Prominent law firm Russell McVeagh is really copping it. Law school deans have roundly condemned the firm for its handling of sexual assault allegations. Now the spotlight is turned on the legal sector and it doesn't look good.

Why would anyone be surprised by these revelations? The legal fraternity is held up to be the standard bearer of high morals, values and exemplary behaviour. You have got to be kidding. They are no higher on the scale of spotless behaviour than any other group. We, and they, just liked to imagine they were. We expected a certain standard of behaviour but over the years we have seen glaring examples where these have fallen short. Some solicitors let their honourable profession down badly. It happens.

Nevertheless when sexual harassment allegations are made, by young law interns, you would expect an investigation to be undertaken immediately. And if proven, swift corrective action taken.

Allegations could probably be made against any number of businesses. Women's work places have never been safe from sexual harassment, sexual violence and sexual assault. Ask working women, of any age, what they saw, heard and experienced at work. They'll have a story to tell. Older ones won't hold back. They don't have to now. But we were silent back then. We can remember the names of the bosses who sexually harassed us. The ones we had to ensure we were never alone with, not in their office, the staff room, or the infamous stationery cupboards. The creeps.


New Zealand is following a number of other countries in becoming preoccupied with bringing to justice those who transgressed years ago and now more recently. Wanting to make the offenders own up and accept responsibility for their actions. I believe some perpetrators would struggle to recall what, in their mind, was hardly a memorable incident. Sexual harassment and sexual assault was common. And victims knew this. As a society we tolerated this behaviour. We can deny it now but working women know those in leadership positions lacked the courage to turn the tide on this criminal offending. They did not create a safe environment for women to come forward and report what was happening to them. Even today I hear people say "it can't be that bad".

Sexual harassment and sexual assault is a crime. There is a perpetrator and a victim. The victim is not the cause of sexual abuse. And the sooner we understand this the better.

Sexual violence is any sexual act that is perpetrated against someone's will. This can be rape, abusive sexual contact such as unwanted touching, threatened sexual violence, exhibitionism and verbal sexual harassment. It is preventable.

This where I would rather we spent time and energy. Promoting a campaign that focuses on preventing sexual violence. For young people letting them know what a healthy relationship looks like and informing them about healthy sexuality. Schools being encouraged to develop policies that support appropriate behaviour, and parents and staff knowing what these are too. A campaign that informs both adolescent boys and girls but also makes it clear there are consequences when an assault is perpetrated.

Making sure our communities and workplaces understand sexual violence prevention requires knowledge of the context in which it is most likely to occur. Most sexual violence takes place between people who know each other, typically at social events such as parties and bars or in dating situations. Alcohol plays a big part in sexual violence.

Focusing on preventing sexual violence and drug and alcohol abuse together has proved more successful than targeting just one of these behaviours. And attitudes and beliefs within the wider community where sexual violence has been tolerated for many years can change if men too are encouraged, and willing, to take an active role in preventing violence against women in the home and workplace. And non violent messages must be repeated and sustained.

If we are going to get on top of the problem it's collaboration and collective action that's required. Community based organisations, criminal justice systems, Ministry of Health, DHBs and GPs, schools, social service providers, media, policy makers, workplaces, alcohol makers, bars and restaurants. Everyone has a part to play in promoting the message that sexual violence is not a women's issue, it is a community issue.

Merepeka Raukawa-Tait is a Rotorua district councillor, Lakes District Health Board member and chairs the North Island Whanau Ora Commissioning Agency. She writes, speaks and broadcasts to thwart political correctness.