The June 10 Sydney Morning Herald said that a study released by the National Union of Students (NUS) that day indicated a “surprisingly high proportion of female university students have been sexually assaulted, stalked or sexually harassed”.
The article mentioned an Australian Defence Force Academy student who, after being raped, had experienced attitudes of “just get over it” from fellow students — a culture of silence surrounds such attacks.
According to the NUS online survey of more than 1500 self-selecting female students, one in six had been raped and 12% experienced attempted rape. More than two-thirds reported having had an unwanted sexual experience and 86% had experienced sexual harassment.
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that women are vulnerable to sexual assault. A common misconception is that sexual assault is motivated by desire — on the contrary, it is about power and violence.
The Australian Institute of Criminology says a woman over her lifetime is 3.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than a man.
Considering our society is patriarchal — men primarily hold the power in government, in business and in the home — there is obviously a serious power imbalance between individual males and females.
It should perhaps not be a surprise that female students are particularly affected. Sexual assault is not only rape — it can occur in many different forms and, aside from physical and emotional trauma, it can impact many different areas of a student’s life, such as study, finances and social interactions.
With the increase of online social networking technology, there are whole new forms of sexual harassment and intimidation emerging.
These include sexploitation and sextortion (threatening to share intimate photographs or video footage online, if one doesn’t fulfill sexual requests or give money); inappropriate sexting (either text messages or picture messages); cyber bullying and online stalking; and webpages and Facebook pages rating women’s bodies and sexual “performance”.
Bearing in mind the main consumer group for online social networking is youth, it is clear students are affected.
Sexual violence is also becoming increasingly common in pornography, film clips, song lyrics, magazines and on popular brand clothing.
It’s being normalised day to day, and the consumer demographic, again, is mostly youth. Is it any wonder there are such high rates of assault?
Women’s bodies are routinely objectified and commodified in advertising and marketing. This has not been helped by the rise of female “raunch culture”, in which women are encouraged to supposedly “beat the men at their own game” by lowering their sexual boundaries, displaying overtly sexual behaviour and using explicit language.
Ariel Levy discusses this phenomenon in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, claiming the rise of “raunch” does not show how far women have come, but how far we have yet to go.
Indeed, “raunch culture” seems to be more a symptom to patriarchy than a solution.
As Gloria Steinem once said: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons, but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”
The numbers of women who report being sexually assaulted are high, and this trend remains consistent across many studies.
But those numbers, alarming as they are, are just the tip of the iceberg as they don’t factor in the vast number of assaults not reported.
In 2007, the Australian Institute of Criminology estimated less than 30% of sexual assaults and related offences are reported to the police.
Information about the nature and prevalence of sexual assault is limited due to this lack of reporting, as well as inconsistencies in the methodologies and definitions employed in surveys data collection.
In the June 17 SMH, Nina Funnell, a member of the NSW Premier’s Council on Preventing Violence Against Women, pointed out that aside from issues such as technical glitches, lack of definition and no comparison or link drawn to assault in the wider community, the NUS survey suffered from the “continuing resistance, especially from colleges, to proper research into the vulnerability of young women on campuses”.
Such problems will continue to present themselves in future surveys unless we focus on improving data collection to become comprehensive and methodologically sound. To do that, we need to be vocal about this issue and demand better.
Actions toward prevention, protection and victim support are crucial. A step in the right direction would be to adequately understand the impact of sexual abuse.
The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault at the Australian Institute of Family Studies offers a free resource sheet online on the impacts of sexual assault on women.
It explores the diverse effects of abuse, both long-term and short-term, in detail. This resource and others like it should be widely shared in high schools and universities.
We need to report assaults, and support and encourage our peers to do so. This is essential to break down the stigmas and silence surrounding sexual assault.
But the true key is a radical change in the way women are viewed in society. Only when we are actually seen as full and complete human beings will we be treated as such, rather than as objects to be dominated and exploited.
We need to be vocal about our human rights and be supported by one another and our male associates as we report any violations of those rights.
Women need to stand up against the objectification of themselves and others, even in seemingly “small” ways. Male opponents of abuse and inequality can also refuse to take part in objectification, can advocate for our rights and help shift the shame and stigma from victim to perpetrator.
As noted in the ACSSA report, “[the] impacts of sexual assault are profound, affecting the physical and mental health of victim/survivors, and their interpersonal relationships with family, friends, partners, colleagues and so on. More than this, the impacts of sexual assault go beyond the individual, to have a collective impact on the social wellbeing of our communities.”
Sexual assault affects us all, and requires all of us to do something about it.
[If you or someone you know needs support, call the National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit www.theline.gov.au ]