Growing a body of evidence: the potential role of service providers in collecting data regarding alcohol involvement in sexual violence

31 Oct

Service providers have an important role to play in recording data that can be used to monitor and evaluate sexual violence in Ireland. Given the prevalence of alcohol in sexual violence in Ireland [i] collecting data in relation to alcohol consumption and attitudes towards alcohol and sex is of considerable importance to ensure effective policies and programmes.

In this briefing current practices in recording alcohol consumption in situations of sexual violence by service providers in Ireland are considered and recommendations for improved dissemination and inter-agency work are put forward.

Why is data in relation to alcohol involvement in sexual violence important?

Data on alcohol involvement in sexual violence in Ireland is essential to understand the scope and extent of the problem. For instance, data recorded by Gardaí available in Director of Public Prosecutor files enabled researchers to reveal that 76% of individuals accused of rape had consumed alcohol on the occasion of the alleged rape and further that binge drinking was very common among defendants on trial for rape. [ii] In this case, data gathered by Gardaí in relation to alcohol consumption and sexual violence permitted an evidence base for the recognition  of alcohol as a significant contributory factor in rape cases in Ireland.

Relevant and timely data can be used to develop and measure targeted prevention programmes and policies with recognisable positive change.

In addition, adequate and appropriate data collection allows service providers to monitor trends in relation to alcohol consumption in incidents of sexual violence and thus to tailor and evaluate the effectiveness of programmes to address such trends.

What kind of data can be gathered?

Data comes in two forms: quantitative data and qualitative data.  Quantitative data on sexual violence and alcohol is found as statistics on, for instance, alcohol consumption by perpetrator and victim. This is the most common form of data disseminated by service providers. Qualitative data includes interviews, personal experiences of service providers and other non-numeric information. Although this form of data may be more subjective and thus presents difficulties in attaining accurate information on prevalence of alcohol consumption, it does provide important contextual information that may be missed by quantitative data.[iii]

Who keeps records of alcohol involvement in incidents of sexual violence?

A number of agencies record data on incidents of sexual violence in Ireland. These include:

Gardaí: whenever a report of sexual violence is made to the guards, details of the incident are entered into the PULSE (Police Using Leading Systems Effectively) computer system.  Incident characteristics are recorded, including alcohol consumption, if relevant, by the complainant and the accused (where this is attainable).

Limitations:

  • Data can only be gathered from reported offences. As many cases of sexual violence and rape are not reported to Gardaí, and alcohol consumption by the victim is one of the characteristics associated with non-reporting,[iv] the resulting statistics may under-represent actual levels of alcohol consumption in these incidents.
  • Reports of sexual violence are often delayed. Therefore, reports may reflect only a subjective knowledge of alcohol consumption which may be misreported (intentionally or unintentionally) by the complainant or the accused.

Dissemination: Data gathered by the Gardaí PULSE system is disseminated by the Central Statistics Office.[v] Currently, no details of alcohol consumption in incidents of sexual violence are published.

Potential: The Gardaí are one of the only service providers with the capacity to gather data in relation to the alcohol use of those accused of sexual violence. This information is vital to inform effective programmes aimed at reducing sexual violence in Ireland through addressing harmful alcohol consumption. The CSO should ensure that all data recorded on the PULSE System on defendant alcohol use in complaints of rape and sexual violence is published.

Sexual Assault Treatment Units:  SATUs record alcohol consumption as number of drinks consumed by a victim of sexual violence in the 12 hours prior to the assault, as reported by the patient. [vi] Blood alcohol levels are also tested in the forensic examination.

Limitations:

  • Only alcohol consumption by the attending patient is recorded.
  • While it is possible to access SATUs directly or through a Rape Crisis Centre, the majority of patients were referred by Gardaí.[vii] Given reporting rates SATU patients cannot be presumed to be representative of the general population experience of sexual violence.

Dissemination: Data on alcohol consumption by patients attending the SATUs is disseminated in annual clinical reports.

Potential: Data on alcohol involvement in sexual violence incidents should continue to be recorded and published. SATUs should consider including a question on perceived perpetrator alcohol consumption. Although this information will be of limited use, due to the subjective nature of asking a victim to provide their perception of perpetrator intoxication, it may provide an indication of the prevalence of sexual violence committed by intoxicated individuals.

Rape Crisis Centres:  Rape Crisis Centres record information on sexual violence characteristics as reported by victims. Currently, RCCs do not record quantitative information on alcohol consumption by the victim or perpetrator.

Limitations:

  • Quantitative data on alcohol consumption is not gathered by RCCs due to:
    • Inability to record accurate data on perpetrator alcohol consumption
    • Victim reporting on perpetrator consumption is more likely in certain relationships and contexts of sexual violence, risking a distorted understanding of alcohol involvement in sexual violence.
    • Distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary consumption may feed victim blaming narratives and lead victims to feel they are being judged or blamed where consumption was voluntary.
    • Imprecise quantities of alcohol consumed are likely to be reported , as the longer ago the incident and more intoxicated the individual was at the time, the more effected their ability to accurately recall their alcohol consumption[viii]

Dissemination: Data from 15 RCCs is compiled and disseminated by the Rape Crisis Network Ireland through annual National Statistics reports. [ix]

Potential:  Because of regular contact with victims of rape and sexual violence, the RCCs are in an exceptional position to provide qualitative information about alcohol involvement in incidents of rape and, importantly, perceived effects on victim recovery of alcohol involvement in sexual violence incidents.

Other Agencies: data may also be gathered through surveys, focus group discussions or one-on-one interviews conducted by researchers and polling organisations or organisations such as the Central Statistics Office.

Efforts should be made to ensure that data, both quantitative and qualitative, in relation to alcohol consumption, attitudes towards alcohol, sex and gender, and alcohol expectations, is collected from perpetrators of sexual violence in Ireland. Currently, publicly available data focuses primarily on sexual violence victims and complainants. Agencies responding to perpetrators, including probation, prison and non-statutory services could play a role in gathering data about perpetrator alcohol consumption and attitudes as they have direct access to convicted perpetrators.

Limitations:

  • Individuals who participate in general surveys may be unwilling to disclose experiences of sexual violence if such a question were included. Although it should be noted that no such resistance was experienced when surveying specifically concerned sexual violence[x].
  • Difficulties may arise in locating enough willing participants to take part in targeted sexual violence surveys, interviews or focus group discussions.[xi]
  • Questions regarding alcohol use in relation to sexual violence may be perceived by the respondent as judgemental or blaming, thus reducing the likelihood of disclosure or accurate reporting.
  • Surveys tend to ask questions about experiences of victimisation only, thus data on perpetration is not gathered.

Potential: Despite the limitations described above, surveys and focus group discussions can provide important information about the use of alcohol in sexual violence incidents. They also offer excellent potential to gain a greater understanding of Irish attitudes towards alcohol and sex, and Irish expectations of the effects of alcohol – factors which influence the likelihood of perpetrating sexual violence while intoxicated, or against someone who is intoxicated. [xii]

Importantly asking the questions and publishing the results is itself an intervention in the acceptability and normalisation of the harmful links between alcohol consumption and sexual violence; it has the potential of initiating the conversations that can lead to social change.

Recommendations to service providers for recording and disseminating data on alcohol involvement in sexual violence incidents:

–          Publication of data in relation to alcohol involvement in incidents of sexual violence by Gardaí/CSO.

–          Greater inter-agency discussion and knowledge sharing regarding information/knowledge on the consumption of alcohol by perpetrators and victims. Qualitative data gathered by the RCCs, prison and probation services, and others, should help inform and contextualise quantitative data gathered by Gardaí, SATUs and surveys. Bi-annual workshops drawing representatives from relevant agencies to share knowledge would facilitate such information sharing. Publication of proceedings from these events should also be considered.

–          Establishment of alcohol consumption measures to be used in data collection across services to ensure that data gathered is comparable. Currently data on alcohol consumption may be recorded as number of drinks consumed or as perceived level of intoxication (e.g. mild, moderate, severe). This creates difficulties for comparing data across services. A single recording method used by all services that record this data would allow comparison and aggregation.

–          The well-being of the victim should be central to all data collection and dissemination. Anonymity should be ensured when information is shared between services, and victims should be informed as to how, when and why data relating to their assault is collected and used.

Establishing effective responses to sexual violence in Ireland requires co-ordinated efforts across service providers based on high quality data. Alcohol consumption has been shown to be a significant contributory factor in incidents of rape and sexual violence in Ireland. Continued and improved data collection and dissemination and inter-agency exchange of knowledge gained through data collection is thus an essential element in the effort to reduce sexual violence in Ireland.


[i] Hanly, C., Healy, D., and Scriver, S. 2009. Rape and Justice in Ireland:  A National Study of Survivor, Prosecutor and Court Responses to Rape. Dublin: Liffey

[ii] Hanly et.al, ibid.: 24

[iii] Gardner, J. 1990. Victims and Criminal Justice. South Australian Office of Crime Statics, Attorney-General’s Department, Adelaide.

[iv] Hanly et.al, ibid.: 147

[v] CSO. 2012. Gardaí Recorded Crime Statistics, 2006-2010. Government of Ireland.  Available at: http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/releasespublications/documents/crimejustice/2010/gardacrimestats_2010.pdf

[vi]  Eogan, M. 2010. First National Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (Satu) Annual Clinical Report 2009. Available at: http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/13081/1/nationalsatureport2009.pdf (accessed 10 October 2012).

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Saidlear, C. 2012. RCNI. Personal communication.

[ix] Available at: http://www.rcni.ie

[x]  McGee, H., et al, SAVI report, 2002

[xi] Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P.O., Clinton, M. and McAuslan, P. 2001. Alcohol and Sexual Assault National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Alcohol Health and Research World, 25(1).

[xii] Abbey, A. 2011. Alcohol’s role in sexual violence perpetration: Theoretical explanations, existing evidence and future directions. Drug and Alcohol Review, 20; 481-489.

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