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Addressing the Stigma: UCC SHAG WEEK

By Orla Leahy, News Editor

Speaking to Caoimhe Walsh, UCC Students’ Union (SU) Welfare Officer, highlighted the importance of Sexual Health Awareness and Guidance (SHAG) Week in overcoming the “stigma” attached to sexual health. In order to tackle the stigma, the SU hosted a wide variety of events, from a Drag Show, to Consent Tea Parties. A van situated on campus for most of the week offered students free protection and STI testing kits, encouraging students to look after their sexual health, as well as mental and physical health. As Caoimhe acknowledges, “if there is an issue with your sexual health, it will affect your mental health, and it will affect you physically.” Furthermore, last year, the Students’ Union mandated a proposal for the inclusion of an event on consent as part of SHAG Week. 

Consequently, on Tuesday, the 19th of October, Alicia O’Sullivan, Quercus Active Citizenship Scholar and SU Environmental Officer, and Bailey Lane, Auditor of the UCC Law Society, held a talk on Safety Over Stigma, which they established earlier this year. The initiative stemmed from Alicia’s own horrific experience as a victim of image-based sexual abuse in April of this year. 

On the 8th of April, she woke up to a vast number of messages from concerned friends and family, as an Instagram account had been created purporting to be her. The account copied many details from her own account, including her bio, and captions. There were photographs of nude bodies from the neck down, insinuating that it was Alicia in the photos. Some of the photographs linked to AdmiremeVIP, a platform for over 18s to share “their most intimate and secret content.” She was fortunate in that the content was removed by the end of the day, as in most similar instances, it may take up to a week for the illicit content to be removed. 

Following the incident, Alicia reported what had happened to her to the authorities, whose response was not encouraging. Alicia notes initially that she “was met with numerous comments that deferred [her] from making a formal statement.” One comment even drew a parallel between the false account and “spam emails.” She spent 40 minutes with two middle-aged male Gardaí who kept no official record of her attendance at the station. It was later revealed that what had happened to her was in fact illegal, under section 2 of the recently implemented Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, dubbed Coco’s Law.  

Alicia strived to ensure others would not be similarly victimised as she had been. Accordingly, she established Safety Over Stigma. The initiative aims to tackle two key issues. Firstly, social media security awareness, as most users are unaware that they can increase the security of their accounts by using two-step authentication. Secondly, to improve the response and handling of such situations by the authorities. 

On the 8th of April, at the height of her distress, Alicia told her story over 10 tweets which gained significant publicity online. The reaction and momentum gained by her tweets incentivised her campaign. Their primary goals now include “training for Gardaí on how to respond to victims of online abuse and harassment; to lobby social media companies to take more responsibility for what people can post online; to educate people about their online rights and Coco’s Law and; to educate people about their online behaviour.” The campaign has already marked a number of successes, including the mandating of empathy training for Gardaí by the Minister for Justice, Heather Humphreys. 

Bailey and Alicia filed a bill submitted to the Oireachtas in May 2021. As part of their submission, they suggested the implementation of an advisory committee to “assist and advise the Media Commission”, “age and identity identification” and “effective reporting.” They also highlighted the “connection between covid warnings and safety regulation.” Instagram included Covid-19 public safety warnings whenever Covid was mentioned in a post. Bailey states that this “was so simple to do” and “why could the same not be done to all posts”, to approve them in a way. Finally, they underlined the importance of “public awareness, online safety, and media literacy.” Alicia found that there was a severe lack of support available to her when the incident happened. Consequently, in an effort to offer increased support, the Department of Justice launched a helpline, Hotline.ie

Alicia addressed the Oireachtas, and the Department of Justice, with the support of Professor Louise Crowley from the UCC School of Law in June, following their submission for a new bill. The address constituted part of the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny Stage. The bill is 127 pages long and is currently in its early stages. 

Since the incident, Alicia has spoken on the Claire Byrne Show. She has received a number of kind messages from strangers, applauding her endeavours, and sharing their own personal stories which they never publicised. As Caoimhe Walsh observed, “[image-based sexual abuse] happens to a lot of people.”

The initiative is progressing from the early kickstart stages to being embedded in UCC. Alicia and Bailey acknowledge that the UCC Bystander Intervention Programme, and the School of Law, were both crucial in establishing their campaign. Safety Over Stigma is currently active across social media platforms, and also have a website, on which more information can be found. 

Alicia and Bailey now strive to “continue to lobby decision-makers to ensure that [their] voice is heard and [their] concerns are met with relation to the aims and objectives of Safety Over Stigma.”

The importance of positive sexual health does not end here for the SU, who aim to “bring in sexual health” for “the rest of the campaigns [they] run throughout the year,” following a highly effective and informative campaign over SHAG Week.