Speaking the unspeakable: Australia’s rape problem

In Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence — from domestic abuse to political terror, psychiatrist and trauma specialist Judith Herman wrote: “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”

“Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.”

I was reminded of Herman’s words when I read an article published by Chinchilla News titled “Why I named my rapist on social media”.

In the article Lauren Ingram outlined how, after her rape, she came up against a series of institutional barriers that survivors of rape and sexual assault typically face when they seek justice.

For Lauren, those barriers included the official apparatus of the political party she and her rapist were involved in (the Australian Greens), the police and the legal system. Eventually, Lauren had exhausted all of the avenues that survivors are expected to traverse and compromised her safety to name her rapist.

She wrote: “After more than two years, after dealing with three different detectives and being told my medical records had been destroyed, I decided that the justice system wasn't working. And I named my rapist on social media.

“I felt naming him, my abuser, online was my only option. I knew he had assaulted at least one other woman and I was driven by a need to protect others from a man who is a serial rapist.”

Lauren’s story is typical of millions of Australian women who, having survived the “unspeakable”, never see justice.

Institutionalised misogyny

Rape has been woven into the social fabric of Australia since the British invasion, when white men first wielded rape as a weapon of colonisation against Indigenous women. Professor of Indigenous Research, Larissa Yasmin Behrendt, wrote, ‘[W]hen the British invaded Australia … the rape of Aboriginal women, as in any war, was part of the conquest.’

The loaded colonial history of sexualised racial violence in Australia continues to carry added weight for Indigenous women, evidenced by the alleged violent rape and murder of Lynette Daley in 2011 by two white men who are currently before the court.

The British also brought to Australia the use of rape as a tool of social control over all women, which persists today. In spite of the push to relegate feminism to the dustbin of history, rape is a deeply entrenched cultural staple that expresses institutionalised misogyny.

While legal discrimination has been outlawed, the axes of power that facilitate gendered violence stay in place. Formal equality is a thin facade on a society that has a serious problem with sexual violence.

Australian women are sexually assaulted at twice the rate of women worldwide. More than one in five — or 2.3 million — Australian women aged over 15 are survivors of rape. But only 17% of sexual assaults are reported to police and many do not tell anyone when they are sexually assaulted.

A report released by the Crime Statistics Agency in February revealed that only 3% of rapes reported to Victoria Police from 2009 to 2010 ended in a court conviction. Of 41 allegations made against perpetrators who already had at least six prior sexual offences recorded, almost half went nowhere at all.

Objectification of women

Neoliberalism and market relations penetrate all aspects of daily life, including the sexual sphere. In the Western world, gender inequality is perpetrated by the economic exploitation of women as homemakers and marginalised workers and the objectification of women through "raunch culture".

For children learning about sex for the first time, the commodification of human relationships is particularly damaging. The institutionalisation of rape means that children are exposed to violent sexual experiences and young girls in particular are becoming sexualised earlier.

Violent, sexual imagery dominates the media and public space. By the age of 12, 70% of boys and more than half of girls have been exposed to mainstream pornography. More than 85% of scenes of mainsteam pornography contain some sort of physical or verbal aggression. Significantly, 94% of that aggression is directed towards women (Source: Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-selling Pornography Videos, University of Arkansas.) and the most popular pornography category is “Teen”.

In 2006, VicHealth conducted a meta-study on the effects of violent sexual imagery. It found: "Exposure to sexually violent material increases male viewers' acceptance of rape myths, desensitises them to sexual violence, erodes their empathy for victims of violence, and informs more callous attitudes towards female victims."

By the age of 15, one in three girls and one in six boys will have been sexually assaulted.

In August last year, Green Left Weekly investigated a large-scale child pornography network that was being run by boys and young men from more than 70 Australian high schools. The network hosted the graphic sexual images of more than 2000 female students and other non-consenting women, which were traded and ordered like baseball cards.

The trauma of exposure to sexual violence in childhood is preventing whole generations from developing healthy, well-rounded attitudes to sex, intimacy and mutually respectful relationships.

The crisis of sexual violence is rooted so deeply in our society that it obstructs our understanding of how rape culture has grown and how systems and institutions — religious and educational institutions, the media, the state, the legal system and families — collude with perpetrators and fail survivors.

Breaking the silence

The “unspeakable” Herman referred to was echoed in the hundreds of harrowing submissions to the Human Rights Commission survey of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses.

The report shamed universities for their failure to tackle a growing rape culture on campuses — instead becoming home to high rates of sexual assault and harassment and conspiring to cover up reports. The anonymous submissions to the report are hard to read.

“Catcalling, leering and inappropriate comments just seem like daily and sometimes unavoidable experiences for most young women.”
(Submission No. 165)

“I can still remember the whole thing, my inability to do anything, my embarrassment and shame.”
(Submission No. 136)

“I did not report ... I had no idea who to confide in and I was made to feel like it was all my fault, that I deserved it.”
(Submission No. 210)

The report found that while 51% of students reported being sexually harassed in the last year, almost no reports were filed with police. After the report was released, students across Australia took to the streets with signs that read “I believe you” and “break the silence”.

Changing society

While women’s subjugation is the oldest form of oppression, gendered inequality has not always existed.

In the 19th century, German philosopher Karl Marx argued against the myth that inequality of the sexes was natural, instead tracing women’s oppression to the shift from a communal style of organising society, to a system of individual family units in which women were the property of men. The oppression of women became a pillar on which capitalism relies.

Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote in the seminal text Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that under this system, women “became the slave of [their husband’s] lust and a mere instrument for the production of children”. Engels described this cultural shift as "the world-historic defeat of the female sex".

The family home remains one of the most dangerous places for a woman to be. Today, one in four Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner and on average at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia.

The contributions of Marx and Engels are essential as we look towards dismantling rape culture.

Understanding sexual violence as being predicated on unequal social conditions challenges the conservative, biological essentialist arguments that frame rape as an expression of innate gender roles. These arguments rely on outdated pseudo-science which claims that men are naturally aggressive and have uncontrollable sexual urges and that women are submissive receptacles.

Rape culture is the product of a system that relies on women’s oppression to maintain itself. Women’s unpaid labour in the home saves the Australian capitalist system the equivalent of up to half of the Gross Domestic Product. Capitalism has no interest in rectifying the systemic injustices done towards women which began more than six thousand years ago.

Tackling rape culture is going to require a movement, the beginnings of which we are seeing on campuses, that has its sights set not just on individuals, but on the whole sexist system.

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