Perhaps you think sexual assault is an individual problem? One that affects the victim, and those close to her and, of course, the police and the Office of Public Prosecutions but, beyond that? Why should anyone else care? Why is it any business of mine if some bad man commits rape? Sure, it’s terrible but that’s not my problem, right?
Wrong. Sexual assault is not an individual problem. It does not concern only those affected, only those victimised and their loved ones. It is not merely the concern of the law enforcement and legal systems. It is an urgent social problem, a global health crisis, and an international pandemic, that affects all of us.
On the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, here are 10 reasons why YOU, too, need to care about preventing sexual violence:
1. We all know someone who has been the victim of sexual violence.
One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.* One in five women, globally – it bears repeating. In fact, it beggars belief. That’s roughly 10% of the global population and yet, that is a conservative estimate.
Statistics can be pretty meaningless, pretty hard to make sense of, but this is one that is so significant it’s hard not to translate into reality. How many families contain at least five women? How many workplaces and friendship groups and clubs? How many times a day do you stand in a room with at least five women? Statistically, every time you gather with at least five women, at least one of those women will have been the victim of sexual assault. Whether or not we are aware of it, we all know a victim of sexual violence.
2. Sexual violence is a global pandemic.
Sexual violence knows no geographic, cultural, religious or socio-economic barriers – it occurs in all cultures, all countries, everywhere. Across the world women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria. In 2002 alone, the UN estimated that 150 million girls under 18 suffered some form of sexual violence. Seventy percent of women will suffer some form of violence, sexual or otherwise, in their lifetime.* Statistics such as these could be reported ad infinitum, so common is sexual violence in our communities. Violence against women is so rampant and pervasive that it is globally the most frequent human rights abuse occurring.
3. Sexual violence is a devastating crime with extensive, long term consequences.
The impacts of sexual assault are almost impossible to quantify or qualify. Not only are they devastating and intensely destructive but they are also personal and unique to each victim. Physical, psychological, emotional, social, sexual, financial, professional – the consequences of sexual violence extend to every aspect of life. Self-esteem and self-worth are often destroyed. Physical and mental health complications arise and can continue throughout the victim’s life. Trust and confidence in society and other people are savaged. The capacity to hold down a job, support oneself and contribute productively to society are all undermined. Quality of life, health and happiness, autonomy and security are all damaged by sexual violence.*
The entire course of a life is derailed and in many ways the task of recovering from sexual violence is the task of rebuilding a life anew. Only it’s not really anew. Rather, the knowledge of what could have been, had violence not intervened, will always be there. At the very least, for the rest of their life, the victim will carry the horrifying knowledge of violence with them. At the very worst, the specific, individual consequences of the crime will continue to burden and determine the course of their life, for the rest of their life.
4. Sexual violence doesn’t just devastate individuals.
It devastates families and communities, too. Around each victim is a network of people who will be affected to varying degrees by the consequences of sexual violence. Supporting someone you know and care about through a traumatic, violent and criminal, experience can be deeply distressing, stressful and costly for family members, friends and others close to the victim. The consequences of providing this support can include physical, psychological, emotional, social and financial costs. These are costs that the supporter, like the victim herself, may have to bear for the rest of their life.
The impacts of violence are insidious and extensive, complex and subtle. Sexual violence savages the victim’s relationships to others and to society. It destroys their trust in people and their confidence in ordinary situations. This is of vital significance to all of us. When distrust and fear permeate our communities and define the way members of our society live amongst each other, we create a lesser community, a lesser society for all of us to live in.
5. Sexual violence is a human rights abuse.
“Inherent dignity”, “equal and inalienable rights”, “freedom from fear”, “the right to security of person” and protection from “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” are all enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If these really were the standards we set for human behaviour, then every incidence of sexual violence, all sexual violence, would be not just a tragedy but a travesty. It would be irrefutably criminal and clearly prosecutable. It is impossible to wholeheartedly believe in the inherent dignity of all human beings and their fundamental and inalienable right to security of person and rape them. Without the inferred right to bodily integrity and bodily autonomy, “security of person” means little. Sexual violence, and violence against women, is rarely framed in human rights terms, but once we take seriously women’s full and equal rights, it can hardly be framed otherwise.
6. Sexual violence is a clear indicator of gender inequality.
The single greatest risk factor for becoming a victim of sexual assault is being a woman.* Violence against women is a systemic, and literally deadly, expression of a fundamental gender inequity at the heart of every human society. Sexual violence, and all violence against women, not only reflects this fundamental inequality but moreover perpetuates it. Truly egalitarian attitudes and beliefs are simply incompatible with sexual violence, with forcing or coercing a sexual partner or with any kind of violent behaviour. What any form of sexual violence against women shows is an essential lack of respect for women. It fails to see that women have full and equal rights and that any sexual activity needs to take those rights into account. To put it bluntly, it refuses women the right to not only choose, accept and initiate sexual activity as they see fit, but equally to refuse any sexual activity at any time, under any conditions, according to their own desires. A culture that doesn’t value a woman’s voice, that does not listen to women, will have trouble respecting a woman’s right to choose when, where, how and with whom she engages in sexual activity. Such a culture, as we know only too well, perpetrates violence against women at alarming levels.
7. Sexual violence costs all of us dearly.
In 2009, violence against women cost the Australian public an estimated $AUD 13.6 billion. If nothing changes, ie. if things stay as they are now, this is set to rise to $AUD15.6 billion by 2021.* Quite simply this is a phenomenal, and burdensome, waste of money. Recent Australian research has identified that even a modest reduction in the perpetration levels of violence against women could save the Australian economy over $AUD300 million in lost productivity alone. It has to be asked, has anyone pointed this out to Canberra?
8. Sexual violence is the least successfully prosecuted crime.
Not only is sexual violence less likely to be reported than other crimes, but, when it is reported, it is less likely to result in charges being laid, less likely to be prosecuted and less likely to lead to conviction than other crimes.* In fact, overwhelmingly, both the law enforcement and legal systems, in Australia and internationally, are highly ineffectual and unsuccessful in their response to sexual violence. A crime which cannot be successfully prosecuted is, in effect, a ‘no-crime’ crime – a crime which society tacitly condones, a crime with no punishment. The failure to successfully prosecute sexual violence (along with the inability to hear women’s voices and testimony and to respond to it), is yet another way that we fail as a society to protect, and take seriously, women’s human rights.
9. Sexual violence is a form of terrorism.
Sexual violence is undoubtedly the most pervasive form of terrorism in the world today (and has been for a very long time). It is a violent act intended to create fear which deliberately targets civilians. The ideological aim of sexual violence is to create, and perpetuate, women’s vulnerability and therefore their inferiority. The perpetrator enforces his victim’s submission with the aim of not just subjugating this one woman for the duration of the assault but, with the expectation of creating and enforcing gendered roles that the rapist sees as ‘correct': male dominance and female submission, especially in regards to sexual behaviour.* The aim of sexual assault is to effect permanent change in the victim and to cause lasting psychological damage. What is phenomenal about this is that, in a world that spends so much time, energy and money discussing terrorism and creating counter-terrorist measures, we are still so complicit, and have so resoundingly failed to extricate ourselves, from the everyday, ongoing terrorism that sexual violence continues to perpetrate against women everywhere.
10. We can end sexual violence.
Unlike most traumatic events – disease, natural disasters, accidents – sexual violence is a human behaviour which is completely under our control. We can end sexual violence. That ever increasing body of statistics could start declining today. It is both possible and imminently achievable. All it takes is a commitment to respectful relationships, a decision to refuse violence as a way of getting what you want and a willingness to only engage in sexual activity that is genuinely, whole-heartedly, joyfully (ie. non-coercively) consensual for each and every party involved. All it takes is a decision not to rape. Rape is not accidental, it is not inevitable, it is not justifiable behaviour. So, what are we waiting for? A real commitment to women’s full and equal rights, real education about respectful relationships, real consequences for criminal behaviour – this is what it will take. Let’s end sexual violence, now.
Notes and Resources
* A UN estimate: http://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/pdf/UNiTE_TheSituation_EN.pdf
* For the UN figures, see: http://saynotoviolence.org/issue/facts-and-figures, For the US figure, see:
* For a useful discussion of the impacts of sexual violence, see: http://academic.udayton.edu/health/01status/rape01.htm Also: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
* As above, these figures come from the VicHealth National Survey on Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women 2009 Summary of Findings
* For a useful discussion of sexual violence and the law in Australia, see the Australian Law Reform Commission’s paper “Attrition in sexual assault cases”: http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/26.%20Reporting,%20Prosecution%20and%20Pre-trial%20Processes/attrition-sexual-assault-cases Also, ACSSA’s Sexual assault laws in Australia resource sheet: http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/sheets/rs1/index.html
* For a useful discussion of perpetrators and attitudes likely to lead to perpetration etc. see the VicHealth National Survey on Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women 2009 Summary of Findings
For more statistical information on violence against women, in particular sexual violence, see:
- Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, in particular: http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/statistics.html#internatsurvey
- National Plan to reduce Violence against Women and their children: http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/women/progserv/violence/nationalplan/Pages/default.aspx
- UN Women: http://www.unifem.org/gender_issues/violence_against_women/
- World Health Organisation: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
- UNiTE: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/index.shtml and http://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/pdf/UNiTE_TheSituation_EN.pdf
- Say NO to Violence: http://saynotoviolence.org/issue/facts-and-figures
- The Royal Women’s Hospital (Melbourne, Australia): http://www.thewomens.org.au/SexualAssaultStatistics
- Victoria Police: http://www.policingjustoutcomes.org/info