Lizzie Marvelly: NZ is a dangerous place to be a woman

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American university rape case throws spotlight on flaws in our own system when it comes to tackling sexual violence.
American student and convicted rapist Brock Turner. Photo / AP
American student and convicted rapist Brock Turner. Photo / AP

Brock Turner may once have dreamed of seeing his name in global media as a famous swimmer, but he will forever be known as a sexual predator.

Which is exactly what he deserves.

On the night of January 17 last year, Turner sexually assaulted a young woman behind a dumpster. Had it not been for two heroic graduate students who happened to be cycling by as Turner was raping his victim, the world would likely never have heard his name. His victim may never have received closure.

Given his laughably light sentence, she arguably still hasn't received justice.

She may never have written the incredible, gut-wrenching 12-page statement that spread like wildfire this week when it was published by Buzzfeed. Her words may never have been read live on CNN.

Turner may have got away with his revolting crime.

In fact, as the statistics show, he most probably would have. In the United States, of every 1000 rapes, 994 rapists will walk free.

In New Zealand, it is estimated that only 9 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only 13 per cent of those result in a conviction. The statistics under-represent the problem dramatically, and we still have among the worst rates of sexual violence in the OECD.

Victim-blaming plays a significant role in the under-reporting of sexual assaults, particularly when the victim has consumed alcohol. Turner's case provided a galling example: while his victim's intoxication was used to try to discredit her, the judge believed there was "less moral culpability attached to the defendant who is ... intoxicated".

The reality of the situation, as Turner's victim so perfectly explained in her statement, is that while they were both drunk, only one of them decided to unclothe and sexually assault the other. As the vast majority of people who have been drunk and not raped someone know, the decision to drink alcohol isn't what causes sexual assault. The decision to commit a sexual assault is what causes sexual assault.

Many elements of the Turner case turned perceptions about rape and rapists on their head. He is a white, well-educated and privileged young man. He met the woman he later raped at a party at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He was a star athlete - which may have been part of the problem.

Research released this week revealed that half of US male college athletes surveyed had coerced a partner into sex.

That statistic has a macabre local echo - way back in 1991, half of 347 female first-year undergraduates surveyed at Auckland University reported experiencing sexual violence. A quarter reported that they had been raped or experienced attempted rape.

It's not a new problem. So what's going on at New Zealand universities today? While US and NZ tertiary institutions differ in a number of ways, campus rape still happens here, with Statistics NZ data showing that schools and educational institutions are the third most common location where sexual assaults occur.

What becomes readily apparent when you delve into the subject is that we don't have enough information about the scope of the problem. The data that we do have is outdated and there doesn't appear to be any national tertiary sector strategy for dealing with sexual violence and keeping students safe.

The author of the 1991 study, Auckland University's Professor Nicola Gavey, told me in an email that while universities develop individual responses, there seems to be little consensus across the sector.

"I don't think there is a lot being done, in terms of formalised, well-developed measures," she said. "I do hear of things happening at various universities at various times, and sometimes in halls of residence, but I actually don't know how institutionalised that is. I suspect, not very."

It's a state of affairs that has inspired the re-emergence this year of the Thursdays In Black campaign across campuses in New Zealand. Students wear black on Thursdays to promote awareness of sexual violence, fight back against stigma, and to call for accountability from our tertiary providers.

Part of that call for accountability is a demand for workshops, lectures and focus groups to educate students about sexual violence, consent, relationships and bystander intervention. National co-ordinators Izzy O'Neill and Ella Cartwright explained: "Our research so far shows students want and need more support and guidance than their institutions give them in this area."

And they say it should start earlier, at schools. "If consent programmes such as ACC's Mates and Dates were compulsory at earlier stages of educational development, we would likely see a transformative change."

Professor Gavey believes that while it wouldn't be a panacea, universal sexuality education is important. "We have a good curriculum and making it compulsory for schools to teach it would be a very big help," she said.

While we currently protect parents' rights to choose what sexuality education their child receives, one in three Kiwi girls will experience an unwanted sexual encounter by the time she is 16. What about the rights of other parents to not have their daughters sexually assaulted? More importantly, what about the rights of young women?

New Zealand is a dangerous place to be a woman. We abuse and assault our girls and women at rates we should be horrified by. Make no mistake, there are Brock Turners out there in New Zealand today. If you need convincing, ask the one in five Kiwi women who will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

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- NZ Herald

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