Rape: The crime we ask for

Author: New Women Magazine

Tags: Rape

This article is written for women and assumes a male offender, however SECASA acknowledges that both men and women can be survivors of sexual abuse and that offenders can be male and female.

This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of New Woman magazine. No part of this work may be reproduced in any way without the permission of New Woman magazine.

Are we perpetuating the damaging myths surrounding rape in a bid to 'protect' ourselves from this violent crime?
Cyndi Tebbel and Lauren Martin investigate

For too many years Australians have enjoyed the illusion that we inhabit one of the safest countries in the Western world. We're lucky, we tell tourists from the gang-ridden, sometimes riot-torn streets of London, New York and Los Angeles, we don't worry about walking the streets of our major cities at night. Here, we boast, women are safe to enjoy the personal freedoms their sisters in the Northern Hemisphere only dream about. She'll be right mate.

Unfortunately, she isn't. Australia, says a recent and respected international crime study, is one of the most sexually violent countries in the world. Up there with the United States. Up there with the United Kingdom. One in four Australian women will be sexually assaulted by the time she is 18, the report says but more than 90 per cent will fail to report it.

We're highest on the list of sexually offensive behaviour and lowest when it comes to reporting it. Many women here can't bring themselves to tell even close friends, lovers, husbands or mothers, let alone the police. This collective silence is enforced by a society unwilling to accept that women (and, indeed children) have transcended the traditional roles that long kept us in our places.

But we are no longer anyone's property. We have fought long and hard for laws to recognise our independence and integrity. Nonetheless, these characteristics are still disputed in cases brought under our sexual assault laws and, more importantly, in our interpretation of those laws. The legal obstacles are exacerbated by enduring myths about rape which distort and deny the trauma of the crime.

The rape myth

Women ask for it.

Women ask to be violently assaulted at knife or gunpoint? They ask to have sexual intercourse with a stranger in a lane way. They ask to be robbed, bound and beaten while spending a quiet night at home? You wouldn't hesitate to report your car stolen; 'Was your car behaving in an alluring manner, just asking to be taken?' isn't one of the questions you'll be asked by the police when you report it missing. Yet when it comes to sexual assault, women are suspected of somehow 'asking for it'.

The rapist myth

He is insane.

The truth is, he is not. He is not black. He is not working class. He is not a stranger. He is all of these things, and none of them. Statistics show, in fact that a woman will most likely be raped by someone she knows. Someone she trusts. Her husband. A co-worker. Her doctor. Her father. Her priest.

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The victim myth

She is either young, white and virginal, or a tramp.

One thing she isn't, is anything like us. We still don't accept that rape can and does happen to anyone no woman is a willing participant. How does an infant victim of sexual assault prove her innocence? Does an elderly woman fantasise about being beaten and violated? Women of all ages are raped (men are also raped, but even fewer report it.)

We are raped at all hours of the day and night. We are raped in our homes and where we work. There has never been a right place or a right time.

These destructive perceptions of rape the crime, the perpetrator, the victim for centuries kept the laws from coming under review. While women were experiencing the first fruits of the Women's Movement, rape laws were not far removed from the way they read in the Middle Ages. A woman was still seen as her husband's or father's possession, and rape was seen as theft. Laws did not define the crime in terms of the survivor until the late Seventies, and then only in the most progressive states.

Now most Australian states have reclassified 'rape' as a 'sexual assault' in an attempt to focus our understanding of this crime primarily, and most critically, as a crime of violence, not sex. It is an act largely committed by heterosexual men against women, children and other men. It is an act sometimes followed by murder. It is an act of domination, humiliation and degradation of another human being. For a rapist, sex is merely a means to an end.

Other legal reforms which recognised these realities were gradually advanced - in the words of former NSW Premier Neville Wran in 1981;

"...to protect the victims from further victimisation under the legal process; to encourage rape victims to report offences to the authorities at the same time to preserve the rights of the accused, and to serve an educative function changing community attitudes to sexual assault".

More than 10 years later, it's time for us to question whether the intent of these reforms has been realised.

Reporting (your crime?)

From the outset, the suspicion and hostility confronting a victim of sexual assault is unparalleled among other victims of violent crimes.

"We encourage people to report sexual assault, but what we're increasingly seeing is people coming back saying, 'I feel like I've been raped again".
NSW Sexual Assault committee executive officer Lynette Byrnes.

Sexual assault units are gradually being introduced into police forces. But the continuing absence of specially trained police officers in many areas means that when reporting, women who may have just survived a life-threatening crime are asked, incredibly, questions such as: Did you enjoy it? Did you have an orgasm? Why didn't anyone hear you scream? How big was his penis?

After the trauma of being denied control during the assault, you are again rendered powerless in the lengthy and ravishing process which culminates when and if you get to court. It is not after all, your decision. The State decides whether you have a case fit for trial. There can also be extreme delays between reporting, finding the perpetrator and girl who'd been date raped. I'd think seriously about whether I'd report it.

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"...if I don't do what she did..."

Lawyers defending an accused rapist prey on our childlike need to feel that bad things like rape don't happen to good people like us. If you've been raped, it must be because you are 'one of those people'. Perhaps most disturbingly, it is other women who most readily embrace this line of reasoning in an attempt to distance themselves from the threat of rape. If we can lay the blame on the victim's behaviour or values, then all we have to do to avoid rape is to think or behave differently.

"Sometimes, it is far better for our peace of mind to believe the woman next door did something wrong than that the rapist could just as easily have struck at our house."
David Shapcott in The Face of the Rapist (Penguin)

Jurors reflect the mainstream of society; the problem lies with a society-at-large which can't come to terms with the fact that you can be raped simply because you are a woman.

"It is pretty impossible to conceive of educating juries since they're just a part of the community. Even victims feel compelled to question their own innocence. They think, 'I must have provoked it, but I can't think what I did'. It takes a lot of work to get them to come around to the fact that they didn't do anything."
Lynette Byrnes.

Indeed courtrooms only see a minute number of sexual offenders and, sadly, an even smaller number of convictions.

"At least half the women who are counselled decide not to proceed, and only one third of those who do are rewarded with a guilty verdict."
Marion Brown, principal solicitor at Sydney's Women's Legal Resource Centre.

To add insult to injury, sentences for convicted rapists are notoriously light. But, Brown concedes, when it comes to sexual assault "sentencing is the least of your worries. You're lucky to get a conviction at all." She points out, also, that courtroom location may be pivotal. Inner-city areas seem to have a higher conviction rate than satellite centres. Brown even goes as far as to suggest that these are areas "which, for probably a lot of reasons, have a high level of rape culture. The jurors could also be rapists".

What now?

The laws on sexual assault are restricted by the attitudes of those who enforce them - by the police, by the judicial system, by every member of the community.

Earlier this year, a specialist legal team trained in rape trauma syndrome was added to the Department of Public Prosecutions in NSW. This small but significant change occurred because of unrelenting pressure from support groups to force governments to recognise the realities of sexual assault. For victims of sexual assault to get the treatment they require, educating law enforcement and legal professionals must become a priority. Prosecution lawyers especially, says Marion Brown; "It's not the same as dealing with tax fraud."

Until women can be assured of compassionate and competent representation during every step of the legal process, no matter where that may take place, we can't expect to see women, in large numbers, come forward.

In Canada, the government is leading a fight on all fronts to educate its citizens that, without clear, uncompromised consent, sexual activity is illegal and will be punished. Ministers have passed legislation that will have a profound impact on sex in Canada in the courtroom, on the street and in the bedroom. The popular media is being flooded with a campaign to encourage women to be clear about what they want and don't want but above all, to impress upon men that they do not have the right to act first and ask later.

This kind of attack on historical, social and political attitudes has proven effective even in Australia. A few years ago, on a much smaller scale, we witnessed the public service campaign No Woman Ever Deserves To Be Raped. "These are the things people take notice of", says Lynette Byrnes. "They can help to change some people's attitudes but it is a very slow process." We must all be active personally and socially in a continuing attack on the institutionalised chauvinism surrounding sexual assault.

What we need in Australia is strong commitment from the government, from community groups, from each other. Women can change their attitudes towards victims of rape and the act itself. Women can educate their husbands, lovers, brothers, sons, friends and co-workers to change their attitudes. But women alone can't stop rape. The inescapable fact is that it is men who rape.

Members of Men Against Sexual Assault, a voluntary collective with groups around the country, are trying to impress upon men that to stop sexual assault, comprehensive action needs to happen on all levels. MASA visits workplaces and holds seminars dealing with issues such as sexual harassment, because even that, says member Dez Wildwood, "is a form of sexual assault". MASA holds National Rallies "so men can actively come out and state that they are publicly against rape and encourage other men to take a stand".

Even this is not enough.

We must not accept the notion that women want to be raped. We must not accept the idea that men can't change. Men can change. Men must change. It is the only way this country can become a safe place to live for everyone.

Who to contact if you are sexually assaulted

  • A sexual assault or Rape Crisis Centre in your city.
  • After Hours (Victoria) Sexual Assault Crisis Line on 1800 806 292
  • Any women's information and health service (or health centre)
  • The Police 000
  • Lifeline 13 11 14

What are my rights?

Check with local sexual assault services for details particular to your state, but generally you have the right:

  • to report the crime to the police. If you report it, you may request the interview to be conducted by a female officer, although that is not always feasible.
  • to have each procedure explained in detail before continuing.
  • to have a copy of your statement.
  • to have a friend, relative or rape crisis worker with you throughout the legal process.
  • to apply for costs for attending your court hearings.
  • to claim compensation for injuries resulting from the assault.
  • to survive. The right to request everything you need to get on with your life.

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