Sexual assault: fact and fiction

by Siobhan Calafiore | @siobhancal

When we talk about sexual assault, we think it’s committed by perverted strangers in the shadows. We don’t recognise it as something that happens among people we trust.

This is partly due to the media’s reportage of highly atypical cases. Society tends to look to these cases as a definition of sexual assault rather than an isolated example. In doing so, the cases happening in front of us every day are dismissed or ignored.

The telling of a suggestive joke and sharing explicit material. Flashing and unwanted physical contact. These are acts familiar to many of us. They occur in workplaces, school playgrounds, nightclubs and living rooms around people we know and trust. Whether we are offenders, onlookers or victims of this behaviour, many of us fail to realise the gravity of what is taking place .

Australians have developed a culture of ignorance where sexually violent behaviour is justified, excused or ignored. But how can we legitimise these sorts of offences and then cry foul when something like rape committed by strangers or child molestation takes place? Every form of sexual assault is an emotional and physical violation and warrants to be treated as such.

Dr Nicola Henry says we need to look at these societal factors as well as the attitudes offenders may have about women and violence.

“There are individuals who are perpetrating these particular offences who may indeed have negative attitudes about women, who may have a sense of entitlement as a male that they can do what they like,” she says. “But I never think an individual acts solely in isolation.”

“Cultural support for sexual violence, for example minimising, trivialising and victim blaming attitudes, is definitely a factor at play in terms of why the crime happened in the first place but also how its responded to in its aftermath.”
Changing this cultural attitude starts with each of us.

So what is sexual assault exactly?

The reason why many of us struggle with the concept of sexual assault is because there is no universally accepted definition. It is described in many different ways and can range from harassment to rape. In a nutshell, sexual assault is any behaviour of a sexual nature that causes a person to feel uncomfortable, frightened, intimidated or threatened. That includes physically, verbally and visually offensive behaviours.

Different types of sexual assault:

– Sex without consent
– Coerced or forced sexual activities
– Stalking
– Unwanted touching or kissing
– Sexual harassment
– Indecent exposure
– The telling of dirty or suggestive jokes
– Making rude comments including sex–related insults
– Telling sexualised stories designed to intimidate
– Any sexually offensive written material or image
– Being forced to watch or participate in porn
– The taking of or posting sexual images without consent
– Voyeurism (watching someone participate in sexual activities without permission)
– Obscene gestures
– Pressuring someone to date or engage in sexual acts
– Any behaviour of a sexual nature involving a child

What are the most common misconceptions?

Myth #1: “It won’t happen to me”

We learn from a very young age to avoid unpopulated areas, stay away from strangers and to always be alert. But these measures aren’t enough to keep us safe from sexual violence. Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia says one in five women will experience sexual assault during their lifetime. The most at risk are females between the ages of 15 and 24.

In recent years sexual assault offences have increased. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the number of offences rose by 19 per cent from 2013 to 2014 and hit a four–year high in June 2014. This equates to 14,500 more offenders than the previous year. While sexual assault may not happen to you personally, denial isn’t an attitude we can afford to adopt. If it doesn’t happen to you, it’s likely to happen to someone you know.

Myth #2: “Only women are victims and only men are perpetrators”
We don’t often hear about males being sexually assaulted but it is an issue. The New South Wales Rape Crisis Centre says one in 20 men aged 15 and over will experience sexual violence sometime in their life.

Both males and females are more likely to be sexually assaulted by men. According to the ABS, 93 per cent of perpetrators who had a principle offence between 2013 and 2014 were male. But, while the vast majority of sexual assault offenders are male, this doesn’t mean that females aren’t also perpetrators.

It is important to realise that sexual assault does happen to men and women by men and women.

Myth #3: “It’s my fault”

Dr Henry says there’s a stigma attached to people who are victims of sexual violence, preventing them from reporting the case.

“This may be because they fear being accused of leading the person on or having behaved in an inappropriate way, having drunk too much, having dressed inappropriately or gone to the wrong bars,” she says. “So some victims choose to remain silent.” Hostile attitudes towards women held by both sexes can lead to victim blaming.

“We have to think about where those attitudes come from. Why do we hold such out–dated views? Unfortunately, victims of sexual assault internalise a lot of societal and cultural misconceptions to the point where they are afraid to go to the police because they think they will be told off, when actually, the police may be incredibly supportive.”

No matter the circumstances, sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. As a society, we tend to focus on the behaviour of the victim but this is irrelevant. Sexual assault begins and ends with the perpetrator and it is the perpetrator we should be focusing on.

Myth #4: “It isn’t a big deal”

Sexual assault victims are the least likely of all victims of crime to report to the police with only 15 per cent of cases reported. The International Violence Against Women Survey: The Australian component (2004) says the most common reason for underreporting is because victims felt the incident was too minor in nature.

In most cases, these feelings tend to be a reflection of society rather than the reality of the situation. Victims are continually met with dismissive attitudes where they may be told to take a joke or not take things so personally. No human being should be denied the right to decide what happens to his or her body and any violation of that right is serious. The problematic nature of underreporting is that sexual assault will continue to happen and be accepted.

Myth #5: “It only happens with a stranger in a dangerous place”

“When people think about the trauma of rape, what they are thinking about is the stranger rape scenario. For example, the rape and murder against Jill Meagher in a dark alley way conforms to the stereotypical prototype of what rape is,” Dr Henry says. “The problem is people don’t look at the rapes of women in their own homes by men they know as always constituting sexual assault.”

Sexual assault by a stranger accounts for less than one per cent of cases, while only seven per cent of reported sexual assaults take place on public streets. Overwhelmingly, sexual assault is more likely to happen with someone you know. In 70 per cent of cases the perpetrator is a family member, friend, work colleague or school acquaintance, while one in ten sexually assaulted women were assaulted by their past or current partner. These assaults occur in what we would consider ‘safe’ environments such as the victim’s home, car or workplace.

Myth #6: “It’s not assault because I didn’t say no”

All sexual activity must only occur when consent is given, this is necessary for every single occasion. The following does not count as consent;

– The absence of ‘no’
– Consenting while threatened or afraid
– Consent on past occasions
– When consent is given but then withdrawn
– Being in a relationship or marriage
– Being unconscious, asleep, drunk or drugged
– Being detained against one’s will
– Not being able to understand the nature of the sexual act
– When the identity of the person is unclear

To be able to consent, a person must have the ability to give free agreement. This means being the appropriate age, sober and having the mental and physical capacity to do so.

How can we prevent sexual assault?

Talking about prevention in society often involves giving advice to women on how they can protect themselves. Dr Henry says this is problematic.
“Everything is framed as women’s safety when really it should be women’s freedom,” Dr Henry says. “It should be women’s freedom to go out in public spaces and not be afraid, and victims should have the freedom to come out and not be judged or humiliated or made to wear the stigma of sexual violence that really should belong to the perpetrator.”
Instead, Dr Henry suggests looking at how sexual assault can be prevented from happening in the first place. As sexual violence is based on gender inequality and discrimination, we need to start with these areas.
“Education needs to be about deconstructing gendered dichotomies and hierarchies between men and women,” she says. “To do this we can look at the way young people are educated about gender, sexuality and ethical relationships.”

Dealing with sexual assault:

There is no one right way of dealing with sexual assault but there are many people out there who can help you. Here are some options:

You could speak to a counsellor in person or call a helpline such as 1800 RESPECT and the Sexual Assault Crisis Line on 1800 806 292.

You could search for information on the internet and participate in online forums such as Project Unbreakable, which provides a safe platform for victims to share their experiences. You can speak to family and friends. You can get medical assistance. Speak to your GP or contact counselling services. You can go to the police or ring 000.

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