explainer

We're told 1 in 5 Australian women has experienced sexual assault. This past week suggests it's more.

Warning: This post deals with sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers.

The statistics tell us that one in five Australian women (18.4 per cent) has experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 - but from my own experiences as well as those I know, work alongside and love, I think it's clear these statistics drastically under-report what is actually happening. 

"This week, Australian women have endured harsh reminders of inequality. The emotional toll this has on survivors, and women, in general, is heavy and paints a devastating picture of how far we have to go just to be safe in the country's highest office, let alone equally represented." - Georgia Thain, YWCA CBF Member.

Watch sexual assault survivor and advocate Grace Tame's Australian of The Year acceptance speech. Post continues below.


Video via ABC

Flip the figures and we are more likely to see the reality of the sheer numbers of people, largely young women and gender diverse folk, whose stories we can no longer ignore. The last fortnight has seen a series of sexual assault cases being brought to public attention. 

They serve as a startling indication of how many young women have actually experienced sexual assault and been forced into silence - for fear of repercussion, censure, shame, embarrassment and most disturbing of all, being blamed for their rape. The inevitable question - what was their culpability in the lead up to the assault? Too often we hear victim’s testimony perniciously dissected. Why didn’t she report it sooner? Where did it happen and what was she wearing? Had she been drinking? Small details or inaccuracies can quickly destroy the legitimacy of a sexual assault victims’ testimony and yet why do we rarely ask about why the perpetrator did what they did. 

"We need to focus on the perpetrator. We need to ask why a man thinks he can lead a vulnerable woman to a secluded spot, use her body for his own gratification and then come back to work the next day with no long-term repercussions. Sex is with a person, rape is with a body. Rape is violation. Rape is a crime. And rapists and rape culture should be held accountable." Laura Burfitt, YWCA CBF Member.

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To recap on the last fortnight - former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, alleged she had been sexually assaulted at Parliament House in March 2019. Brittany who is 26 now but was 24 at the time, alleged that after she had been out at a dinner, a Liberal party colleague, and seconded staff member for the then Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, offered her a lift home. Instead, he took her to Parliament House, where CCTV footage confirms, he signed Higgins in and took her to Reynolds’s office. 

Higgins says she felt sick, lay down on a couch, and later woke to the staffer assaulting her, despite her repeatedly telling him to ‘stop’, he didn’t. 

Three other women have since come forward with similar allegations, the last woman indicating that the man in question stroked the inside of her thigh at a bar in Canberra, she reflected: 

“By that time, I was just so used to sexual harassment I just brushed it off.”

READ: New rape claims and parliamentary probes: How Brittany Higgins' allegations have unfolded.

"Growing up we have always been taught to be careful for our own safety, as if the onus is on us to not be assaulted, and that sentiment has never felt more true than it does now. I feel scared, I feel anxious. This whole situation has made me feel as if the Government doesn’t care about women, that our bodies are not important, our rights are not important, our safety is not important. Not only the fact that this has happened but the way it’s been handled is appalling and frightening. It feels like they don’t care about us and they never have. I have lost all hope. I have never felt so scared to be a woman." Jaida Walker, YWCA CBF Member.

This is true for so many women and people of marginalised genders and sexualities – they ‘brush it off’, bury it deep, so that they don’t have to experience the potential ramifications. Those ramifications might include anything from loss of a much dreamed of career (in Higgins’ case), through to public censure, alienation from loved ones, questioning, blaming and shame. The growing evidence, especially during the pandemic, indicates a disproportionate number of First Nations women, young women aged 18-24, women with a restrictive health condition, pregnant women and women in financial stress were more likely than the general population to have experienced physical and sexual violence.

My name is Bobbie, I am the Senior Manager of Advocacy at YWCA: a 140-year-old specialist women’s organisation. Our evolving intersectional feminist advocacy aims to be inclusive for cis-women, trans-women and people of marginalised genders in our work towards gender equality. It’s not just the stories from YWCA CBF members shared here or young women working in Parliament, the reality is that too many people that I know, and love, have similar stories of sexual assault, all involving a power imbalance, the majority of which have gone unreported. 

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Most of you would acknowledge that your colleagues, friends and loved ones also have stories to share, we saw waves of disclosures when the #MeToo movement began. As you’re reading this I don’t doubt that, statistics or no statistics, you may have your own. We’re with you, and if you need support there are numbers for support at the end of this article. 

Listen to The Quicky, Mamamia's daily news podcast. In this episode, we discuss Chanel Contos' petition. Post continues after audio.

Whether we acknowledge it or have to be reminded of it at home and after work by our own version of a Jenny Morrison, sexual assault is normalised in Australian culture. It’s part of our shared experiences, but there is categorically nothing ‘normal’ about it. It’s as horrific as it is real: what is wrong with our society where women are regarded with such little worth? Why the selective empathy only reserved by those who are fathers with daughters? 

"As someone who has survived sexual assault, it breaks my heart looking at the statistics knowing they do not reflect reality. It is one thing to bravely confide in your friends, but to come forward with your truth (to either authorities or someone in a position to help) is something else. Why don’t more women come forward? We are scared. Change will only come when this is taken as seriously as it should be. I stand with all the women who have survived and thrived, and those who are still on their path to find peace." Cass Barkly YWCA CBF Member.

Data tells us that women are more likely to experience sexual harassment and sexual violence than men. Women who have experienced violence in the last 12 months are most likely to be aged 18-24. The data also tells us that almost one in four young men think women find it flattering to be persistently pursued, even if they aren’t interested. One in seven young people believe a man would be justified to force sex if the woman initiated it, but then changed her mind and pushed him away. (Research from the national research body ANROWS in partnership with VicHealth research report Young Australians’ Attitudes to Violence against Women and Gender Equality (the Report)).

Most recently we saw Chanel Contos start a petition of young women who had experienced sexual assault by students of some of the most prestigious Sydney private schools. Former Kambala student Contos started an anonymous online forum alongside a petition calling for earlier education about consent after hearing countless stories of sexual assault from her friends. The chilling forum collated thousands of testimonies from young women and girls and the message is loud and clear - young people aren’t getting the information and support they need when they need it most. 

READ: A former Sydney schoolgirl started a petition for sexual consent. 1200 students told their harrowing stories.

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But how to address an issue that is so persistent and in every level of society? So reinforced and most disturbingly, so normalised?  

There isn’t a silver bullet here. Our response has to be nuanced, multi-faceted and permeate every level of society. We need strategic actions, and underpinning real change is the realisation of gender equality.

Immediately we need investment in specialist support for victims and perpetrators, funding for comprehensive sexuality education and to support the call for Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner to conduct a national review of Parliament as a safe and equal workplace and associated resources as led by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra. But we also need the not-so-radical notion of gender-responsive budgeting and policy analysis to lead us to our longer-term goals, gender equality.

"This issue requires the Government, Opposition and other Parties and MPs to do more than ask hard questions of why there is such a disparity in gendered power in Australia’s Parliament. It requires them to also assess whether that inequality is perpetuated in the policy solutions that they legislate. This Government has failed to meaningfully consider the gendered impacts of their budget measures and policies. Ignoring gender is symptomatic of Parliament's general indifference to creating a gender equal and gender just society. As part of the systemic solution the Government should commit to gender-responsive budgeting and gender-responsive policy analysis." Dr Caroline Lambert, YWCA Life Member 

Fundamentally, gender-responsive analysis and budgeting highlight the need for investment into primary prevention of violence, respectful relationships, comprehensive sexual education including consent, in schools. Because we can’t send parliament or any other entire workforce back to school, what we need is bystander intervention training and education for everyone, including everyone at Australia’s Parliament House. It’s going to take an army, and potentially a similar budget to Defence's to change the current course of history.

Young women must be safe at work. But it’s an ongoing sexual assault pandemic, with no vaccine in sight. Because it’s not just one in five women, if it is #NotAllMen, then we have to pull together, invest in bystander intervention training and primary prevention education and hold perpetrators accountable so it will never happen again. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Feature image: Getty.