I’m Judy O’Brien, Coordinator for Sexual Abuse Prevention Network – a collaboration of two survivor support agencies – Wellington Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Help Foundation and an agency that works with offenders – WellStop.
Sexual Abuse Prevention Network offers a range of programmes for professionals, and young people to develop skills to identify risky situations and strategies to intervene safely. We also offer programmes that focus on improving understanding of consent and ethical sexual decision making.
When preparing what I was going to say tonight, a friend suggested I just get up here and scream for three minutes because that’s honestly all I’ve wanted to do for the past couple of weeks. The recent media attention given to the stories of people calling out the abusive behaviour of men in powerful positions has brought to light the shockingly high prevalence of sexual violence throughout or communities and it’s just not good enough. I am so humbled and inspired by the raw honesty and shameless bravery of survivors of sexual assault coming forward and sharing their own stories. You have offered hope and support to so many others who have felt shamed and isolated by their own experiences. But we shouldn’t have to share our stories for people to take this seriously! Or to recognise that sexual violence Affects. Us. All! Instead of expecting survivors to share their stories, we as a society should be demanding that people who sexually harm others recognise that their behaviour is harmful, and encourage others to change.
Rape and sexual abuse in our communities is a much wider issue than just what we see on our newsfeeds – this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just one “me too” is one too many. New Zealand has a shockingly high incidence of sexual abuse and rape and Wellington has one of the highest number reported to Police. In NZ, 1 in 4 women, 1 in 8 men, 1 in 2 transgender people and up to 90% of people with some disabilities will be affected by sexual abuse in their lifetime. Only 9% of these incidents are reported to Police and only 1 in 10 is committed by a stranger to the victim.
We need cultural and behavioural change so that this kind of assault does not happen in the first place. We need a high level commitment to ongoing consent education for our young people. Most sexual negotiations between young people are non-verbal. People need to understand the complexities and nuances of consent and the links between alcohol and sexual abuse. If someone is heavily under the influence of alcohol or drugs – it is illegal to have sex with them. In NZ, alcohol is the most commonly used drug to facilitate sexual abuse and half of all rapes in NZ are associated with alcohol.
The whole community can be part of preventing sexual abuse. The most effective way to stop rape is to address the behaviour of the rapist.
We can also address behaviors that may not themselves be illegal but could be precursors to sexual violence. People often do harm without knowing that their behaviour is harmful. Call people up on bad behavior. If your friend is pursuing someone who is clearly too drunk to make informed decisions – pull them aside and let them know this is not ok.
We need to address behaviors, beliefs and attitudes that contribute to rape culture. If people you know joke about rape or sexual abuse – tell them that this is unacceptable as it trivializes the issues and isolates the survivors who may be present, making it harder for them ever to disclose their abuse. It may lead to potential abusers thinking that their behavior acceptable. If people you know make comments that undermine women or that stereotype women as passive and indicate that men need to be persistent to get what they want sexually – then let them know that their attitudes undermine women’s sexuality and ignore consent, encouraging young men to pressure women into doing things that they don’t want to. Call up transphobic and queerphobic comments and behaviours as discrimination against diverse genders and sexualities contributes to rape culture.
Look out for those who may be at risk. If you see or hear something which may be dangerous or suspicious, contact the local police or step in yourself to offer support if it is safe to do so. We cannot assume that someone else will intervene. Research on the “bystander effect” shows that the more people that witness a situation, the less likely anyone is to take action. Being an ethical bystander doesn’t mean being a hero. It means making the smallest gesture that might prevent harm from occuring. Check in with your friends when you are out drinking, check in with other peoples friends.
We all have a role to play in preventing sexual violence. This has gone on too long. But change is possible! Within my lifetime, marital rape became a crime, and consensual homosexual sex became legal. The energy to change our culture is right here. We too can make a difference. Let’s not focus on our individual stories but take strength from the power of our collective rage and resilience. Please, take care of yourselves and each other. Kia kaha.