So Much Talk of Sexual Assault !


They’re coming out of the woodwork!

You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice the veritable avalanche of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation being reported in the news right now. Curiously, it seems the media is more concerned with reports of sexual abuse in Hollywood than those related to the White House.

Yet all the stories share a common thread – male power. Specifically, men in powerful positions using their power to target and exploit young men and women they encounter, counting on their power, money, connections and influence to keep their targets quiet and avoid being held accountable.

Trump, bragging to Billy Bush in 2005, “ I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”..” “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything” [i]. When the media brought these reports to light a little over ten years later, the discussion quickly drowned in pro- and anti-Trump arguments.  His comments were reframed as “locker room talk” as though that made them acceptable and harmless. A playful exchange between mates, really. The fact that 45 so clearly and blatantly felt justified in targeting women using his power as his droit du seigneur seems to be lost.

At the time of writing, there are ten outstanding matters involving women alleging  sexual misconduct by the POTUS [ii], and still the man goes about his business unhampered. Someone else employed in a different work role would have been stood down while a full investigation was carried out. But not Trump. The fact that he continues to remain as the acting POTUS, seemingly with impunity,  attests to his power. He assumes he is untouchable, immune from being made to answer for his actions, and Americans allow that to be the case. No checks and balances apply, as far as I can see.

With Weinstein and others like him, I regularly read a familiar line of questions – why have the victims waited so long to speak of their experience? The victim blaming and shaming is endemic.

It reminds me of my previous professional experience working as a first responder in the area of sexual assault and child sexual assault in Sydney, Australia, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Dealing with adult victims of rape, I was astounded at the amount of victim blaming, shaming, and discrediting I came across. Rape myths abounded – they still do today! Women accused of ‘asking for it’, ‘participating’ for the sake of some other gain (a job, money, or some other ‘benefit’), women seen to ‘trade’ on their sexuality and then ‘entrapping’ or ‘unfairly’ blaming men who make moves on them.

When adult women began to come out and disclose their experiences of childhood sexual assault in Australia in the 1980s, I heard people express doubts about the veracity of the disclosures. “Why have they waited this long?”, “They’re just getting on the bandwaggon” (sic); “ What’s in it for them?” I often heard people express variations on such thoughts, clearly looking for reasons why the allegations might be false or out for some sort of secondary gain. When child disclosures overwhelmed the NSW child protection system in the wake of a media awareness campaign in 1985-1987, the comments included, “children lie”, “Where is the mother in all this? .. SURELY, the mothers know!” And, “women do it too!” I STILL hear this last comment today! This, despite the fact we know that over 90% of child sexual assault perpetrators are male [iii], and this figure has stood the test of time since statistics have been kept in Western countries since the mid-1980s.

Over and over, the discourse around sexual assault is dominated by victim-blaming and victim-discrediting in response to disclosures, while minimising the seriousness of the abuse of power, the impact of the sexual violations on targets, and the fact the abusive actions are assaults. What is this about?

Meanwhile, the focus slides away from the perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation. Whether it’s 45, Harvey Weinstein, or some other male assaulting a child, a young person, a vulnerable woman, we don’t seem to want to stay with the unsettling truth before us. Sexual assault and sexual exploitation is an overwhelmingly male issue. It largely targets girls and women, but young boys also.  Pornography is owned and run by men and overwhelmingly caters to a male audience. The pornography industry rides on the exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. The child porn industry profits from the sexual exploitation and assault of children for a male audience.

We need men to step forward and address this issue as a very specifically male power issue. In the 1980s, it was women and girls who came out and disclosed sexual assault. Today in 2017, I read accounts of young males being assaulted by other males in Hollywood, in the Church as well.   I wonder if this is what it will take to put and keep the focus where I think it belongs: on what it is about toxic masculinity in the context of patriarchy that predisposes so many males in positions of power to think it’s okay to exploit and assault women, girls and young men?

I feel some hope that some conscious men’s groups such as the [iv] [v] are bravely looking at this issue head on. I don’t know what it will take to make their courage a driving force for change in Western society, but I take heart that they, at least, are prepared to have the conversation and ask the hard questions.

If you are or have been the target of sexual abuse or exploitation, then please reach out and get support. You have the right NOT to remain silent. You have the right NOT to have the experience of sexual assault define you for the rest of your life.