College Life

Rape and Sexual Assault: Definitions and Differences Between Them

Sex crimes and assault of a sexual nature tethered to hashtags or paraded by placards, have held steady prominence for almost a year across all forms of media. But what are the definitions of rape and sexual assault?

Clíona Saidléar, executive director of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, said in a March press release: ‘In 2017 all recorded sexual offences rose by almost 17% with rape up 28% and sex-ual assault (non-aggravated) up 15%. These are very significant increases.”

While the reporting of sexual offence crime has risen, the contexts of the offences are confusing.

According to the Rape Crisis Network, (RCNI) rape is not a well reported crime. National Statistics of 2015 show fewer than 32% of survivors reported the sexual violence to the Gardaí. The RCNI recognise that low reporting statistics lead to a denial of the scale of the problem, and rapists continue to get away with their crimes in huge numbers.

As stated by the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, rape is defined by the Criminal Law (Rape) Act. 1981 as “unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman who at the time of intercourse does not consent to it”, where the man “knows that she does not consent to the intercourse… or he is reckless as to whether she does or does not consent to it.” Sexual intercourse for the purposes of rape means vaginal intercourse.

Rape under Section 4 is defined by the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1990 as a sexual assault that includes “penetration (however slight) of the anus or mouth by the penis, or penetration (however slight) of the vagina by any objects held or manipulated by another person.” A person found guilty of rape under section 4 can be sentenced to life in prison.

While Saidléar points out that the RCNI recognise the Central statistics office (CSO) is releasing sexual offences figures ‘under reservation.’ She also notes: “The large changes in re-porting numbers in sexual offences from 2016 – 2017 tell us why this release, even if under reservation, is so important.”

These statistics are a compromise between not having any figures at all and having an indication of where the figures may conclude based on a margin. They show the incident of reporting for rape of a male or female has risen by 144 cases between Q4 2016 and the same time frame in 2017, however, according to an Irish Times report in April, the last analysis relating to conviction rates for rape cases in Ireland was concluded in 2009, and showed the conviction rate at just 8 per cent.

While rape is perhaps the common term used colloquially, there is also the crime of Aggravated Sexual Assault. This is defined as being an assault of a sexual nature, aggravated by serious violence, or the threat of serious violence, or is such as to cause severe injury, humiliation or degradation of a grave nature to the victim as detailed in the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1990. The law states guilt and conviction of this crime, can be punished by life in prison. Whereas sexual assault, classified as a sexual attack with a less serious level of violence than aggravated sexual assault, can be punished with a term not exceeding 5 years in prison.

The most comprehensive report on sex crimes in Ireland is now 16 years old. The SAVI report was conducted in conjunction the Rape Crisis Centre, and it’s aimed to estimate the prevalence of various forms of sexual violence against men and women, from childhood through to adulthood.

It found that more than four in ten (42 per cent) of women reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. The most serious form of abuse, penetrative abuse, was experienced by 10 per cent of women. Attempted penetration or contact abuse was experienced by 21 per cent, with a further 10 per cent experiencing non-contact abuse. For men, the results showed over a quarter of men (28 per cent) reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. There is historical malaise in Ireland when it comes to the sentencing of perpetrators, and the leniency shown in many reported cases rarely touches the parameters of what the law allows for.

The RCNI report ‘Hearing every voice’ shows that many victims of sexual violence, regardless of their age and/or capacity or any disability issues, are at risk of being cross-examined without limit other than relevance, by defence lawyers. The one statutory rule limiting cross-examination is in relation to the sexual history of a complainant in a rape case. Given that the credibility of the witness is relevant, this can lead to a very wide-ranging cross-examination. Some judges are reluctant to intervene when witnesses are clearly over-whelmed, upset, are feeling bullied, and/or confused by the form or the content of the questions.

Noeline Blackwell CEO of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says: “It is remarkable the number of people who will phone the National 24-Hour Helpline (1800 77 88 88) and say something like: ‘I’m sorry to bother you, this isn’t very important” or “I know something happened – it wasn’t rape but something happened” And when our counsellors listen, it is rape – but some people dread having to say it. So reporting any form of sexual violence – even to us – to a confidential non-judgmental helpline is hard. Far harder is reporting into the justice system which is part of the reason that we are calling for an overhaul of how reports are taken, how evidence is gathered, and how evidence is given in court.”

The reality is the terms used are different and each looks at the information differently, how-ever, the rate of conviction is a deterrent to more reporting as sex crimes, and this sets out a dangerous precedent.