Politics are irrelevant when it comes to sexual assault. The political ideologies of the victims, perpetrators, bystanders or anyone involved in a crime of a sexual nature should be moot. The reality is this: sexual assault can be a terrible, traumatic experience and the wellbeing of the victims is of paramount importance in the aftermath of any kind of sexual violence. Whether they're right-leaning, left-leaning, or apolitical.
Politics aside, the Labour Party, as an organisation, stuffed up. Badly. And as a result, its youth camp has become a nightmarish scandal. It's hard to know where to start. The unsupervised party with minors in attendance. The consumption of alcohol by underage youths. The delay in offering support to the victims of the alleged sexual assaults. The disastrous, mind-blowing decision made by the General Secretary not to inform the Prime Minister. For any organisation – political, commercial or otherwise – the events of the past month would've revealed some serious lapses in judgment.
Much more concerning than any political conjecture are the basic errors made by the organisers of the camp, and the inadequate response of the party afterwards. Any young person going to a camp put on by an organisation of the Labour Party's stature should be able to reasonably assume that they will be kept safe. Their parents should be able to assume that their children will be looked after. What happened at the Labour Party camp should never have happened, and the party must ensure that it never happens again. It has announced an independent investigation, and it is clear that its policies need changing.
But what has been lost in the firestorm of scandal is the gravity of the reality that four teenagers have been victimised and are now being forced to relive their trauma daily. Every time they see a news story, or a comment on social media, they will be reminded of what happened to them. I'm acutely aware of that, and sorry for it, as I write this column. Their privacy is being encroached upon at every turn. I even saw 1 News publish a video of a group of young people dancing at the camp, which made me nauseous. How on Earth it was in the public interest to thrust a group of dancing teens into the media glare I'll never know.
Questions absolutely should be asked about the camp, and the media is right to investigate, given the internal processes of the party in government are a key part of the story, but there is an enormous duty of care in a case like this. Publishing photos and videos of teenagers at the camp is a huge violation of their privacy. Using the traumatic experiences of teenage victims as a kind of political point scoring tool is nothing short of repugnant. Suggesting that the victims should've reported the assaults to the police, or that their parents should've been told against their will is unhelpful.
Everyone who has something to say about this case needs to be very mindful that there are four teenagers at the heart of it who have no control over how their stories are being told. We all need to remember that our comments, reportage and conjecture, whether delivered in a professional or personal capacity, have the potential to harm. We have a responsibility to the victims as fellow human beings to be respectful of their wishes and to treat them with the utmost compassion – regardless of where we sit in the political landscape.
The sad truth is that sexual violence happens everywhere along the political spectrum. It happens everywhere, full stop. The Labour Party camp story only provides more evidence of a society grappling with sexual misconduct. The jaded part of me wonders just how many stories we'll need to hear about people being sexually assaulted before we'll snap into action.
Better sexuality education in schools, public awareness campaigns about sexual violence and rape myths, a review of the justice system, better gathering and reporting of sexual violence statistics, even a national inquiry into sexual assault and sexual harassment … there's plenty that we could do to tackle the problem head on, but despite obvious evidence of the scope of the issue, we remain suspiciously lethargic in our response.
In New Zealand, 24 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men will experience sexual violence during their lives. If 24 per cent of Kiwi women reported having a particular disease, we'd call it a public health crisis and pour millions into prevention and treatment. Sexual violence is an epidemic. Where is the outbreak response?
You can argue that it's a justice issue, even though sexual violence can have a significant negative impact upon the health of victims and survivors, but the justice system is hardly above reproach. Only an estimated 9 per cent of sexual assaults are reported. Only 31 per cent of reported sexual assaults make it to the prosecution stage. Only 13 per cent of sexual assault cases result in a conviction. It's hardly surprising that victims can be reluctant to engage with the justice system.
And can you blame them, when doing so means that you will be forced to relive your trauma repeatedly in front of the whole court? If, that is, your complaint meets the high threshold for prosecution. When engaging with the court process means that you have to endure the defence counsel trying to prove to a jury that is far from immune to myths about sexual violence that you are lying, untrustworthy or mistaken?
The Labour Party camp story is much deeper, more nuanced and complicated than the political s***storm it has become. It absolutely shouldn't have happened on the Labour Party's watch, but further than that, it shouldn't be happening at all.
That's what the biggest outrage should be. That four kids went to camp and came home victims. That even in the midst of a global moment of reckoning, they joined the chorus of people who can say, "me too".