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Blaming The Victims Of Sexual Assault Stops Other Victims Coming Forward

It's time to end the blame game.

06/07/2017 3:09 PM AEST | Updated 06/07/2017 3:18 PM AEST
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"We've heard it all before: What was she doing there? Why was she dressed like that? What did she think was going to happen?"

When a man's wallet gets stolen we don't ask what he was doing out so late, if he was drunk, why he didn't fight harder or if he was wearing something revealing that 'showed off his wallet'. And we definitely don't discourage him from taking action on the grounds that 'the thief is basically a good guy who made a mistake, and this could really harm his future ...'

We don't ask these questions of a man who had his wallet stolen, because it would be ridiculous -- he is the victim of a crime, and to interrogate him like this would be absurd and unfair.

So, why do we do it to victims of sexual assault?

Too often I see worrying attitudes among the general public, people in positions of power and media commentators. They point the finger at the victim, who is most often female, asking how she got herself in this situation.

We've heard it all before: "What was she doing there?", "Why was she dressed like that?", "What did she think was going to happen?" and "Well, boys will be boys...".

When we justify and excuse violence against women and start to shift blame like this, it inevitably discourages victims from coming forward.

According to the NSW Police Sex Crimes Squad Commander, Linda Howlett, the high prevalence of victim blaming attitudes is why less than half of sexual assault cases secure a conviction in the state.

Each year the NSW Police receive reports of more than 7,000 sexual and indecent assault incidents. Only about one in ten of these incidents results in someone being found guilty in court.

What is particularly concerning about young people who believe violence and sexual coercion can be justified, is that they are at greater risk of perpetrating violence against women in the future.

What we know about our victim-blaming culture and the prevalence of violence against women in Australia, is that it begins with pervasive social and cultural gender inequity.

From a young age we are exposed to unhealthy stereotypes that paint men as dominant sexual beings. While women and girls are portrayed as submissive and weak, and are told to moderate their behaviour to avoid tempting men or giving them 'the wrong idea'.

A report commissioned by Our Watch and ANROWS last year, Media Representations of Violence Against Women, revealed that 15 percent of all articles about violence against women contained victim blaming. Things like: She was drinking, she went home with the perpetrator, she was out alone, they were arguing, she didn't report previous incidents and did not leave.

Numerous studies have shown an association between depictions of violence against women in the news media and audience attitudes and perceptions -- particularly around who is to blame.

13 percent of young people (between 12-20 years old) believe that if a female is drunk or affected by drugs, she is at least partly responsible for unwanted sex. This is according to research from the Our Watch youth campaign, The Line, which also found that 15 percent of young people believe that if a female wears revealing clothing she is at least partly responsible for unwanted sex.

What is particularly concerning about young people who believe violence and sexual coercion can be justified, is that they are at greater risk of perpetrating violence against women in the future.

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The good news is that these worrying attitudes and behaviours can be disrupted with guidance from people they look up to. Parents, teachers, media personalities, sporting role models, musicians and young people's peers play an integral role in inspiring them to question disrespectful behaviours.

While there is no comparison between the violation of being sexually assaulted and having your wallet stolen, the analogy highlights the pervasive problem that exists when our social structures, and the surrounding public discourse place the onus on victims of sexual assault and rape to prove that they are, in fact, victims.

When a man has his wallet stolen, we don't ask him what he could have done to provoke or prevent the attack. We ask the wallet thief why they stole. It's about time we started asking the same of people who choose to assault others.

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