For a society where rape is unthinkable

March 11, 2021
International Women's Day rally in Sydney
International Women's Day rally in Sydney last year. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Attorney general Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have tried their hardest to confuse, rather than address, the issues surrounding the credible allegations of rape against Porter.

Their main argument is that the “rule of law” would somehow be threatened if Porter stood down as attorney general or if an independent inquiry was called.

This “nonsense” has been demolished numerous times. Further, the hypocrisy of a government, and Porter personally, routinely disregarding the principles behind the “rule of law” when it applies to others but dubiously claiming it for themselves is particularly galling.

However, pressure is building on the government because of its manifest mishandling of this case, the allegations of rape by a Liberal staffer and the apparent protection of alleged perpetrators of sexual misconduct that is on display.

The powerful interventions against sexual assault by Australian of the Year Grace Tame and Chanel Contos have added to the pressure.

One dramatic representation of this is the #March4Justice protests that are being organised on March 15 to surround federal Parliament and at least 30 other locations. Thousands of women wanting to protest joined a Facebook group within 24 hours of it being set up.

The call to action has the following demands:

  • Full independent investigations into all cases of gendered violence and timely referrals to appropriate authorities. Full public accountability for findings
  • Fully implement the 55 recommendations in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces 2020
  • Lift public funding for gendered violence prevention to world’s best practice
  • The enactment of a federal gender equality act to promote gender equality. It should include a gender equity audit of Parliamentary practices.

This is not the first time in recent history we’ve seen clusters of sexual assaults receive public attention. The judicial system, universities and hospitals are some specific examples, not to mention the #MeToo movement.

Each time, the question is posed about: how do we stop rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment?

One important lesson from experience is that grassroots mobilisations like the #March4Justice can have a major impact.

One study of 80 countries over a 40-year period showed that independent feminist organising against gendered violence had the greatest impact on reducing violence against women. By contrast, the number of women in parliament or the existence of (centre) left governments (such as the Labor Party) in power had less impact.

That is one reason Socialist Alliance champions the idea of building a mass women’s liberation movement.

Such organising has been the major force behind both the legal victories for women’s rights achieved over the past 100 years and services such as Women’s Legal Services, refuges and others that been won.

These advances are important in their own right. However, legal and institutional changes are not enough by themselves. Sexist attitudes in all sections of society need to be tackled as well.

Here again, mass public campaigning can have more impact than just administrative reforms by governments without grassroots support.

However, the question still is posed: is this enough?

Video: March4Justice & is a society without rape possible? | Green Left Show #6. Green Left.

Our goal should be to completely eliminate rape and sexual assault from our society. Anyone who doubts this is possible should take a look at the case of the Gerai people in Indonesian Borneo.

Anthropologist Christine Helliwell lived with the Gerai for 20 years and in that time came across no accounts of sexual assault. The very concept was unthinkable to them. This is connected to the Gerai having cultural norms where work, not biology, plays a crucial role in determining gender and the concept of what constitutes sex precludes the idea that a man can force a woman to have it.

What would it take to make rape unthinkable in our society?

Clearly, this would not be a simple process.

Simple legal equality, judicial reform and consent education — important though they are — are not enough by themselves.

Also indispensable are the kinds of structural changes such as guaranteed housing and a universal minimum income that make coercion due to economic dependence impossible.

The provocatively titled Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism makes the fair point that “so long as women are economically dependent on men, there can be no equality”.

This leads to the conclusion that we need to raise the status of women in society. The existence of rape clearly implies male entitlement over female bodies.

Ending the oppression of women — which includes ending gendered violence against women — means ending this entitlement. And that cannot happen while women remain an oppressed group in society.

A complete implementation of these changes would challenge the foundations of the capitalist system itself, since women’s oppression is one of the structural pillars of class society.

Campaigning for socialism is part of the process of winning gender equality and a society without rape.

We have a world to win.

[Sarah Hathway is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance and Kamala Emanuel is a long-time women’s rights activist and member of Socialist Alliance.]

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