Issue 4, Semester 1, 2019
Content warning: The following article contains material related to sexual assault.
While it may have escaped the attention of most Australians, a fortnight ago Arizona Senator Martha McSally took the incredibly courageous step of sharing her experience of sexual violence with the World as part of a United States Senate armed services hearing on the prevention of sexual assault.
There is a great deal of significance to be found in this revelation’s coinciding with the week of International Women’s Day (March 8). And yet, we must not confine our concern for the substantial inequalities women still face, both in our own society and across the globe, to just one day a year.
The scourge of sexual violence against women is a great stain on our society that we must confront together 365 days a year. Senator McSally’s experience, and that of countless thousands upon thousands of other women, highlights just how much better our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and neighbours deserve.
There is absolutely no question that Martha McSally is a strong woman. The first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, a respected Colonel, a valedictorian who also graduated first in her class at the AWC, and only the second woman to serve as Senator for Arizona: Martha McSally has accomplished things many men and women could never imagine.
This is not the first time Senator McSally has spoken openly about her experiences of sexual assault. In using her position of influence as a platform to share her story, she joins a growing group of strong, inspirational women whose bravery in coming forward has and will continue to help other survivors come to terms with the pain inflicted upon them by perpetrators who are almost always weak, cowardly men.
And yet, in spite of her great strength, even a powerful woman like Martha McSally struggled to overcome cultural and systemic barriers that further victimise far too many sexual assault survivors. “I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless,” she revealed. “Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.”
McSally is not the first senior US politician to come forward to share their experience as survivors of sexual violence. Only a few weeks earlier, her colleague Iowa Senator Joni Ernst disclosed that she too was raped in college and allegedly abused by her ex-husband.
It’s true that rape is an act of pure evil, but it’s a highly problematic misconception that the men who commit rapes are always mentally-unwell, maladjusted social misfits and violent psychopaths preying upon ‘vulnerable’ women who ‘could have done more’ to protect themselves.
That undeniably strong, powerful women like Senators McSally and Ernst can be raped should send a clear message to survivors that their experiences are not a sign of weakness.
It’s also a troubling misconception that most rapes occur between strangers. In reality, as many as 8 in 10 of the perpetrators of sexual violence are known to the person they assault. In reality, intimate partner violence causes more illness, disability and death than any other risk factor for Australian women aged 25–44.
The stark reality of sexual violence is all around us, even where we least expect to find it. Earlier this month, two Bayside men were convicted and imprisoned for raping a mutual female friend while she slept at one of the men’s home. It’s clear from her victim impact statement that these were two men she trusted more than anyone; two men who betrayed that trust in the most vile way imaginable.
There are no easy solutions to the systemic societal problems that underpin the often-ignored sexual violence epidemic in Australia. I certainly will not pretend to hold the answers. Of course, we need to throw the book at rapists and sexual predators – but punishment and denunciation are cold comfort to sexual assault survivors and no guarantee that patterns of sexual violence will disappear.
One fundamentally important piece of piece of the puzzle is that more needs to be done to increase public awareness of the extreme prevalence of sexual violence in our communities. As some of the most highly-educated members of our society, part of the responsibility for doing so lies with people like us.
More important still is to effect real cultural change by addressing toxic attitudes towards sex and gender within our society. At its core, I believe that young men need to understand that when a Man loves a woman, or another man, he doesn’t take advantage.
Perhaps most importantly, however, people in positions of influence within our society – people like those that many of us at MLS aspire to become – need to be prepared to hear the survivors of sexual violence around us; 365 days a year. If survivors like Martha McSally can come forward to make the world a safer place for women like them and countless others, each of us can and must do our bit to help them.
The Sexual Assault Crisis Line Victoria (1800 806 292) is a state-wide, after-hours, confidential, telephone crisis counselling service for people who have experienced both past and recent sexual assault.
Xavier is a Second Year JD Student
Other articles in this issue: