Sexual assault is a difficult subject for many people. Although we are aware that assaults continue to occur at shocking rates both in Cork and nationally, most of us are sorely lacking in information on what to do if we, or someone we know, is sexually assaulted. It is partially the graveness of the subject, and partially the stigma that still exists around anything sexual in Ireland, that prevents frank discussion about this issue. This information gap is dangerous, as it means people are not aware of the services they can avail of, and it makes the process of going through them even more terrifying.
The first thing to know is that if you are sexually assaulted, you should attend a Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU) as soon as possible. An SATU is a specialised unit where you can get a forensic medical examination, which will gather evidence in case you decide to go to the Gardaí; after seven days it becomes difficult to obtain usable evidence. The SATU in Cork is situated in the South Infirmary hospital, and most people who go there are referred by the Gardaí or by groups like the Sexual Violence Centre Cork. However it is important to note that the SATU will not send any forensic evidence onto the Gardaí without your consent, which means if you do not want to report your assault for whatever reason you can still access the care you need.
When you attend a SATU you will meet with a forensic clinical examiner; a Garda will be present if you intend to report the crime to them. You will be asked to recall the events as best you can, your clothes will be tested, and urine samples, blood tests, hair & nail samples, and genital & anal swabs may all be taken, depending on the nature of the assault. It is important to note that you may stop the process at any point if you no longer feel comfortable, and there will be personnel there to give you support throughout.
As well as gathering evidence, the unit will provide emergency contraception if necessary. Commonly known as the ‘morning after pill’, emergency contraception is effective at preventing pregnancy for up to five days after unprotected sex. The pill works by preventing ovulation, which means that it stops your ovaries from releasing an egg so that it cannot interact with sperm. This means that emergency contraception prevents pregnancy and is a form of birth control, and it is not equivalent to an abortion pill, which terminates one.
You may also be advised to take preventative medicine that reduces your risk of contracting an STI after unprotected sex. This may include post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, which is an antiretroviral medicine that is taken after potential exposure to HIV. PEP is taken in emergencies, and is not intended to be used as a regular measure to prevent HIV. People who wish to reduce their risk of contracting HIV should instead take a PrEP, which is the preventative version of the same kind of medicine.
People under the age of 18 need a parent or guardian present in order to consent for them going to a SATU. This is quite a burden to place on young people, however, who may be deeply uncomfortable in confiding what happened to them to a parent, for fear that they may be blamed for it. It also could be logistically difficult, as the parent is unlikely to be present at the time of an assault, and needs to be contacted & brought to the unit, all of which needlessly draws out the ordeal for that young person. We should consider whether it would be helpful to lower the age of medical consent to 16 or 17 in these cases.
The Sexual Violence Centre Cork is another service which provides counselling to survivors and their families, and will accompany them to the GP, hospitals, clinics, Garda stations, and court if the survivor so wishes. The Centre helps people after rape, sexual assault and child abuse, no matter how long ago the incident occurred. It is a free and confidential service, and is located at 5 Camden Place.
All of this information is incredibly pertinent to students in UCC given that 71% of the people treated by SATUs in Ireland last year were students. This highlights the enormous need for more outreach to be done for this group, and for ways to make the student experience safer. While the UCC SU’s website has advice under Welfare on emergency contraception, it does currently lack on information on assault & what services survivors can avail of. We must also note that 11% of people who attended the SATU in Cork in 2015 were male, and yet male victims of sexual violence are often overlooked or have their experiences de-legitimised. Similarly, gay and bisexual men are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than their straight peers, according to Rape Crisis Network Ireland, and yet there is little-to-no acknowledgement of this fact, or efforts to make society safer for these groups. It is incredibly pressing that we see further services created for students of all genders & sexualities, both in Cork & nationally, in order to help survivors and prevent further abuses.
It is also noteworthy that of the people who attended SATU’s, 44.1% had consumed alcohol, and 11.1% of them drugs. It is important for us to be aware of these risk factors in order to make nights out safer for men and women. Students will continue to drink & take drugs, and we must acknowledge that reality while striving to make those situations as safe as possible. For these reasons it is critical that students understand consent, and that someone who is intoxicated or who has taken drugs cannot consent to sexual acts. Campus-wide consent classes, or workshops by groups like the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, would help instill these values into all students, and make nights out safer for all.
Sexual assault is traumatic, but there are people out there who want to listen, who want to help you. Only by breaking the silence can we give survivors the support that they need, and reduce the risks for vulnerable groups going forward. If you or anyone you know has been sexually assaulted, freephone the Sexual Violence Centre Cork on 1800 496 496, who will guide you through the process and give you the support you need.