Sexual assault does not happen in a vacuum

| June 26, 2013

After Jill Meagher’s rape and murder there have been suggestions that the justice system is failing victims of sexual assault. Karen Willis, Executive Officer of NSW Rape Crisis Centre, says we need to change the attitudes that create the culture in which sexual assault occurs.

Over the past few weeks a number of attacks on women have been reported where the offender was on parole. This has pointed the spotlight on our criminal justice and parole systems. Much of the debate that has followed has, at its core, an assumption that putting offenders in jail is a deterrent that makes our community safer.

One of those reports was in relation to the terrible violence experienced by Jill Meagher. We all send our most deep felt sympathies to her family and friends. Jill’s ordeal is the stuff of every person’s worst nightmare. We can never claim to understand the grief, pain and loss that her husband, family and friends will continue to experience.

When confronted with the unbearable details of the terrible violence Jill experienced, it is understandable that her husband and family would feel that the sentence for the man responsible is not enough and of course they are right. The crime is heinous and nothing could ever make up for what he has done.

Unfortunately the concept that jail will prevent others from committing such crimes and make our communities safer is wrong when it comes to sexual assault.

In the first instance most offenders think they are entitled and that their victims ‘deserved it’ or were ‘asking for it’. They will excuse their behaviour with a whole list of victim blaming views and generally dismiss responsibility for the violence and its impacts.

The reason these views hold traction is that they reflect many of our community attitudes and beliefs.

When someone says “I have been sexually assaulted”, we want to know where they were, what they were doing, how they behaved and any number of other details. We will then make a judgement about whether or not we believe what the person is telling us. In no other crime would we treat a victim in such away.

Offenders understand these views to mean they have a right and that they are either doing nothing wrong, or doing the same that any person in their situation would do. They do not think they are committing a serious crime, so the threat of an extended jail sentence does not stop them. Of course this is backed up by a less than 1% sexual assault conviction rate, so their view that they will not be held to account is unfortunately generally correct.

The low conviction rate is in part because of the low reporting rate of 15% when it comes to sexual assault. While fear of the criminal justice process and relationship to the offender (in 70% of sexual assaults the offender is a family member, friend, work or school colleague) are part of the reason for the low reporting rate, overwhelmingly the most common reason is those same community views and attitudes.

Experiencing sexual violence is traumatic enough. To then be asked to account for your behaviour and ‘prove’ that you did not consent is very understandably too much for many.

The solution to a safer community is preventing the violence and the number one prevention tool is each and every one of us.

Sexual assault does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in an environment where women and children are viewed as being of less value than men, a culture where men’s needs and wants are paramount. This underpinning in our belief systems allows at the extreme end some to think they are entitled.

A simple example of this view of the entitlement of men is the position that many take when a young man or group of men are charged/convicted of sexual assault. How many times have we heard in their defence ‘one silly mistake that will dog them for their rest of their lives’, when in reality our empathies should be with a young woman who will live with the trauma of that memory forever.

Most men are ethical in their relationships with women and children, and together women and men can change the views and attitudes that create the culture in which sexual assault occurs. This may take a bit of work, but the alternative, that one in five women in our country will experience sexual assault at some stage in their life, is unacceptable.