Sexual Offences for UCC Students

Cian McGrath interviews with Mary Crilly, Sexual Violence Centre Cork, and Catherine Corbett of UCC Feminist Society.

In May of 2015, The Irish Examiner reported that 1 in 7 UCC students said they had been a victim of rape or a serious sexual assault. 1 in 7. That is over 14%. This was a survey given to UCC students. These statistics are shocking on their own, but if you couple this with the low reporting figures, then we can only imagine that these figures could be even higher. Just this September, it was revealed that 3 female students in Cork had reported being raped to the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork, with 2 of these 3 girls dropping out to return home to their families.

I spoke to Mary Crilly, the head of the Sexual Violence Centre, and Catherine Corbett, a Music student in UCC and a member of the Feminist Society, about the issues surrounding sexual assaults;

When I asked about the issue of the lack of reporting of sexual assaults, Mary Crilly was in no doubt as to the severity of the issue;

MC: “Unfortunately, the number of third level students who became victims of rape and sexual assault in the first weeks of the new academic year, number far more than 3.  Sexual assaults are not reported because the victims are blamed, they blame themselves, we as a culture blame them.”

Mary expanded on the culture of blaming rape victims and the effect that it has;

MC: “Were they drinking?  What were they wearing?   Why were they out? The low reporting rate is a reflection of the low conviction rate.   In a real sense, I continue to be surprised at the number of victims who do report. It is not that long since the ‘Belfast Rape Trial’ exposed the process that victims go through and the victim-blaming culture we live in.”

This issue is obviously one that we are all aware of, and when I asked Catherine whether the issue was prevalent in UCC, she had this to say;

CC: “I think so. I think there is a blame culture in UCC and all over every campus in Ireland. “Women should be dressing to avoid a man’s gaze”. It is very hard for a victim to speak out, because obviously they are faced with huge obstacles.”

With these issues around disclosure and the various obstacles in front of possible victims, Mary spoke briefly on whether there was adequate protection for victims in Irish Sexual Offences Law;

MC: “Absolutely not.  The conviction rate in Ireland is between 5% and 8%.   This is an unacceptably low rate of conviction for any crime.  The Criminal Justice System in Ireland largely fails to vindicate victims and therefore fails to protect them.  This is why the reporting rate of sexual crimes is less than 10%. In addition, when victims do turn to the Criminal Justice System, they find that very system to be re-traumatised.”

There is a clear and obvious lack of protection for victims in how they come forward to seek help, so I asked Catherine whether there was enough being done by the college;


“The Ultimate Need for More”- Catherine Corbett


CC: “I don’t think so, certainly not…In the last few weeks in the Irish Times, there were people speaking out about rape and there is obviously a level of danger on college campuses. It is rather baffling that they won’t make consent classes compulsory. Always, there can be more done, and they could pay us more attention when FemSoc and other societies try to help.”

When asked what advice they would give to UCC students;

MC: “In 2016 USI conducted research about rape on campus and 1 in 12 female students experienced sexual assault.  It is never the fault of the victim and this needs to be heard and believed. Students need to stand up and create campaigns highlighting victim blaming and challenge the culture of entitlement that not just tolerates sexual violence but allows it to continue.”

CC: “Speak up, speak out, be brave and normalize talking about consent.”


“If we are serious about sexual violence the Criminal Justice System needs to be made fit for purpose.”- Mary Crilly


In July of 2018, the Law Reform Commission made a recommended a number of changes to Irish Sexual Offences Law. Here is a short critique of the suggested change to the law of honest belief and commentary on the perpetuation of rape myths in the Justice System by Dr Catherine O’Sullivan;

For me, the reform option of requiring the accused to show that he took reasonable steps to ascertain the complainant’s belief is better than the option of requiring the accused to have an honest and reasonable in consent.  The problem with the latter is that rape myths mean it is not difficult to place reasonable doubt in jurors’ minds that the defendant’s belief in consent was reasonable.  

Various studies have shown that rape myths – such as “real rapes” are committed by strangers, that women routinely allege rape to protect their reputations, that women who have been raped are partly to blame because they were provocatively dressed – are in common circulation.  Their wide currency makes it likely that one or more members of a jury in a rape trial will personally subscribe to them. It also means that, even if individual jurors do not hold such views, they may accept that it would be reasonable for the accused to do so.

Indeed, social norms research tells us that jurors who do not believe rape myths might think that their rejection of such myths is the exception rather than the norm, and as such be even more inclined to give the accused the benefit of the doubt.  In their evaluation of the SMART Consent workshop, which was run in U.C.C. in 2018, MacNeela et al found that 89.3% personally thought that it was important to get consent in all relationships even when there was a prior sexual history between the parties, only 52.8% thought that their peers shared this belief.  
Accordingly, whether a belief is interpreted as reasonable or not will inevitably be tainted by rape myths, even when being assessed by those who do not endorse them.  For these reasons I favour requiring the accused to prove that he took reasonable steps to ascertain the other party’s consent.  An honest belief which must be supported with reference to reasonable steps shifts juror focus from the behaviour of the complainant to that of the person whose conduct is on trial.


A Guide to the Law

By Dr Catherine O’Sullivan, UCC Law Faculty, Lecturer in Criminal Law.

Sexual offences are often spoken of in hierarchical terms with the most serious offence – rape – at the top of the list and less serious offences – such as sexual assault – at the end. This ranking allows for the inclusion or exclusion of different forms of harm according to their perceived seriousness. It is for this reason that the most serious sexual offences have quite narrow definitions, but as you move down the list, the range of prohibited conduct increases.


Rape is a gender-specific offence. Section 2 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 defines it as a man who has sexual intercourse (penile penetration of the vagina) with a woman without her consent when he either knows that she is not consenting or is reckless about her lack of consent. No other form of non-consensual penetration is a 1981 Act rape. In addition to proving she did not consent; the prosecution must also prove that the man knew or was reckless as to her lack of consent.

Rape under section 4 (a separate offence)

The non-consensual penile penetration of another’s mouth or anus or penetration of another’s vagina by any hand-held object is criminalised by section 4 of the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1990. Known as “rape under section 4”, this offence moves towards gender-neutrality in that men and women can be perpetrators or victims, but there are still gender-specific elements. One form of the offence requires the possession of a penis, the other a vagina. However, this penis or vagina can be surgically constructed following the enactment of the Gender Recognition Act 2015.

Aggravated Sexual Assault

Like the rape offence contained in the 1981 Act, “rape under section 4” excludes some forms of penetration. Specifically, penetration of the anus by an object is not included nor is digital penetration of the vagina or anus. These other forms of penetration are however captured by section 3 of the 1990 Act, the offence of aggravated sexual assault. This is a sexual assault “that involves serious violence or the threat of serious violence or is such as to cause injury, humiliation or degradation of a grave nature to the person assaulted.” This offence, like sexual assault, is an entirely gender-neutral offence.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is defined in section 2 of the 1990 Act as any non-consensual touching or threats (accompanied by a gesture) to touch another in a way that is recognised as “indecent” or to touch or threat to touch a part of the body that has sexual meaning. Therefore, sexual assault runs the gamut from touching someone’s posterior to kissing them to digital penetration without their consent.


The common denominator for all of these offences is lack of consent. Consent has been defined in Irish law as the free and voluntary agreement to engage in the act in question. This definition, inserted into the 1990 Act by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, also sets out when consent is not possible. There cannot be consent when the other is asleep, unconscious, unlawfully detained, deceived about the nature or purpose of the act or the identity of the person performing it, or is incapable of consenting due to their level of intoxication. A person can also withdraw their consent at any time and they do not have to resist their attacker.