UCC Law Society host events on Coercive Control and Online Abuse

by Bailey Lane (edited by Alana Daly Mulligan and Niamh Browne)

Bailey Lane, Internal Convener with the UCC Law Society, discusses the issues of Image based sexual abuse and coercive control in Irish society.

Editor’s Note: Some of the content discussed in this article may be upsetting to some readers.

The weaponisation of women’s bodies against them is no new feat, the technological means which facilitate it is. It is time we changed our legislation to reflect this. Recently, a discord server containing thousands of photos of underage girls and young women was discovered. Some images were pirated from content creators’ Onlyfans, some were images shared privately between partners, and some were taken without the knowledge of the victims. The common denominator between the images was the intention to use them against the women and girls involved. People are angry and rightly so.

As we have seen time and time again, young people are calling for change and reform. Getting the attention of those in power though is no mean feat. UCC’s Law Society hosted two online events on ‘The Dangers of the Online/Digital World’, on 1st December and an event on ‘Relationship Violence and the Law’ which focused on the issues of coercive control and domestic violence. Throughout these two events, speakers from Women’s Aid, SAFE Ireland, IACP, Cork Sexual Violence Centre, Men’s Aid, and Plan Ireland’s Youth Panel spoke, with one thing being clear: something has to change. With well over 300 people at both virtual events, it is clear these ideas do not exist in isolation, there is an appetite for this change. A key takeaway from both events was that we must keep up the good fight. It seems students are engaged in that debate, whether there will be proper follow through is another story. 

A fundamental issue when our society demands change is the neglect of persistent action.  Movements start, we begin to see action in certain areas and then we stop. Social change is a marathon, not a sprint and those in power must not be permitted to forget these issues or allowed to simply run away from them. 

As highlighted by Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid in their recent report, 1 in 2 women who suffered abuse also experienced online abuse. This was one of many troubling statistics affecting young Irish women today. One victim stated, “it’s not a crime that just happens and then that’s fine, it’s something that is continual.” This online abuse and image-based sexual abuse does not just go away. It is constantly in the minds of victims who can live in a state of fear for all their life. An image is not taken and left static, but the pain and horror is relived again and again through each share and new viewer. The ‘taking’ of someone’s private image is an ongoing crime.  While this continues to happen in society and we stand back and let it, we are failing ourselves, our friends, the future generation, and humanity.

A key point highlighted by the speakers at this event was surrounding legislation. There are two bills currently before the Oireachtas. The one in the context of Criminal law is the Harassment, Harmful Communication, and Related Offences Bill 2017 and in relation to Civil law is the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2019. It is important to have both a criminal aspect but also a civil act. 

For many victims, their number one priority is getting this content removed promptly. Currently, due to the absence of this legislation this may not be possible. An example of where this has been done correctly is in the Australian model. In Ireland, it is the case that sometimes the content cannot be taken down at all. The question is, why is the current protocol for websites reviewing the content, protracting victim’s humiliation? Why is it not that we firstly take down the content on instance of a complaint and then review it? Surely the impact of leaving this harmful content up online is far worse than having to reupload content which is not deemed harmful. While there is an argument that this may lead to false and frivolous claims, it is clear the current system is not working. At present, the legislation does not allow for a review period. In the fast-changing climate we live in, legislation such as this, should be open to review after a certain number of years to see if it is adequately protecting victims or not.

Education is core to the conversation around tackling this problem directly. Ireland is failing from the ground up on these issues. Education is often not present and when it is, it is insufficient. From primary school all the way through to 3rd level educating the youth of our country on these issues in an age appropriate manner is vital. Alex Cooney CEO of CyberSafe Ireland highlighted how 1 in 3 children between the ages of 8 and 12 have friends online whom they do not know in real life. The real tragedy of the internet is the old and wise do not understand it, and the young and foolish shape it. We teach children how to ride a bike, how to swim yet we are failing in teaching them how to be safe online, how to respect one another and on issues such as consent. There can never be any cultural rationalisation for gender violence and such violence must be called out for what it is.

This issue of education also ties in with the issue of coercive control. Coercive control can take place in many forms but all are designed to exert control over the victim, to get inside their head to a point where they lose their sense of self. Every choice, action or decision that is made becomes controlled by the abuser. There is a need to encourage victims to come forward and speak up and support them when they do. Our system however, is not constructed in this way and we can do better. Recently in the UK the government rolled out a scheme where the issue of coercive control will be taught and spoken about in all second level institutions. As highlighted recently by Women’s Aid, 3 in 5 young people have experienced or know someone who has experienced intimate relationship abuse. How many more people have to be subjected to horrible violence, how many more people’s rights have to be violated and how many more lives have we to lose before we stand up and say this is unacceptable and demand change.

The final point as spoken about by CEO of Men’s Aid Kathrina Bentley and referenced by all the speakers, is that this is an issue for us all. While this year we have grown used to the word pandemic in the sense of the Covid-19 virus, there is another pandemic in this country which has ripped through the country and continues to have  devastating effects on the victims. Coercive control, domestic violence, image based sexual abuse and all other forms of gender-based violence are realities of Ireland 2020 and we need to confront them. As a young male I feel it is important to encourage other men to speak out, to speak out if you are abused and to speak out in support of the women who we have failed for far too long. How can we expect change if only 50% of the population are involved in this? Those who are most affected by these issues are the ones championing for change, but men, this is your issue too. 1 in 11 Men have directly experienced intimate partner abuse, just demonstrating that anyone can be affected. While managing these issues will be challenging in part, these issues require unity, persistence, and empowerment of all the children of the nation but I do believe we can bring this important change. 

Remember you have a voice, you have power, use it.

Should you need support or to contact anyone:

Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900

Men’s Aid: 01 554 3811

CyberSafe Ireland: 01 2549986

SAFE Ireland: 090 647 9090

Aoibhneas: 01 8670701

Cork Sexual Violence Centre: 1800 496 496

Cork Sexual Assault Treatment Unit: 021 492 6297 or 021 492 6100

Rape Crisis Network Ireland: 1800 778888

UCC Counselling service: counselling@ucc.ie or 021 490 3565







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