Breaking the Taboo - Uncovering the story of sexual violence

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

Sadly, sexism and the physical and sexual abuse and harassment of women is always a hot topic. And so it should be. It affects about 40% of the population (4 out of every 5 women).

At its most extreme, sexual violence and partner violence results in - on average - 1 death and 10 hospitalisations a week. That puts it right up there as a leading cause of death in women aged 25-44. It is a historical problems, but also a growing issue.

And yet, the coverage moves in waves. Ever notice how the news follows trends? If you want to educate yourself on the issues, here's a quick guide to some of the key moments shaping the coverage and debate over the past 10 years.

Julia Gillard's "unforgettable" Misogyny Speech, 2012

The focus on misogyny and double standards at the highest levels, propelled by Julia Gillard's iconic Misogyny Speech in 2012. When Julia Gillard was sworn in as Australia's first female prime minister in 2010, it appeared to herald a new era of gender equality and pave the way for girls everywhere to break through any glass ceilings. And yet, during her time in office, she faced relentless double standards, sexism, gender-based criticism and widespread misogynism from the opposition and mainstream media.

By October 2012, tired of the treatment she had endured, she gave a 15-minute speech, directed at opposition leader Tony Abbott, that resonated with women everywhere. In 2020 a survey by The Guardian voted it the "most unforgettable speech". Unsurprisingly, since leaving office, Julia Gillard has made her mark on many key issues, including women's rights, mental health and education.

The #MeToo Movement

The MeToo movement was pioneered by Tanana Burke with the goal to support survivors of sexual violence. Burke's message was, "You're heard, you're understood". Later, Alyssa Milano used the #MeToo hashtag and, as it caught on, the movement broadened its purpose "to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem" and through that, prevent future incidences and enable change.

The movement peaked in 2017, after the New York Times ran an exposé on allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. It opened a door, leading to 84 women accusing him of sexual harassment. This in turn encouraged belief and a strong desire to expose the abuse of power wielded by prominent figures, previously protected by their position, power, wealth and support from other powerful institutions. Suddenly there was a flood of stories from celebrities who had experienced such behaviour, including Lady Gaga, Gwyneth Paltrow and Debra Messing.

The movement took off in a real 'power to the people'. Within 3 months, 6.5 million women tweeted MeToo to share their tales and show solidarity. Many international variants were formed, including the wonderfully descriptive French #BalanceTonPorc ("Call out your Pig").

Legally, the movement led to Non Disclosure Acts being banned, expanded sexual harassment laws and enabled legal action against individuals and institutions.

The #MeToo movement was just as important, in reducing the stigma for victims and survivors and encouraging many women (and some men, especially gay men) to tell previously hidden experiences of sexual misconduct, which created a recognition of how scarily common such experiences were. For the first time, anyone with a social media account could see the growing wave of stories, and feel empowered to add to the sheer weight of evidence about this problem.

Destroying the Fairy Tale. Stories of Sexual Violence

We've seen throughout the pandemic, just how little statistics can come to mean. 3.8 million deaths (as at June 2021) raises barely a shudder. Yet, picture a pensioner touching hands with grandchildren through a nursing home window. Funeral pyres in a Delhi car park. An impassioned plea to take Covid seriously, from a 30-year old struggling to draw breath in ICU. These human stories are the ones that call to us, that let us relate to the suffering.

It's the same with sexual and domestic violence. We can glibly roll off "one murder a week", or "1 in 3 women will experience violence, assault or abuse" and call for change. Or we can show the harrowing footage of a car up in flames in a suburban street, alongside a photograph of the beautiful woman and 3 children who met their death in that fire.

The heart-breaking stories of Hannah Clarke, Grace Tame and Sarah Everard - amongst many, many others - have given sexual violence faces. Allowed it to resonate with people who haven't experienced it and could choose not to imagine - until they were confronted with what each number really means.

These stories have dramatically increased awareness of the sheer variety of dangers and threats women face. Hannah Clarke's relationship shed a stark light on what coercive control looks like, and how it raises the risk of death, especially after an emotionally abusive relationship ends. Grace Tame's #LetHerSpeak campaign is all about the right of survivors to be able to speak out and choose to have their stories heard, rather than be silenced by privacy laws supposedly designed to protect them. She said, “Journalists, commentators and even my perpetrator have been able to publicly discuss my case, I’m the only one who was not allowed to”. And, over in the UK, Sarah Everard's abduction and murder - by a serving police office - while walking home, captured the fear and rage felt by many women that they cannot go about their lives without fear, without taking daily precautions, without distrusting every unknown man they encounter. The common feeling was, "Sarah could have been me,"

Like the #metoo movement, the brave individuals sharing their experiences in these and similar situations have helped removed the stigma and represent a voice for a fight back.

They have also enabled the public to understand what is BEHIND such statistics. To see the journey that their abuse has taken. To expose their abusers' tendencies, personalities and patterns. All of which is vitally important in enabling victims, bystanders and support services to spot and act on warning signs. To take steps, in time to prevent more violence.

This story-based approach has built momentum for greater action across the community and substantial changes to the law and the legal protections it offers victims.

The business of violence and harassment

Australia was shaken in 2021 by an allegation of rape inside Parliament House. Worse, evidence that the attack was covered up and the victim sidelined. This was followed within weeks by other stories from women claiming violence, abuse and harassment - in government, and inside some of the most respected businesses in the country. Before long, Kate Ellis stood up to lead many of the country's most senior female politicians in calling out their own experiences of 'toxic workplace culture'. Again, the message was: nowhere is exempt from this, no-one is safe from this. It was clear that male privilege is still very much a thing, often with horrific results.

Next came the inevitable trickle-down effect, 'normal' business women feeling empowered to call out harassment, abuse and misogyny in their every day experiences. What was interesting, was that for the first time, the focus had moved away from social interactions and internal workplace culture (issues with bosses, colleagues and clients). It shifted to the issues surrounding women in business conducting one of their single most important roles - networking, both physically and virtually. A rash of stories and articles arose about social media site LinkedIn, previously seen as somehow immune from such behaviour because it was "about business" not social interactions. Similarly, business women were reporting been targeted or harassed at networking events and conferences, citing inappropriate comments and behaviour, during and after the events, including stalking. It's been alleged up to 60% of attendees at such events, predominantly women, have experienced such behaviour. And their position is made all the harder by the fact that they're an ambassador for their brand, and want to portray a strong, professional, pleasant image. Enter opportunists. Suddenly the sales mantra, 'Never take no for an answer' becomes very sinister.

It has become ever clearer, in 2021, that little has really changed and that more needs to be done, to stop the behaviour that causes these issues from ever being accepted, or seen as 'normal'.

Championing the Debate

As a result of recent coverage and rising awareness, there has been some expansion of Domestic and Family Violence laws in Australia, including putting greater emphasis on early 'red flags' in abuse patterns, such as non-fatal chokes and coercive control. The UK government has announced that misogyny, or hostility based on sex, will be classed as a hate crime in England and Wales.

There hasn't been any reduction in sexual violence though, or the behaviours that cause it. In fact, it's a worsening problem during the pandemic, due to lockdowns creating enforced isolation, increasing stress triggers and removing escape options.

And up until now there haven't really been many Champions making this their focus, especially those professionals with the power to research and present the facts, and give balanced arguments that move thinking. Now there are plenty putting up their hands, from individuals active in the community every day, to high-profile journalists.

Grace Tame, a strong advocate for survivors of sexual assault, was named Australian of the Year in 2021 and is using her voice of experience to shine a powerful spotlight on the issues.

It's a bit left-field, but even dating advice expert, writer and life coach Matthew Hussey weighed in after the focus on Sarah Everard's murder in the UK. He recorded a 25 minute video on 'Women's Safety - it belongs to all of us', after becoming concerned about a backlash from innocent men deflecting criticism - and as a result halting the conversation - using the hashtag #notallmen. He explains "About half of us (women) woke up in a body with challenges that the rest of us (men) never have to experience", and speaks to innocent men about the 3 practical things they can do: 1) Prioritise women's sense of safety in all interactions 2) Be an ally to any woman who is experiencing bullying 3) Listen, without defensiveness, to women's stories - with the aim of building genuine understanding and empathy

The single most important step in placing this issue centre stage, and getting it the national publicity and awareness it deserves, is Jess Hill's seminal book and accompanying SBS documentary 'See What You Made Me Do - Power, Control and Domestic Abuse'. Her thorough, balanced and unflinching reporting brings the strands together to create a full, meaningful picture of the problem. She portrays a problem that overwhelmingly affects women and children, and that is caused overwhelmingly by men. Demonstrates that this is a problem that reaches into every part of our society. That anyone could become a part of. But importantly, shows it's a problem that can be reduced by proven solutions already helping reduce numbers around the world. Amazingly, the documentary series managed to finish on a note of hope, by featuring some of these solutions and making it clear how they could be effectively deployed in Australia, if people can work together to make it happen.

Down to Us

As we've seen during this wrap up, the tendency is for one incident to trigger more attention than all the similar ones. For that to be given coverage in the news. That sparks public interest, support and pressure for change.

What seems to be missing is the ability to capture that momentum and use it to galvanise a real, widespread in behaviour and what is considered acceptable. That, surely, will come through widespread education in understanding the problem and recognising it in practice, by every concerned individual calling out unacceptable behaviour, and by working togeher to deliever practical proactive support in a variety of ways.

We've got to believe this is everyone's problem and accept that we all have a role to play.

What if we could stop the vulnerable ever becoming victims?

What if we could prevent the future predators ever escalating to commiting these acts?

What can you do today? Seek help. Protect others. Talk about it. BE a trigger for change.

About the Author

Jen May is a Social Anthropologist with a background in human rights, including women's and land rights. Nowadays she co-owns a self defence school and delivers meaningful change to businesses' culture, process and systems. Having worked in many male-dominated industries, and as a business owner, she has experienced first hand what it is to be a woman leading the way, and is a strong advocate for gender equality and women's right to safety. Jen is the champion behind the specialised Women's Training offered by Dynamic Krav Maga.

Dynamic Krav Maga is based in Perth, Western Australia. We are proud to provide a range of services for women wanting realistic, effective self defence training. We believe the tactical, technical, physical and mental training that Krav Maga offers are perfect for preventing, dealing with and surviving any attacks, and that quality self defence training and awareness is an important part of the solution to this ongoing issue. Our Women's Workshops, Fight Like A Girl program and customised school and workforce safety courses mean DKM has an option for everyone.

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