On the 3rd of April, the University of Sydney Wom*n’s Collective hosted a panel discussion to raise awareness about the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Sexual Assault and Counselling Service. The forum aimed to address sexual assault and violence against wom*n, as well as engage with topics such as defining sexual assault, intersectionality, effective advocacy, unpacking victim-blaming and dismantling rape culture.
Panellists included Rachel Moss from the RPAH (Royal Prince Alfred Hospital) Sexual Assault Service, Moo Baulch from Domestic Violence NSW, Carolyn Jones from Women’s Legal Services NSW, Mel Harrison from People with Disability and Thea Deakin Greenwood from the Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Service.
The collective sentiment of the forum was aptly embraced by the slogan: Ask, Listen, Respect. Freshly printed across posters launched on the night to direct our awareness of the services provided by the RPAH. I felt these words provided a unique opportunity to address sexual assault as a ‘real’ experience, present in its making, and palpable to those willing to do just that: Ask, Listen, Respect.
Listen! We all have a Voice!
When we interact with people, and even when we talk about others, we presume that we see the world in roughly the same way and thus, that our individual and collective expression can be universally understood.
When it comes to sexual violence and abuse, false representations of prototypical perpetrator and prototypical victim still overwhelm socio-legal discourses about how the causes and effects of sexual assault manifest themselves among victims, perpetrators and the wider community. The approach of a stranger-in-the-night attacking a naive young woman, “who should’ve known better,” hardly bleeds into lived reality. The first panellist to speak on
the night, Program Manager and Sexual Assault Counsellor at the RPAH Sexual Assault Service, Rachel Moss, was quick to point this out. According to her professional experience, most perpetrators are known to their victims. And, as Feminist commentator Clementine Ford asserted in her recent article, What if we re-defined consent with ‘Yes means Yes’,
“They are brothers and husbands and friends and sons. And for many people, this is an uncomfortable reality, because it means they might know some of them.”
The dilemma of current socio-legal narratives of sexual assault is further compounded by our tendency to ignore the myriad of contexts and identities by which sexual assault becomes a lived experience. For example, the use of pronouns, ‘He’ and ‘She’ to articulate the perpetrator-victim dichotomy silence the voice of gender diverse people. Narratives assume and privilege the experiences of able-bodied women, and the political and legal rhetoric of sexual assault undermines the significance of cultural, religious and historical values and discourses which shape the lives of victims and perpetrators alike.
In the face of such challenges, it is understandable why few women choose to reach out for help. As the panellists of the forum explained, asking for help can be an alienating experience. When sexual assault is treated like an empirical discourse which “affects women,” serious issues around access, confidentiality and victim blaming not only manifest themselves in the routine of our everyday, but corrupt any credible attempt for personal and collective justice.
Respect! We shouldn’t have to “Deal with it”
This is why initiatives such as the RPAH Sexual Assault Service are so important. Working against systems of oppression initiatives like these provide victims with personalised relief from the consequences, both emotional and legal, that may emerge from any unwanted sexual experience. The aim has been to create a space independent of the prejudice of the outside world and one where victims are encouraged to lead discussions by which their experiences of assault can be effectively addressed.
Thea Deakin Greenwood, solicitor at the Wirringa Baiya Legal Centre, led the discussion about the collective responsibility we have to address the structural inadequacies which are currently compromising our approach to sexual violence. Forums like this, which make a conscious and informed attempt to understand and value the diverse experiences of all victims, is a good start.
Let’s Listen before we Act. Lets Act with Respect. Let’s see how far this will take us, counting on nothing greater than the unity of our will.