survey. In 2001 the SAVI project was enabled by philanthropic donations to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the leveraging of government funds.

Sexual violence is a serious population health scourge, as well as a crime, and regular CSO updates will be important to assess the impact of policy interventions and supports on its prevention and management. Its commitment to including this topic in its ongoing population survey scheme is invaluable.

Purists will caution about any direct comparison of the new statistics with SAVI or any other prevalence study, as design and sampling differences can make important but unknowable differences in how such sensitive issues are reported. Others will want to build on past data, however challenging the comparisons, to have some signal whether any real progress or deterioration is detectable. Let me try to provide the message for both sides.

If you want to focus on this week’s figures, with data collected in 2002, then 52% of women and 28% of men have experienced some form of sexual violence over their lifetimes. In the data collected by SAVI, it was 42% of women and 28% of men. The most serious sexual abuse – sexual intercourse – including non-consensual vaginal, anal or oral sex, was reported for 7% of girls and 2% of boys (those aged under 17) in the latest survey. In SAVI, it was 6% of girls and 3% of boys.

For adult experiences of non-consensual sexual intercourse (aged 17 and over), it was 18% of women and 3% of men. In SAVI it was 6% of women and % of men.

In terms of disclosure – the question of whether the person had ever told anyone about unwanted sexual experiences before the survey – in 2022 only about half of women (53%) and a quarter of men (28%) had told anyone before the survey. In 2001 it was 58% of women and 40% of men. In both studies, well over half of those affected knew their perpetrator.

The 2022 figures are shocking. Half of adult women and more than a quarter of adult men reported some lifetime exposure to sexual violence. Yet almost half of women (47%) and nearly three-quarters (72%) of men, did not disclose these experiences to anyone before the survey. In this era, which is often characterised as one of oversharing about experiences, why are the majority of instances of sexual violence still so hidden in plain sight? And how much does that enable unacceptable practices to persist, including by people known to the abused?

We have managed to reduce other societal scourges – for instance smoking and driving under the influence of alcohol. We have managed to make it broadly unacceptable socially to risk the lives of others by drink driving. How can we support each other to call out all form of unacceptable sexual behaviours, so that it becomes a risk perpetrators are no longer willing to take?

There are some very good initiatives such as the Consent campaign, now mandatory in all third-level institutions, where bystander training is provided to encourage people to intervene in any scenario of inappropriate sexual comment or behaviour. But we need a wider sense of societal outrage about behaviours that are so common, so unacceptable and still so hidden – even after all the brave people who have spoken publicly at personal cost about these issues in the past few decades.

Having collected the voices and stories of 3,120 women and men sharing their experiences in SAVI in 2001, I cannot not look back at what those statistics tell now, whatever the statistical caveats. They tell me that not much, if anything, has changed for the better in 21 years. Sexual violence is an iceberg – huge and hidden. And we need a serious national dialogue to figure out how to change it – because two decades later, much hard work, pain for many and big financial investment by government and charities do not seem to have brought about progress.

I would love to be proven wrong.

This article was originally published in The Irish Times on 22 April 2023

Proessor Hannah McGee is Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. She was lead author of SAVI (2002).


RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.