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Addressing rape culture to prevent sexual assault

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Aya Maasarwe, Jill Meagher and Eurydice Dixon are only three of the thousands of victims of sexual violence (Screenshots via YouTube)

Patriarchal conditioning responsible for the increase in sexual violence against women needs to be addressed in children to prevent aggression, writes Anushka Britto.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape and sexual abuse

MARGARET ATWOOD once famously said:

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”

There lies a sad truth in one sentence. You can tiptoe around it, you can scream it, you can dress it up and make it look like something else but upon that four-posted bed of patriarchy lies a mountain of assaulted women. And we as a society make our bed in it every night.

Our news feeds are flooded with stories, both local and international, of alleged sexual assaults in Parliament, of women never making it home from an evening walk and men killing their partners. Instead of the incensed vitriol questioning the character of victims of sexual violence and the #notallmen hashtags, perhaps we should pause for a moment and consider what it will take to break down a culture in which we teach men and women that masculinity and being male is power and domination over women, that “real men” cannot show weakness or shame.

What could a public policy look like, with the aim of systematically breaking down the patriarchal teachings passed down from one generation to the next?

The issue of sexual violence against women is currently addressed by the Office for Women which claim that one in four women have experienced violence by an intimate partner since the age of 15 and one in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. The figures are even worse for Indigenous women, with them being 34 times more likely to be hospitalised for violence.

The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 is now implementing the fourth phase of this plan. The plan states that it seeks to implement a primary prevention approach — that is preventing violence against women before it occurs.

Yet all the actions within the plan focus on addressing the three heuristics consistent in young people aged 12-24 as part of the plan’s focus group:

  • blame the victim;
  • minimise the behaviour of males; and
  • empathise with, and protect, males.

When we talk about sexual violence against women we say “one in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15” as if it simply happened to them, as if there is no perpetrator. The way that we talk about sexual violence needs to call out who is committing these offences. For example, “in Australia in 2015-2016, 71 in every 100,000 males had committed a sexual assault offence, while six in every 100,000 females had committed a sexual assault offence”.

While the number of female perpetrators only accounts for a small portion of total perpetrators, the number of female victims to male is an inverse proportion. In 2019, there were 26,892 victims of sexual assault officially reported — of these, 83% were female.

Why is women’s safety an issue for the Office for Women? It’s because we expect women to alter their behaviour and take accountability for their own safety from sexual assault. Granted, the current perpetrators of sexual violence should go through Men’s Behaviour Change courses and address their own deep insecurities and shame that has led them to feel a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies.

But might I suggest an alternative approach? If we are to truly reduce sexual violence against women and the omnipresent fear that women feel in daily life, we need to start with education about bodily autonomy and consent and it needs to start with mandatory age-appropriate lessons from pre-school age onwards.

In its Fourth Action Plan, the National Plan will focus in part on ‘raising awareness and understanding of issues such as gender equality, consent and healthy sexual relationships, particularly for young people’. While this is a great initiative, there is a gap in the way we address sexual violence through education. Schoolgirls Tamsin Griffiths and Chantel Contos have called for it in their respective interviews and petitions.

In her petition, Tamsin writes that education around consent came too late in year ten, with half her friends already being raped or sexually assaulted by boys from neighbouring schools by then. If we do not teach consent about bodily autonomy to young children, long before they reach an age where they know about sex or feel sexual desire, how can we expect to teach them consent in relation to sex when they have not yet been taught consent to their physical space and person, or felt ownership of their own body?

Perhaps you believe this does not apply to you and your social circle, that it is “other” men who are sexually violent towards their partner or other women. However, the attitudes that give rise to perpetrators of violence believing that their actions are acceptable are borne by a significant number of us.

The 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS findings) on knowledge and attitudes towards sexual assault in Australia found that for Australians aged 16 and over:

  • one in five (19%) were unaware that non-consensual sex in marriage is against the law;
  • one in ten (11%) believed that women were “probably lying” about sexual assault if they did not report it straight away;
  • two in five (42%) agreed that “it was common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men”;
  • one in three (33%) believed that “rape resulted from men not being able to control their need for sex”; and
  • one in eight (13%) agreed that a man is justified in having non-consensual sex if the woman-initiated intimacy in a scenario where a couple had just met and one in seven (15%) agreed this was justified in a scenario where the couple were married and the woman-initiated intimacy (Webster et al. 2018).

Jess Hill explores the relationship between shame and power and abuse in her award-winning book, See What You Made Me Do, a book on intimate partner violence in Australia. If we wish to raise our children in a world where men are allowed to show emotions like shame and sadness without fearing that women will laugh at them and women can live a normal life without fearing that men will kill them, then we need to address the patriarchal conditioning of our children so that they do not continue to have the attitudes present in Australian society today.

We need to do it with the faces of Saxon Mullins, “Clare” (from the Four Corners report Code of Silence), Lynette Daley, Eurydice Dixon, Jill Meagher, Aya Maasarwe and Courtney Heron emblazoned in our minds because we failed them and if we don’t do it now, we will only have more blood on our hands.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

Anushka Britto is a day-time auditor, night-time philosopher, writer and creative spirit who lives in Melbourne.

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