Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Sex crimes tarnish our women's rights halo

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Tania Billingsley. Photo / 3rd Degree
Tania Billingsley. Photo / 3rd Degree

Sure as night follows day, the comment sections of New Zealand's rightwing blogs foamed with outrage: Tania Billingsley's appearance on television was politically motivated, foolish, reckless.

"She's hoisted herself so high by her own petard that we can all see her twisted knickers," said one.

Another: "She is clearly mixing with the wrong kind of men - and women? She needs to get out more."

Yet another demanded to know "if her obvious hostility towards men was an aggrevated [sic] factor".

It's pretty clear that the 22-year-old Wellingtonian is intelligent enough to have expected this sort of poison from the undergrowth, just as she will have weighed the risk of any legal or diplomatic hazard in speaking out.

But she would have been alert, too, to the danger of silence. Had the matter not been revealed by the Herald on Sunday 12 days ago, there would have been no scandal whatsoever, all of it swept tidily under the diplomatic carpet.

The most immediate and powerful impact of her decision to appear on 3rd Degree was to humanise an issue that had until then played out predominantly as a political-diplomatic controversy. Billingsley, whose complaint of sexual assault in early May led to a man being charged by police and then departing the country under diplomatic immunity, told Paula Penfold that she felt she had become "just a backdrop to a political drama".

If that drama was in any danger of fading out, by waiving her name suppression, appearing on camera and writing an essay to explain her position, Billingsley has reignited it.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully's failure to check on progress in the matter for weeks and weeks, his decision to issue his first apology not to the victim but to the Prime Minister, suddenly look all the more bizarre and unthinking. The in-house inquiry into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's handling of the case of diplomat Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail becomes more than just a matter of process.

That inquiry, by the way, will be worth little if it merely trace-papers the Prime Minister's odd and peremptory suggestion that the official who led Malaysia to believe New Zealand was happy for the diplomat to fly home should "consider their career options". Should it turn up any failure in ministry systems, it is impossible for McCully to delegate responsibility - after all, the famous micro-manager has overseen a major restructure of Mfat in recent years.

But Billingsley's broader and more important point concerns the way issues around sexual assault are dealt with in New Zealand, the prevalence of such violence, and the values that underlie that.

She writes: "There are very real reasons why sexual assault is happening in our country every day. This is because our society normalises, trivialises and in both obvious and subtle ways condones rape. This is called rape culture."

Discussing rape culture can be deeply uncomfortable, frustrating and unsettling, for women and men both. But look around. Research tells us one in four females and one in eight males in New Zealand are likely to be victims of sexual abuse. Less than 10 per cent will make a complaint; a minority will result in prosecution.

The Roastbusters scandal nine months ago exposed a strain of sexual criminality and bravado in young men, as well as a negligent police response, suggesting the "culture of scepticism in dealing with complaints of sexual assault" identified in the Bazley Report of 2007 remained. (It bears noting, however, that Billingsley had nothing but praise for police handling of her case).

A senior New Zealand police officer last year apologised after describing a 10-year-old rape victim as a "willing party" in her sexual abuse. The Rolf Harris trial unearthed the way sexual assault is silenced in New Zealand as well as Britain.

And whatever you make of David Cunliffe's introductory remark to a gathering of representatives from women's refuges - he said: "I'm sorry for being a man right now because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men" - the crashing wave of condemnation was startling. The men of New Zealand were at last rising up to condemn that great scourge in our society: the Labour leader's campaign tactics. A spectacular case of missing the wood for the trees.

On a different channel, later on Wednesday evening, a glimmer of hope came from the pub-politics programme Back Benches, this week hosting representatives from parties' youth wings. They agreed New Zealanders needed to do more about the levels of sexual abuse in the country and the culture that underpins it. The young man from NZ First with the enormous tie said that Cunliffe's remarks had "generated a hell of a lot of media attention, and we can but hope this media attention starts a broader conversation about how we tackle domestic violence". Yes.

This is, after all, a country that takes an enormous collective pride in its record in women's rights, especially when it comes to suffrage and women in high office. But the halo fades as long as the unforgivably high level of sexual violence is regarded as someone else's problem.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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