On Wednesday of this week the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life published a post I wrote with Nina Funnell that I wanted to also share here. We received an incredibly supportive response; I trust you too will find the article worth sharing.
Last week, it was reported that a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped at a Keith Urban concert in Boston, while onlookers watched and filmed the incident on their phones.
In the same week in Australia, the story of a 14-year-old girl who was reportedly sexually assaulted during recess at her Adelaide school also broke. The girl is said to have been taped to a tree, bound with a garden hose and repeatedly assaulted by a group of eight boys who allegedly exposed and rubbed their buttocks and genitalia against her, while other students stood by watching and laughing. Images of the attack were later posted on social media exacerbating the trauma for the girl.
Have we become so incredibly desensitised to assault against girls and women that some now think of sexual violence as mere fodder for our phones? And to what extent do people even recognise sexual assault when they witness it, or know how to intervene?
In our discussions with young people around gender and relationships, we have learnt that many young people do not realise what sexual assault looks like, especially when it doesn’t conform to the knife-wielding stranger in an alleyway narrative. Tellingly, at the Keith Urban concert one witness told police he thought it was just “a couple having sex on the lawn”. Others who filmed the incident claimed they didn’t know what was happening so passed their footage on to police so they could figure it out. It was only once a lone woman approached the crowd and asked the girl if she was consenting, to which she replied “no”, that the alleged rapist was finally physically pulled away.
Confused ideas about what does and doesn’t constitute rape also impact on trials. Research shows that juries often expect to see signs of physical violence and injury, under the mistaken belief that all rape involves extreme physical force.
These myths – that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers; that all sexual assault involves physical force; that victims usually scream or fight back (as opposed to being paralysed by fear); that sexual assault always involves a penis and a vagina – are part of the reason that some individuals fail to correctly interpret incidents they observe.
One of the most revealing examples of this problem occurred last year during the now infamous Steubenville rape case, where two footballers were found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious girl at a party.
At the trial, witness Evan Westlake gave evidence against his teammates stating that he had observed one perpetrator smacking the unconscious girl’s hip with his penis while the other perpetrator inserted two fingers into her vagina. When asked why he didn’t intervene Westlake answered, “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”
Yet earlier that night Westlake observed another party-goer prepare to drink drive and in that instance Westlake did intervene. He tricked the drunk teen into handing over the car keys, demonstrating a clear capacity to act as an ethical bystander in that context.
Westlake’s choices that evening reflect both the success of anti drink-driving messaging, and the need for stronger messaging about sexual violence and consent. Westlake’s decision to intervene in one context but not another also indicates that intervention skills are of no use, unless a person is also taught how to assess when and where they are needed.
According to research, the main factors which determine whether or not a person is likely to intervene in a situation such as a sexual assault include: noting the harm and interpreting it correctly; feeling personally responsible for the safety of others; feeling personally powerful enough to speak up and take action; having practical intervention skills and effective “scripts” to follow; and feeling that other bystanders around them will support them.
In other words, it’s not enough to simply teach “right from wrong”. Students need targeted education on sexual assault and informed consent combined with the explicit teaching of ethical bystander skills. It’s also important that we praise the positive stories of ethical bystanders, such as the woman at the Keith Urban concert who took action.
Focusing on positive stories is not only validating for those being praised. It’s also an important strategy in normalising ethical behaviour.
After all, when news reports focus primarily on the behaviour of those who mock or ignore the plight of sexual assault victims, this can end up creating a mistaken perception that this is the dominant social attitude. The reality is the exact opposite: most people are appalled by sexual assault and disgusted by those who ridicule victims. Reaffirming that support for victims is the dominant view discredits those who feel otherwise. More importantly, it speaks to those bystanders who do care.
It lets them know they have numbers on their side.
* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
To read the book Nina and I wrote for teen girls on dating and relationships, view the site here: LOVEABILITY.