Sexual assault and why the culture of disbelief must end

A man cannot be a paedophile when he has a partner his own age.

I like to think this statement is a true as “kale smoothies taste extra good when you add chia seeds and turmeric” or “Ryan Gosling is an ugly, bigoted jerk”.

And yet that was the sentiment of my high school principal and deputy when a group of us complained about a teacher  – let’s just call him Mr Pervy McPervePerve – who was opting to poll us on our tampon use and sex lives instead of actually furthering our education.

He never touched us sexually, but the lewd comments and innuendo were rife.

“He can’t be interested in young girls, he has a girlfriend his own age” we had been told by the male management when we’d complained his questionable behaviour was getting in the way of, you know, actually teaching us. Silly girls, what a bother you’ve got yourselves into over nothing. He has a GIRLFRIEND for peat’s sake. And he’s a top bloke. It’s just your hormones running wild.  

Our concerns were met with condescension, denials and disbelief. And while we eventually got our way and had him removed from our class, I never forgot how hard we battled to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones.

Speaking to a former NSW Deputy Senior Crown Prosecutor recently, he spoke of how hard it was convincing juries in the 1980s and 1990s that child sexual assaults even occurred.

This was compounded by the fact trial judges were required to tell juries at the time to treat the uncorroborated evidence of child sexual assault victims as “dangerous”.

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Fast forward more than two decades and our culture of doubt – though improved – often leaves question marks hanging over alleged victims’ versions of events.

Earlier this year during the course of my work as a journalist, I sat in a court room and watched a sexual assault victim be mocked by a male barrister with more than 40 years’ experience in criminal law.

The woman had been sexually assaulted by her doctor during an internal exam and, some weeks later, had agreed to meet her attacker at his request, hoping for an apology.

”Why would you go to a private meeting with your molester?” he asked the jury during the course of the trial, ”If you were in her shoes would you wander around his apartment like that?”

He labelled the woman’s actions “stupid” and  “completely inconceivable” before he mocked her version of events, suggesting flippantly to the court she needed “written notice” before an internal examination.

My stomach knotted into balls of rage as he humiliated and derided her in front of the jury, hoping his claims would appeal to a common culture steeped in suspicion and victim-blaming.

The tactic didn’t work – the doctor was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault – but the performance proved why so few sexual assault victims bother reporting the crimes against them*. She told the court she  almost reconsidered lodging a complaint because she didn’t think she’d be believed.

Which is why half the world collectively banged their heads on the nearest brick wall the other week when they heard about British law student Rhiannon Brooker, who was jailed for falsely accusing her boyfriend of rape.

The 30-year-old told police she had been raped by her boyfriend on five occasions, but was eventually found guilty of making false rape claims and sentenced to three-and-a-half years’ jail.

And on the internet, the comments started pouring in.

 

“The sentence is too short. How many innocent men are languishing in prisons as a result of such vindictive prosecutions?” one commenter asked on the Daily Mail’s UK website.

“This is a crime which is rife and requires addressing with deterrent sentencing. It should be ten years, not three. But at least sentencing is starting to begin to reflect the seriousness and high prevalence of this crime — but false accusers usually aren’t even charged,” another said.

“It’s women like her that make it difficult for people like me to report a rape. I didn’t report mine as I was scared that I wouldn’t be believed. She disgusts me,” one woman said.

 

Brooker not only ruined her boyfriend’s reputation by committing such a despicable crime, but she spat in the face of every sexual assault victim who has struggled to have their voices heard, who has been doubted because of the clothes they wear, their “failure” to fight off their attacker or report the crime straight away.

Instances like hers, that of Stephen Black as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald last week or the false allegations made against Brett Stewart in 2009 fuel the culture of doubt that already surrounds sexual assault claims. IF she really WAS raped, why didn’t she tell her husband? People were in the room next door, SURELY she would’ve screamed for help if she didn’t want it? I mean, some women just MAKE THESE THINGS UP!

People accused of sexual assault deserve the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, as victims deserve to be heard without being doubted by a society that has set ideas about the “right” ways “real victims” should act during and after a crime.

And then maybe, instead of feeling outraged by the occasional false sexual assault case (as valid as that may be) people might reflect on why still so few victims bother reporting crimes committed against them.

I know of at least six sexual or indecent assault incidents involving family members or friends that have never been reported. I’m yet to know anyone who has falsely accused anyone of rape.

 

If you or anyone else you know needs support, please contact the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence National Help Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visithttp://www.sexualassault.net.au/

* According to the Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA)only 14 per cent (1 in 7) of women sexually assaulted by a current partner and only 16 per cent (just over 1 in 6) by any other male reported (the crime) to the Police (Australian component of International Violence Against Women Survey,2004)
NOTE: For an example of society getting it right check out this article published in the Illawarra Mercury at the weekend. What an amazing difference it makes when victims’ allegations are taken seriously from the outset. It’s heartening that these children felt confident enough to come forward and speak up.

 

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Comments

  1. Georgia Leaker says:

    Here here!
    I’ve been physically grabbed by men in an inappropriate fashion four times in my life, and that doesn’t count all the times my ass has been grabbed in a nightclub. Luckily, each time it’s only been a boob grab or one guy tried to kiss me with force (wait, that’s not lucky at all – but it’s not rape, thank god) and each time I’ve thankfully got away. I’ve always made a point of telling people about it and not hiding it (although it’s never been enough to go to the police, mostly cos it’s happened in non-western countries) but I’ve always still felt awkward telling people… And it’s because society asks you what you were wearing (fun fact – my body was completely covered every time) and if you provoked it (fuck no!).
    It makes me sad that women don’t report assaults, but it makes me sadder than they happen in the first place.

    Like

    • You’re absolutely right, Georgia.

      What you’ve described is such a common experience for women and yet it would barely raise an eyebrow. If we complained about those incidents we’d likely be labelled a “bad sport” or “uptight”. But few wonder why some men feel entitled to grab our bodies without our permission.
      Should it be acceptable for women to hang around pubs grabbing blokes’ cocks en masse, then?

      Like

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