Where Culture Has Not Done Us Any Favours
TW: Mention of sexual assault
Rape culture in New Zealand is a topic of conversation few people like to talk about, but it is one that needs to be discussed. New Zealand’s youth experience it in class, in public and most frequently, on the internet; it is becoming the norm. The lines between what is acceptable and what is not have become blurred at the expense of our younger generation.
“Imagine we lived in a world where events in everyone’s days were recorded and displayed on a graph to show patterns of common interactions depending on your age, gender and ethnicity. In the daily life of a teenage girl there would be at least one interaction involving sexism…
…Whether this is being catcalled on your way to and from school, a classmate making an inappropriate comment, boys sharing and watching porn in class or encountering some nice, casual bigotry, it is an almost guaranteed occurrence. It can be very upsetting and takes away from the safe place a school is meant to be.”
This is the everyday life of Eva McGauley, a 17-year-old from Wellington. At such a young age, she has already seen first-hand how destructive sexual violence can be, and she admits that most of her friends have been sexually assaulted. One of the most crucial things that we need to understand is how prolific this is, at school, in public and most notably, going on behind the screens that youth immerse themselves in. Every woman, by in large, knows what it is like to experience these things that McGauley mentions – to be made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe as they walk down the street or sit in a crowded room. Some might argue this is women making assumptions, being rude about men and that the comments and looks are completely harmless. However, these scenarios highlighted by McGauley are social attitudes and behaviours that are, in part, responsible for New Zealand’s rape culture. In fact, they have become the norm and they exemplify the attitudes that some men have for women, which experts we spoke to would identify as a sense of entitlement and power.
Earlier this year, hundreds of Wellingtonians marched on Parliament to speak out against rape culture. At the time of the march, NewsWire took to the streets to get individuals’ views on rape culture. Of the 36 people spoken to, there was a clear theme to their answers. Teenage girls were almost unanimous when asked if there was rape culture, saying that it was “present” and “personal”. Teenage boys who were asked did not think there was a problem and that “the media has sort of overblown it.” As for the older generations, the majority said they were not exposed to it and didn’t experience or witness it. These findings are supported by statistics that show in New Zealand around one in three girls may be sexually abused before they turn 16 and one in five women experience a serious sexual assault. One in seven boys may also be sexually abused. Unsurprisingly, it is the younger generations that are statistically at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted, with HELP Auckland statistics suggesting the 16 to 24-year-old age group are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other age groups. “To the people reading this, please stop for a moment and think about all the young people you know. Have these numbers stopped being just statistics yet?” McGauley asks. “People you pass on the street, friends, family and people you live with – this is a real problem and it’s not going to go away unless we wake up to the reality that it exists and face it head on and with a united front.”
The internet and the plethora of information it brings has created a culture where attitudes can be easily shared in an anonymous way. As a result, the internet has created a more obvious rape culture. HELP Auckland has been working to empower women and children recovering from the effects of abuse, while educating the community on preventing sexual abuse in the future, since 1982. Their Executive Director, Kathryn McPhillips, says that over the years, the culture has changed and believes rape culture has become more blatant. She believes there are various factors that contribute to New Zealand’s rape culture, the three primary factors being a lack of respect for others, a sense of entitlement and the eroticisation of power over others – all of which are underpinned by the internet. “While women have long been blamed for being raped, this wasn’t necessarily spoken of. Now, even young children are being exposed to these ideas in pornography, and song lyrics bring teenagers into this way of thinking without them necessarily even being consciously aware that this is what they are singing along to.”
Another similar service is Rape Prevention Education (RPE), who works in the greater Auckland area and nationally to prevent sexual violence through education. Their Executive Director, Debbi Tohill, also believes the internet has played a key role in the ways in which rape culture has changed. “I’m in my 50s, so in my day, we certainly didn’t need to worry about sending or receiving nude pictures. These days, sending nude pics seems to be common among teenagers. It’s important that they realise that once a picture is sent, it’s out of their control and can be sent to others or potentially put out on the internet where it can be impossible to retrieve.” Tohill also believes the internet plays a huge role in the subtle messages it shares. “There are so many underlying messages in our culture we see every day online on social media and the internet. We are bombarded with advertisements, music videos, films and TV, which show women as objectified and these will influence young people as it seems normalised.” Like McPhillips,Tohill believes that rape culture continues to exist in New Zealand and she hopes that we can make a difference to this through education.
A significant problem, and one that needs to be solved in order to change our rape culture, is the blame game. “We still hear of victims being blamed when they have been sexually assaulted – what were they wearing? Were they drunk? Had they been flirting? None of these factors cause rape or sexual violence. Rape occurs when there is no consent. What will stop rape and sexual violence? People not raping and sexually violating other people.” Tohill believes that education is key. “Young people need to understand respectful relationships. They need to understand that porn isn’t real, it is actors being paid to do a job. As adults, we all have the opportunity to influence young people with our actions and behaviours – we need to set examples with the young people we are in contact with. We need to call people out when we hear disrespectful comments.”
Another significant issue with the internet is the anonymity it allows – something Victoria University of Wellington Media Studies Lecturer, Dr Emma Kelly, believes has altered rape culture. “We know the statistics for sexual assault and rape in New Zealand are very, very high but they always have been… The difference is that anonymous interactions online allow people to talk about rape in a way that they would not face-to-face. So, I don’t think more rape and sexual assault is going on than before, and there’s no evidence to say it is; it’s just that people think it’s OK to say things online about it.”
Start the conversation
Talking about what is really going on in rape culture face-to-face is not easy and as a result, it is often left unspoken, until a brief conversation when a case is mentioned in the media. While any conversation is good, one that continues to develop and as a result, change our way of thinking, is paramount.
One such story that sparked a lot of conversation and contention is that of Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger, a pair who joined the stage to discuss rape –namely, Elva’s experience as a survivor of sexual assault and Stranger’s responsibility. The two were dating when they were teens and after a Christmas party, her then 18-year-old boyfriend raped her. People argued that the ‘perpetrator’ should not be given a platform to share his experience, they felt that he was profiting from his crime, that it would trigger sexual assault survivors and that it encouraged the normalisation of sexual violence.
In their TED talk, Stranger opened up about his experience. “Don’t underestimate the power of words,” he said. “Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her. But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me. Far too often, the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence, and not to the males who enact it. Far too often, the denial and running leaves all parties at a great distance from the truth. There’s definitely a public conversation happening now, and like a lot of people, we’re heartened that there’s less retreating from this difficult but important discussion. I feel a real responsibility to add our voices to it.”
What this did was start a conversation – something Dr Emma Kelly believes is incredibly important and could make a significant change. “I think this is perhaps the most important thing that can happen to change things for all of us. Men speaking out about their feelings and experiences is the change we need. I know from my study and anecdotal evidence that if a man is sexually abused, raped or assaulted and does not find a way to seek help or support in working through the trauma of that experience, it will impact upon him and his family all his life. Generally, men feel they cannot speak about it as it’s a weakness to show pain or emotion in our culture – so how can they acknowledge a woman’s experience if they won’t get to grips with their own?”
Beyond sharing their feelings or being open to listening to ours, Dr Kelly believes if men stood up what was right and took a stance, things would change. “My sister and I have talked about this a lot as she works in a male-dominated environment. She sticks up for herself when she doesn’t like the language or behaviours of the men, and she now has a boss and a couple of male colleagues who will do the same – they challenge the behaviours of the other men. Seeing men speak up and say, ‘Hey, I don’t like that’ rather than, ‘Hey, there are women here, don’t do that’ is important – owning the feeling that some things are offensive and shouldn’t be said or done by men is, I think, really important. Even if that means the men endure some insults from other men who don’t like their view.”
Member of the Green Party and Spokesperson for Women, Jan Logie has been a strong advocate for change and has volunteered for services such as Youthline, HELP Sexual Abuse Crisis Line and Wellington Rape Crisis Board. She wants to see an end to rape culture in New Zealand, and wants to be a champion for those whose voices are not currently being heard – whose voices we need to hear from to end rape culture. “New Zealand desperately needs to address sexual violence, and a rape culture that harms us all. We have plenty of examples of people in the media, in parliament, in the police or courts, and in our communities, who are participating in rape culture, but seem to be unaware that what they are doing is damaging.”
In order to achieve this, Logie has initiated an inquiry into funding for specialist sexual violence support services; she has pushed the Government to continue work on alternative court processes for sexual violence, and has also been pushing for better education in our schools. “The Government has been forced to take action but frankly it’s not enough,” she says. “We need a Government who genuinely believes we can change this.”
Starting a conversation is something that McGauley also believes needs to happen in order to make a change. “Rape culture is such a big issue that it’s hard to pinpoint a ‘biggest factor’ but I think an umbrella issue that covers all the others is the toxic silence we have around sexual abuse in New Zealand. Traditionally, as a people, we don’t talk about it and we don’t acknowledge it as a common issue. This creates a stigma of shame that clouds survivors’ lives. We treat sexual abuse like the mad aunt in the attic – we know it’s there and every so often, it makes a loud noise to remind us of its existence but we try to ignore it and treat it as beneath us, the unmentioned embarrassment of the family. We need to break the silence and shine a healing light on survivors and their loved ones.”
It isn’t an easy fix but it is important that we start somewhere. The best place to start is by inviting the conversation between friends, colleagues, parents and children, and teachers and students. Mindsets about rape culture and the ‘norms’ that are happening need to be discussed in order to remind children and young adults porn is not a real image of a relationship, men do not have ownership over women and objectifying women is never acceptable. It is through these conversations that we can raise awareness and make this a topic that is at the front of our minds and more importantly, a topic we should discuss.
What can you do?
A lot of responsibility lies in parents and guardians educating their children, and of course, leading by example. HELP’s Executive Director Kathryn McPhillips believes we should start having conversations about acting responsibly with children from a young age. “Right from about the age of three, parents need to be teaching children that they are the bosses of their own bodies, that they need to tell and keep telling adults if someone hurts them, that it’s OK to touch their own genitals but not other people’s. We need to teach children about consent, and respect for others. There used to be an idea that we were bringing children up to be good citizens; now it seems to be about being able to give your children as much material stuff as you can.” Similarly, RPE’s Executive Director, Debbi Tohill, believes “Education and setting good examples is key… All of our young people deserve to have access to good, clear education about respectful relationships, and how to negotiate consent in relationships. Talking to teenagers about sex sometimes isn’t easy and they don’t always want to listen but it should be a part of family conversations so it’s seen as normal.” It might not be an easy conversation to have, but it is important.
There are services available if you need to talk to someone:
HELP Auckland helpaucklandorg.nz
09 623 1700
09 360 4001
Victim Support victimsupport.org.nz
0800 842 846
Wellington Rape Crisis wellingtonrapecrisis.org.nz
04 801 8973
This article was featured in the July/August 2017 issue of M2woman Magazine.