Are we over rape culture?

When I was six years old, I watched my best friend get straddled from behind by our male art teacher, a man in his late 30s. When I was 14, my friends were being followed by men while walking home from school and others were experiencing workplace harassment at their corner-store jobs. At 18, my friends’ drinks began getting spiked and a night out meant one of us inevitably being groped or prodded without consent. Most of us have a story – or know someone who does.

Sexual harassment includes vulgar remarks as a car races past, or it can be obscene acts in public, indecent exposure or stalking – as defined in the Criminal Code Act 1913 (WA). One in two women and one in four men in Australia experience sexual harassment during their lives, according to a 2016 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Sexual assault, is defined by the WA Health Department as: “Any unwanted sexual act or behaviour which is threatening, violent, forced or coercive and to which a person has not given consent or was not able to give consent.” An ABS survey in 2019-2020, found that 62,700 people 18 years and older experienced sexual assault in the 12 month period. And Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety found that the perpetrators for violence against women are overwhelmingly men.

ANROWS key statistics on violence against women media release. Photo: Supplied.

Rape culture is exactly that. A culture. It is deeply ingrained in male behaviour, subliminally taught – as is the typically nonchalant female response to this behaviour. It is accepted.

I have lost count of how many catcalls I have witnessed. A group of young women walking down the streets of Perth on a night out are often met with catcalling and inappropriate comments that run along the lines of, “Where are you going babe?” or “Come back here, sexy”. The reaction is usually a simple eye-roll, barely acknowledging that what just happened was wrong.  

Co-author of Rape Culture 101: Programming Change Geraldine Cannon Becker says rape culture is an idea that “links rape and sexual assault to commonly held beliefs or attitudes in society that essentially normalise, excuse, tolerate or even condone rape”.  

Published last year, the book explains that one of these ideas is that “boys will be boys” – an excuse for seemingly harmless behaviours taught from a young age. In the rape culture mindset, it is okay for boys to make mistakes or engage in teasing, mockery, and sometimes violence. For girls, however, there is little to no room for mistakes.

Society teaches girls to never walk alone, to grip their keys for protection, to dress ‘appropriately’, to always be ‘polite’ because you never know what can happen. Photo: Zoe Ostler.

In rape culture, whenever something does happen, we question why the girls didn’t say no. We question what they may have done to deserve it. As if someone ever deserves to be sexually assaulted. As if they themselves are to blame, instead of the perpetrator for putting them through one of the most horrific experiences a person can go through.

What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Were you leading him on? Were you asking for it? These are just some of the victim blaming habits adopted by a rape culture society and they can have lasting consequences on victims deterring them from seeking help and justice.

Allambee Counselling supports people healing from the trauma of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and family or domestic violence. The clinic has a multidisciplinary team of eight specialist counsellors, psychologists, and social workers.

Allambee Services Manager Kelly Wrightstone says many things contribute to sexual assault and family violence at a societal level: “Shame, guilt and fear of not being believed are significant barriers for victims in coming forward after abuse and can lead to people not receiving support following a sexual assault or remaining in an abusive relationship.”

Rape culture doesn’t vanish when we step into the office on a Monday morning after a big weekend. It is present even in our government, evident through recent events in Parliament House. Victims are always described as someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s wife. Why must we see victims of a crime – as serious as this – as someone we may know, rather than just seeing them and empathising with them as a human being?

“When I speak with them, as I often do in this role, they tell me one of the key factors in their recovery is people believing them, listening to them, and supporting them – whether they take their experiences to the police or not,”

Kati Kraszlan

Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was widely criticised for saying that he spoke to his wife for advice about how to respond to rape allegations brought forth by Brittany Higgins.

Australian Labor MP Julian Hill delivered a speech to parliament on February 16, 2021 saying we are lucky Scott Morrison has daughters and not sons regarding the Prime Minister’s response. He made the point: “Daughters and wives do not exist to teach men to respect women and have empathy.”

Women aren’t the only ones being affected by rape culture. Given the sensitive nature and complexity of these issues, many cases go unreported regardless of gender.

I conducted my own survey among my local community, allowing respondents to remain anonymous, to try and grasp just how widespread sexual assault is with young people in their 20’s that I know in Perth. I started by asking what gender they identified as. Although this survey may include a bias, as people more likely to respond are those wanting to share their story, I was appalled to find 95.5 per cent of the 44 participants said they had experienced a form of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Graphic: Zoe Ostler.

In my survey, 84.1 per cent of participants disclosed they had been touched inappropriately without consent. In just this small sample size of my local friends on social media, 29.5 per cent admitted they have been raped – some describing their nightmare stories in detail.

Some of these 13 participants admitted they weren’t aware that it was sexual assault until further reflection or until someone pointed it out. Others hadn’t told anyone about their traumatic experience before.

Anonymous survey participant 1.
Anonymous survey participant 2.

When it comes to the aftermath of sexual assault, Allambee is at the forefront helping victims and families on their journey to re-write their story.

Wrightstone says: “The healing or recovery process looks different for each individual, however, it starts with a person reaching out for support. Healing takes time and is often not a linear process in that someone may access counselling at different times during their life, especially as things may arise which re-trigger or impact upon their coping.”

Cannon Becker goes on to say in her book that in order to address rape culture and prevent rape, we need to engage men and address the social constructions of masculinity: “It means challenging hegemonic masculinity and promoting non-violent, gender-equitable alternative constructions of masculinity.”

Allambee facilitates workshops designed to educate young people and raise awareness about issues including consent, catcalling, victim blaming which are aimed to prevent sexual assault.

Sexual assault and rape culture exist. It is not new, a sinister hypothetical, or something written about in a 1985 dystopic Margaret Atwood novel. The surrounding issues are messy and complex which is why, unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Wrightstone says education, defying social norms, or simply starting a seemingly awkward conversation can create a wave of change.

Commissioner for Victims of Crime Kati Kraszlan says awareness and sensitivity towards victims of sexual assault can help. “When I speak with them, as I often do in this role, they tell me one of the key factors in their recovery is people believing them, listening to them, and supporting them – whether they take their experiences to the police or not,” she said.

If you or anyone you know need some support,

you can contact 1800 RESPECT, Lifeline, Beyond Blue, or SARC.