September 26, 2007 at 7:27 am (community response, day of action, northern territory, sexual assault laws)

For a Community Response to Sexual Assault

Sexual assault happens in all of our communities, all over the world. In Australia, for example, one in three women and one in five men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. It is an issue that all communities need to deal with, and that some are dealing with. We need to recognise that most of the members of our communities are either survivors of sexual assault – meaning they are people who have been assaulted – supporters of survivors, perpetrators of assault, or often any combination of these things. Underlying power dynamics and patriarchy, assumptions and understandings of masculinity and femininity, sex and consent, all contribute to fostering a culture of sexual assault.

Sexual assault is usually perpetrated by men, against women predominantly, but also against other men, trans and intersex people. Most sexual assault is committed by someone the survivor of the assault knows – their relative, their friend, their partner. Myths and assumptions about sexual assault, together with the culture of assault in which we live, contribute to a lack of understanding around assault issues and a general inability or lack of knowledge around how to deal with this stuff.

The government has used sexual assault to justify its “emergency intervention”, or rather, racist invasion and denial of Indigenous autonomy, in the Northern Territory of Australia. Its use of the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ report, a report documenting the prevalence of child sexual abuse in communities in the Northern Territory, to legitimise and excuse its military and police invasion, removal of land permit systems, alcohol bans, even more extensive surveillance of Indigenous communities, withholding of welfare to members of Indigenous communities and soon to be other Australia communities, and removal of the CDEP program, which sustains many communities, is disgusting. It shows just how little understanding of sexual assault issues, the underlying assumptions and understandings that perpetuate a society of sexual violence, or how to deal with, respond to, and eventually prevent, sexual violence, our government has.

Sending in the military and police to somehow “deal with” sexual violence assumes that sexual assault is something that is perpetrated by strangers in dark alleys, thus able to be stopped or dealt with by military and police patrols and ‘law and order’. Yet this is a myth. Intimidation and fear are not going to combat sexual assault. Occupation and denial of community autonomy are likely to merely contribute to despair, depression, fear, and substance abuse. Agents of the state are perpetrators of sexual assault as well. The military and police forces are known for sexual assault within their forces, and against others, particularly in Indigenous communities in Australia, and in other situations of military occupation such as in Iraq and the Solomon Islands. In fact, one of the members of the Board overseeing and orchestrating the Northern Territory intervention was also a facilitator of the occupation of the Solomon Islands. Some communities have themselves called for police involvement in dealing with sexual abuse, but not all. What is most important is that communities themselves direct the way they want to deal with sexual violence.

Alcohol and drugs may in some situations be related to sexual assault. But banning alcohol and drugs doesn’t do anything to deal with addiction and the reasons for substance abuse. It ignores the fact that many communities are already dry communities, and are already dealing with alcoholism themselves. In fact, the legislation has done things like ban kava in communities that use that substance to combat alcoholism because it doesn’t lead to the same aggressive behaviour.

There is no provision for support for children and adults who are survivors of sexual violence, which should be central. Rather, children will be subjected to frequent invasive medical checks that may re-traumatize survivors of assault. It contains no discussion of education, or ways of changing the understandings and assumptions in our society that contribute to a culture of sexual assault.

In fact, the legislation doesn’t really mention sexual assault or survivors of assault at all. For the government, sexual violence is merely something they can use to justify removal of land permit systems to gain control of Indigenous land, which has nothing to do with assault, and to undermine the autonomy and self-determination of Indigenous communities in an attempt to make them unsustainable. Despite the rhetoric around the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ report, none of the report’s recommendations have been taken on by the government, and the legislation has been condemned by the authors.

The Northern Territory intervention is a racist intervention. It is ridiculous that our white government thinks that Indigenous communities are unable to respond to sexual assault themselves, with their own processes and understandings, especially when we look at the way sexual assault is dealt with across the rest of Australia, by relying on an alienating, adversary and difficult to access legal system.

Almost no assaults are reported to police, and most reported cases result in no conviction.

This is not because they are “false claims” but because the legal system forces someone who has been assaulted to try to “prove” their claim, doubting them, disbelieving, pressuring them to relive their assault and undergo invasive medical examinations that may remind the person of their assault. This treatment is almost like a second assault. The survivor must be probed by police and lawyers, who are usually uneducated around assault issues and re-traumatise the survivor. The survivor must go through the assault again, not when they are ready but when the legal system tells them too, in the framework the legal system provides.. Being doubted invalidates the survivor’s experience. Most assault happens in private – it makes it the survivor’s word against the perpetrator’s. Requiring sexual assault to be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ makes it almost impossible to convict perpetrators of assault.

Being cross-examined in court, often in the same room as the perpetrator, by defense lawyers who are trying to devalue and de-legitimise what a survivor is saying, to break them down and destroy their credibility, in order to win their case at all costs, is traumatising for a person who has gone through an assault. Judges are usually upper class, mid-50s white males, who have very limited understandings of the experiences of survivors, and often lean towards the descriptions of events given by the perpetrator. Just recently a woman appearing in court to prosecute her assaulters was attacked by the defense lawyer who tried to suggest that the noises she made during her assault were “moans of pleasure”. When questioned afterwards, the lawyer excused his behaviour, suggesting that you have to do things like that to win the case. Lawyers will pull at all stops to destroy the other side, regardless of the impact this has on people’s lives.

In the rare case that a perpetrator is convicted, prison does nothing to confront and challenge the behaviour and underlying assumptions and understandings that foster a culture of sexual assault. There is no educational function of prison, no attempt to meet the survivor’s needs or satisfy what they might want to happen or need from the perpetrator, nothing that allows the perpetrator to take responsibility or change their behaviour.

The government is not doing anything to deal with sexual assault. Both major parties support the Northern Territory intervention. Sexual assault is never really a major issue for any party. We need to think of ways within our communities that we can respond to and deal with sexual violence ourselves. Ways in which to focus on supporting survivors of assault, helping them to heal. To learn how to support, to provide space for a survivor to tell their stories. We can learn from models of justice like restorative justice. We need to deal with perpetrators of assault in ways which prioritise the needs of the survivor, and allows them to have control and autonomy in the process. The process needs to provide a mechanism by which the perpetrator of violence can take responsibility for their behaviour, to confront themselves, and to change. To provide them with an opportunity for redemption. And in doing so, the process can be empowering for the survivor, if they control what happens.

We need to work within our communities to try to prevent assault from occurring in the first place. This means educating ourselves and the people around us, unlearning underlying behaviours and understandings of sex and consent, relearning the ways that we interact with others. We need to empower our communities, to recognise that we can deal with assault, we can come up with collective solutions, and create accountability processes within the spaces we create.

We can teach ourselves and constantly learn ways of engaging in a community response to sexual assault, in all its forms, not merely when a particular situation occurs but to respond to and try to change the culture of sexual assault and violence at its fundamental levels.

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