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Longread: Why is sexual assault still often missing from the focus on violence against women?

Victoria’s landmark Royal Commission into Family Violence is due to report next week, after a year of investigation. Premier Daniel Andrews has promised to implement all the recommendations and today announced that former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty would head a new Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council.

It marks a huge shift in community perceptions on family violence but Kristine Olaris, CEO of Women’s Health East, is concerned that action on sexual assault of women is in danger of being left behind. She outlines the issues and the myths, with insights from women who have participated in the service’s Speaking Out Media Advocacy Program.

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Kristine Olaris writes:

Let’s talk about sex(ual assault)….

No? Not interested? Not palatable? With the imminent release of the report and recommendations of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, it’s timely to reflect on the many forms of violence that women experience and to ponder why we still don’t feel comfortable talking about sexual assault.

As a result of the momentum in our society to respond to family violence and, in Victoria, the Royal Commission into Family Violence, many sectors within the community have increased their commitment to addressing and preventing family violence. With this positive momentum has come a subtle shift to a focus on family violence solely, rather than violence against women more generally. This places targeted responses to sexual violence, in its many forms, in danger of getting left behind.

Sexual violence is common within the context of family violence; that is, many women who experience physical violence in the home also experience sexual violence. Sexual violence can take many forms, such as sexual assault, unwanted touching, forced exposure to pornography, having sexually explicit photographs taken without permission, degrading comments, use of sexually demeaning names, being constantly questioned about sexual activities with other people, or sexual activity without the protection of a condom.

Sexual violence is also a pervasive part of the everyday lives of women in contexts such as street harassment, workplace sexual harassment, sexual violence in social situations or online. For example, girls and young women experience particularly high levels of sexual harassment and violence in settings such as schools, when dating and in public environments. A survey in 2015 undertaken by The Australia Institute found that 87 per cent of women reported having experienced street harassment – 83 per cent of those aged 18-24 had experienced it in the past year. Most women do not report street harassment and indeed there would be little point as we do not have a specific policy or a police or justice response to this widespread harassment.

Over recent decades technology has added a new dimension to the way we communicate and socialise. For many women this has provided a space to be heard, to add their voice and opinion, and explore different ways of connection and expression. New technologies and online spaces have also put women at risk of violence in a number of different ways, both directly and through an online culture of harmful representation and treatment of women.

Online and technologically assisted sexual violence are growing concerns for women and for those aiming to prevent violence against women. A recent national survey by Our Watch and Plan International Australia highlighted that online harassment and bullying is commonplace, with 70 per cent of girls aged 15-19 believing it to be endemic. Receiving unwanted and uninvited sexually explicit content online was reported to be considered common behaviour. Examples of technologies and settings include spy applications, GPS trackers, sexting, social media, blogging, pornography and online video games.

Workplace sexual violence is a reality of the lives of many women. In the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey in 2012 one quarter of women reported having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous five years. Ninety percent of women said their harassers were men. The most common forms of sexual harassment were offensive jokes (55 per cent), intrusive questions (50 per cent) and inappropriate staring or leering (31 per cent) though other forms of violence also occur such as sexual touching, coercion, and assault. Technology based harassment such as sexually explicit emails or text messages are also common.

These are all widespread and serious forms of violence that occur outside of the family violence context, which have significant impacts on the health and wellbeing of women and girls. It is imperative that a whole of community approach is undertaken to address and prevent sexual violence regardless of the context within which it occurs. At a primary prevention level, the drivers of family violence and sexual violence are the same – essentially violence against women is about gender inequality. So it makes perfect sense to address these issues together. 

As a society it appears that we are maturing in our ability to talk about a topic as confronting as family violence, but even within those conversations sexual violence is often missing. This is despite the fact that one in five women in Australia have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, and that in most cases of sexual assault the perpetrator is known to the woman.  For women who have experienced sexual violence, this silence can mean that they feel further marginalised, unheard and isolated.

Women’s Health East’s Speaking Out Media Advocacy Program trains women who have experienced either sexual assault or family violence to speak at public events or in the media. Although many of the participants could fit into either of these training programs, women participate in the group with which they most identify. The program’s experience is that media or public speaking requests are predominantly for women to speak about family violence, and that interviews that result from these seldom touch on the topic of sexual assault.

So what are the barriers to us speaking more freely about sexual violence? Here are a few:

‘Real rape’

“People don’t want to think that a woman can be raped in her own home,” says Faliana, a Speaking Out advocate, specifically about her experience within the Christian community in her local area. However many in our community still do not consider rape within a relationship to be ‘real rape’. Let’s face it – it was only in the 1980s that this became illegal in Australia and, in recent times, our own future Prime Minister said:

“I think there does need to be give and take on both sides, and this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think are both, they both need to be moderated, so to speak.”

Many people are still of the wrong opinion that ‘real rape’ is that which is perpetrated by strangers in secluded public spaces, includes use of a weapon, obvious injuries are sustained, and the victim fights back. “I find the community is becoming more open to discussing sexual violence when there is someone external to blame, that is,  church, school, sporting coach or the stranger in the street,” comments advocate, Kim Elzaibak. While not underestimating the substantial trauma of being sexually assault by a stranger, the perpetrators of sexual assault are significantly more likely to be someone you know.

Minimisation of sexual violence

Are sexist jokes just a bit of fun? Does a wolf whistle as you are walking down the street really cause any harm? While it is clear that sexual assault can lead to a broad array of physical injuries and consequences as well as significant emotional and psychological impacts, many question the impact on our health of what are seen as lesser forms of sexual violence. Studies however point to the contrary. Street harassment has been shown to impact on women’s feelings of safety in public and to cause a range of conditions including anxiety, shame, headaches, disturbed sleep and poor appetite. Similarly, frequent ‘low level’ sexual violence in the workplace such as sexist workplace culture and sexual harassment are just as harmful as infrequent ‘more intense’ violence such as sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention. Community attitudes that minimise sexual violence by underestimating its seriousness, or deny that it occurs or that the behaviour constitutes sexual violence, work to support violence.  They also make it less likely that victims or others will feel comfortable talking about the violence.

Victim blaming & stigma

VicHealth’s National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women 2013 survey gives us a hint at the level of shame that women who have experienced sexual violence have projected upon them, adding to the stigma which surrounds this issue. For example 19 per cent of people believe that “if a women is raped while drunk/affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible” and 16 per cent think that women “often say no when they mean yes”.

The survey findings reveal that women who report sexual violence are still not believed, with 41 per cent of people disagreeing with the statement that “women rarely make false claims of being raped”. Thirty-nine percent of 16-24 year olds and 34 per cent of 35-64 year olds believe that “a lot of times women who say they were raped led the man on and later had regrets”.

The sense of shame which comes from victim blaming and not being believed can mean that women who have experienced sexual violence feel isolated and do not feel comfortable speaking about their experiences. To be clear, sexual assault is NEVER the fault of the person who has been assaulted. It is a choice made by the abuser and it is the abuser who should be held to account.

Advocate Kim Elzaibak is intensely aware of the stigma associated with sexual violence. Kim experienced sexual assault as a child and a young women, perpetrated by more than one family member. She talks about  feeling “silenced even by those who have a willingness to listen” when being involved in formal discussions about  family violence. “We still need to do more when discussing the sexual violence that’s happening in our homes by either family members or the people we trust coming through our front doors. This is an area people do not want to discuss,” she says. As a part of Kim’s advocacy she has now established Restoring Hope, a charity supporting young victims of sexual assault, with the hope of increasing awareness about this this form of sexual violence. 

Anecdotally, we have noticed at Women’s Health East that people are less likely to engage with or retweet/like social media posts relating to sexual violence. Maybe also a reflection of the stigma attached to this issue?

Lack of justice

The vast majority of sexual violence against women goes unreported in our society – for sexual assault incidents, as many 70 per cent are thought to not be reported. For sexual harassment it is likely the figure is much higher, and we have almost no justice response at all for street harassment. More adequate responses to online harassment are also greatly needed.  Of the incidents of sexual assault that are reported to police, only one in ten will result in a guilty verdict. The reasons for this are complex. Sadly the gender inequalities that drive sexual violence and influence community attitudes to sexual violence, are also manifest in the court room and act as barriers to a fair trial. The expected lack of justice itself decreases the likelihood that women will come forward about their experiences of violence.

Fear

Most women grow up learning to live their everyday lives in ways to avoid sexual assault, despite the reality that rates of sexual assault by a stranger are very rare – to walk in and park your car in well lit areas, by thinking about the clothes or shoes you wear, to carry your phone with you, to pretend to be talking on your phone while walking down the street etc etc. And yet we rarely discuss this in a meaningful way. Are we so scared about the prospect of rape that we can’t even talk about it beyond maybe at dinner with our female friends? Perhaps if we did we could allay our fears and might realise we are playing into the gender stereotypes that act to control women’s choices, behaviours and freedoms. .

So when you hear the term violence against women please remember that this does not only mean  family violence. Rather it is about all forms of violence against women including emotional, physical, financial and sexual. Remember that sexual violence is a serious, pervasive, and traumatic form of violence that women experience and the young women are particularly at risk. And remember that it is ok, in fact it is good, to talk about this issue.

Fortunately we know that the drivers of sexual violence are largely the same as those for other forms of violence against women – all are crimes that essentially stem from the inequality of power and control that men and women experience in our society.  So while so much effort is going into family violence let’s not lose this opportunity, to also ensure that we build an Australia free from sexual violence.

  • 1 in 5 Australian women and I in 22 men have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
  • Australian women are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone known to them (their current or ex partner, acquaintance, date, family member) – of all Australian women 3.8 per cent report being sexually assaulted by a stranger.
  • Women aged 16-24 are most at risk of sexual assaults. Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander women and women with disabilities are more likely than other women to experience sexual violence.
  • Rates for children – up to 1 in 3 girls and up to 1 in 6 boys will experience childhood sexual abuse.
  • The perpetrators of sexual violence are predominantly male.
  • 80-90 per cent of victims will not report the incident to police.

Impacts: Women may experience none, some, or many of the following: short and long term psychological and emotional impacts such as anxiety, fear, disassociation, isolation, loss of self esteem, guilt, self blame, suicidal ideation, impacts on personal relationships, post traumatic stress disorder (nightmares, depression, anxiety and mood disorders, intrusive thoughts, avoidance behaviours); physical impacts- injuries, damage to urethra, vagina and anus, STIs, unwanted pregnancy, IBS, pelvic pain, pain syndromes, eating disorders, headaches, dependence on alcohol or drugs; financial impacts.

Source: 2012 ABS personal safety survey, Our Watch website and CASA Forum resources.

Our key asks for the Royal Commission in relation to sexual violence:

  • – That the many forms of sexual violence that occur within the home are comprehensively addressed.
  • – That family violence be recognised as part of the broader reality of violence against women and recommendations be made for further focus on effective responses to other forms of violence.

For other key prevention asks and messages see:

Getting serious about change: the building blocks for prevention of men’s violence against women – joint statement by participating prevention organisations and peak membership bodies

Key messages to the Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria)  – Women’s Health Association of Victoria

Submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence – Women’s Health East

Kristine Olaris is the Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Health East. She is also a member of the Independent Advisory Board supporting the implementation of the VEOHRC report into sex discrimination, sexual harassment and predatory behaviour in Victoria Police. You can follow Kristine on twitter @kristineolaris

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Important contacts

  • In emergency situations or danger, call police on 000
  • For confidential help and referral, call the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)
  • Children/young people needing help should call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
  • Call the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria toll free on 1800 105 303.
  • The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling help line can be reached at 1800 737 732
  • The Men’s Referral Service provides anonymous and confidential telephone counselling, information and referrals to men to help them take action to stop using violent and controlling behaviour: 1300 766 491

For people who may be experiencing sadness or trauma, please visit these links to services and support

  • If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114 or online. Alternatively you can call the Suicide Call Back Serviceon 1300 659 467.
  • For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line1800 55 1800
  • For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, see here.

Declaration: Marie McInerney works on a freelance basis on communications for Domestic Violence Victoria and worked with the No More Deaths family violence campaign in the leadup to the 2014 Victorian state election.

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