Don’t wear short skirts, never walk alone at night – Why do some Australians still appear to hold victim blaming attitudes?
Nina Funnell was only a few hundred metres from her home when a man grabbed her from behind and held a box cutter blade to her throat. He dragged her into a nearby park where he straddled her, choked her, punched her in the face and pulled at her clothes. “I’m going to rape you and kill you,” he said.
She fought the man off, screaming and scratching.
When she reported the attack to police, an officer said to her, “The problem is, women don’t understand the harm they put themselves in.”
A recent survey by VicHealth, found that 19 per cent of Australians believe that if a woman is raped while drunk or affected by drugs then she is at least partially responsible. The survey, intending to gauge Australia’s attitude towards violence against women and gender equality, asked 17,500 Australians a series of questions relating to these issues. It found that one in six supported the idea that women say no when they really mean yes, and 12 per cent agreed that if a woman goes to a room alone with a man at a party then it is her fault she is raped.
“These results are disappointing, but not at all surprising,” says Nina, who has become an advocate against sexual assault since her attack, and has been awarded the Australian Human Rights Community (Individual) award for her work in gender-based violence prevention. “Rape and domestic violence continue to be the only two crimes where people still blame the victim rather than the perpetrator.”
According to a report by VicHealth, victim-blaming attitudes seek to shift the blame or responsibility of violence from the perpetrator to the victim, and hold women at least partially responsible for their victimisation. In sexual assault cases, this could mean interrogating the victim, scrutinising their behaviour, dress, sexual history, or sobriety. “I had friends overtly state that I was stupid for having walked down my own street at night,” says Nina. “Having close friends label you as stupid is never pleasant, but to have them label you as stupid in a moment when you are feeling more battered, violated and traumatised than you ever imagined possible is beyond painful, it’s silencing.”
One of the most obvious repercussions of victim blaming is that it can discourage victims from coming forward, protecting the perpetrator and ultimately allowing them to offend again. “Research on barriers to reporting sexual assault shows that when victims feel in some way responsible for being assaulted, they are less likely to report the incident,” says Jessica Gregory, Communications and Media Officer for Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS). “Victims who feel shameful and embarrassed about their assault can suffer serious psychological consequences. By discouraging victims from coming forward, victim blaming attitudes downplay the severity of certain types of sexual assault and continue a cycle of silence and shame.”
So why do these attitudes still persist?
“When we hear about horrific incidents of sexual assault or domestic violence, it’s instinctive to compare our own lives with the victim’s situation. We ask ourselves what we can do to make sure the same horrific crime doesn’t happen to us,” says Jessica.
Nina agrees. “All of us like to imagine that the world we live in is a safe and ordered place, where every effect has a cause behind it, and every outcome is linked to choices or decisions we made. To admit that bad things can happen to good people and that these things are often random and chaotic is a terrifying thought because it means that you too could be raped one day.”
But VicHealth’s report concluded that the main influence on a person’s attitude toward violence against women was their understanding of the issue and how supportive they were of gender equality. The more they subscribed to conservative stereotypes about men and women, the more likely they were to excuse, trivialise or justify violent behaviour.
Four in 10 people surveyed agreed that “Rape results from men not able to control their need for sex,” – an increase from three in 10 in 2009.
“These beliefs demonstrate just how far we have to go before our society understands the nature of violence,” said VicHealth CEO, Jerril Rechter, in response to the survey results. “Allow me to make it very clear. Violence is a choice, not an instinct. And it is never excusable. It’s always a crime. And no woman ever invites or deserves it.”
“Cautionary advice urging women to change their behaviour may be well-intended, but it is often not informed by evidence in regards to what causes and contributes to sexual assault,” says Jessica. “What the evidence does show, is that a victim often knows the person who has sexually assaulted them, and when they do, the victim is less likely to report the crime.”
Charlotte* has also been a victim of sexual assault, and like 70 per cent of sexual assault victims, Charlotte’s attackers were people she already knew. After consensual sex with a man she met on a snowboarding trip, she was coerced into group sex with three of his friends.
“I was lying there in shock, unable to come to terms with what happened,” says Charlotte, “I actually had to ask myself, ‘Was that rape?'” Due to her uncertainty, she didn’t seek help the following day. It took her months to come to terms with what had happened, living in denial and even continuing to see the man who had instigated her gang rape.
“It took me a long time to open up about what happened to me, not only to my close friends, family or psychologist but even to myself,” says Charlotte, “I put this down to victim blaming and the stigma surrounding rape and women having casual sex in general. I felt like I would be judged harshly if I told my story.”
Sexual violence is extremely hard to prove unless the victim is physically examined immediately after the incident. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of the estimated 126,000 sexual assault cases that occur in Australia each year, only 15 per cent are reported.
“If we want to create a supportive environment [for sexual assault victims], we have to challenge victim blaming attitudes when we hear them,” says Nina, “This may include rape jokes or other comments which contribute to a culture in which the actions of the perpetrators are minimised or excused.
“We need education to help dismantle rape myths, and we need better sex education where the topic of active consent is discussed. We also need to challenge various assumptions about gender and how sex is negotiated [such as the mistaken belief that women play hard to get and say no when they really mean yes] and we need more dialogue in the media about these issues.
“Finally, we need to make sure that when victims do make the decision to report a sexual assault, they are treated with the compassion, dignity and respect that they deserve.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. – Victoria Kerridge
*Name has been changed
Top photo from Charlotte Cooper’s Flickr photostream.